Created by Birmingham born screenwriter Steven Knight who, with Mike Whitehill and David Briggs is also one of three creators of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Peaky Blinders arrived on our screens in September 2013. An epic story following a gangster family of Irish Traveller origin set in Birmingham, England, in 1919, several months after the end of the First World War, the series quickly received critical acclaim, particularly for its writing, acting, visuals, and stylish cinematography. David Renshaw of The Guardian summarised the series as a "riveting, fast-paced tale of post-first world war Birmingham gangsters", praising the series lead star Cillian Murphy as the "ever-so-cool Tommy Shelby" and the rest of the cast for their "powerful performances." For many fans of the series, one of the highlights of the first season was the hostility between Shelby and Inspector Campbell, the man sent to take the Blinders down, played with disturbing menace by the ever-excellent Sam Neil.
The conflict between the characters is instigated when Shelby and his associates accidentally acquire a crate from the Birmingham Small Arms Company factory that contains military grade machine guns, semi-automatic rifles, pistols and ammunition. Northern Irish detective Major Chester Campbell is sent by Winston Churchill to take the guns back and hunt down the thieves. Campbell, who built his reputation in Belfast, Ireland, where he was tasked with ridding the city of crime and corruption and gang activity, arrives in the Midlands where he soon sets about waging a personal vendetta against the Peaky Blinders and the Shelby family. Of Shelby, Campbell remarks, "The end of a rope has been this man’s destiny since the night he was born." But Campbell faces an uphill battle as the criminal element proves to be more organized than expected.
Arriving at the same time as Campbell, Grace Burgess, played by Annabelle Wallis, is a woman with dubious origins who insinuates herself into the dangerous world of the Peaky Blinders working as a barmaid at the Garrison Pub. Grace is drawn to Tommy immediately and there is an obvious mutual attraction there, but it is tempered by a latent distrust that Tommy holds for everyone outside of his family and by extension his gang, and the secret alliances that Grace seems to have with the Peaky Blinder’s enemies. As her past is revealed, Grace becomes a more compelling character and Annabelle Wallis delivers an excellent performance filled with mystery.
The other lady in Tommy Shelby’s life is Aunt Polly Played by Helen McCrory, the pragmatic and passionate den mother, who had been running the family’s criminal enterprises while her nephews were away at war in France. Upon Tommy’s return, she has relinquished her seat at the head of the table and set up a shadow government in which her three nephews sit at the helm of leadership of a sprawling network of criminality. Her chief concern is the image of the Peaky Blinders and the attention that Tommy Shelby’s ambitions are bringing to their door.
Arthur Shelby is Tommy’s older brother, played by Paul Anderson, and the face of the gang and at times the muscle, preferring to use his fists to ensure his enemies remember the Peaky Blinders. Then there is the younger brother John Shelby (Joe Cole), a young man aged by his time on the battlefield in France, and the loss of his wife who died while he was away fighting, consequently making him a single father to a brood of wild Shelby children. As the youngest male John Shelby loves the attention of being a Peaky Blinder but even more so the attraction of being a Shelby.
Then there are the star-crossed lovers Ada Shelby (Sophie Rundle) and Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg). Ada is the youngest of the Shelby Clan and the one who seems to be having the most fun, preferring the fashion and high life of the 1920’s to the grit of being a member of a crime syndicate. Freddie Thorne is a stalwart socialist who seems to fear nothing, not the government nor the danger from his childhood friend Tommy who thinks no man is good enough for his sister. When Ada is found to be pregnant the threat of Tommy’s violence is at a fever pitch and the conflict between these former friends becomes a vendetta.
The show works as well as it does because of its parallels, linking the past to the present and examining the cost of war and how poverty and bigotry breeds crime, and how it affected the character of Birmingham. Tommy’s post-traumatic stress disorder plays a key role in the drama of the Peaky Blinders but it is not handled in a heavy handed manner, but rather as a plot device. The series is grim and not for people who dislike violence, though the brutality of the Peaky Blinders is not so much glorified as confronted. At the same time the human bonds and how they are tested in a family where crime is a heritage, is what makes Peaky Blinders such compulsive viewing and so successful.
Published on February 24th, 2021. Written by James Thomas for Television Heaven.