Have you a fondness for period gangster films like me? It must be true that many people feel the same as I do. Certainly many of the best crime and gangster films are set up as period films. Amongst the greatest are The Godfather Parts I & II, Bonnie and Clyde, Millers Crossing, The Road to Perdition, Public Enemy, Lawless, The Gangs of New York, and Last Man Standing.
Produced by the BBC, The Weinstein Company has secured the US rights and have made the series available in the US via Netflix. The series came online on September 30th. Season One has six one hour episodes. Season Two will be rolled out on Netflix in November.
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby, the middle son, of the Shelby family. The story begins in Birmingham in the UK, circa 1919. The Shelby’s run a street gang called the Peaky Blinders. It is a strange name, but once you realize that razor blades are sewn into their tweed newsboy hats, which were stylish for the period, the meaning becomes a lot clearer.
They hang out at the Garrison Pub at the far end of Garrison Lane. This is a street deep in the center of an industrial area. What with fires burning, and factories right there in the heart of the neighborhood; it seems a strange place to live. You could call it a mean street or you could call a vision of hell.
At this time (1919) those that hadn’t perished in WWI have returned home and for many life is a struggle. Tommy has nightmares of his war experiences, and has become addicted to smoking opium, Some have turned to communism because they feel that the government has not treated them well. Of course there were robber barons and captains of industry reaping grand rewards, but here in Garrison Lane, conditions were harsh – low wages, long hours, terrible working conditions, and a wage cut to boot. Indeed, these were hard times.
The Peaky Boys when they were being bad were thieves and extortionists. And when they were good, they provided outlets for entertainment for the daily struggle for folks in Garrison Lane and other nearby neighborhoods, items like alcohol and gambling were offered. as well as other vices, like the pleasures of the flesh trade were readily available.
Tommy Shelby had sent some boys over to the BSA Factory to steal some goods, and by pure chance, the wrong crates were opened. It was a mother lode of munitions: 25 machine guns, 54 semi-automatic rifles, 200 hand guns, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. All crated up nice and ready for shipment to Libya.
Of course, once these munitions went missing, this news reached all the way up to England’s Secretary of War – Winston Churchill himself. Churchill ordered one Senior Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) to come down from Belfast, where he had been leading the fight against the IRA, with a single objective – get the guns back. The concern was that groups like the Finians or IRA, or alternatively – the revolution spewing Bolsheviks would want these guns. Churchill wanted this mess fixed and fixed both rapidly and quietly.
As he put it to Campbell – if the news gets out that the guns are missing – it will be an invitation to sell them, and we can’t have those guns fall into the wrong hands.Now Campbell himself was against the three-headed monster no matter where he was. He was the sworn enemy of communists, the IRA, and corruption. In fact, after reaching this particular Birmingham precinct, he saw immediately that he couldn’t trust the local coppers who were either in the pockets of the Shelby’s or other gangs, or simply looking the other way as crimes were committed.
But Tommy Shelby was more than just a gangster. Like Michael Corleone, he wanted to take his business legit. His chosen route was to become a legal bookmaking concern, which in England was akin to a license to print money. Despite the economy and the hardships of those times, gambling on the horse races flourished.
Inspector Chester Campbell to his undercover: Thomas Shelby is now the beginning, the middle, and the end of your mission….You are now active on a military operation in the service of your King. And I wish circumstances hadn’t chosen you.
Tommy knew how to increase his family’s cash reserves, and they went as far as fixing races. The Shelby’s would fix races so the horses owned by their friends could win, and increase the popularity of the horse, then when everyone and their brother were no ready to bet on the super horse, the horse would lose.
Which was a win-win for the Shelby’s. But fixing races without the permission of Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Miles) who was one of the UK’s leading bookmakers was bound to get his attention.
So there’s your set up – The Shelby family taking on Billy Kimber, other crime families or gangs, as well as Senior Inspector Chester Campbell and his crew.
The show simply oozes period clothing, cars, and attitudes. You’ll see some of the worst haircuts ever on the men, as well as some tough as nails women. The hard times were equally matched against the will to live through those hard times – all of which is tied together within the Shelby family.
Alliances are formed, deals are made, both public and private, and there’s plenty of intrigue with an undercover agent working at the Garrison pub. There’s sex and there’s brutality, there’s clandestine meetings, and all of it held together by Tommy Shelby’s ambition, guile, and nerve.
Cillian Murphy may remind you of a Paul Newman from the 70’s, and this series also borrows or at least may remind you of the more recent TV Series – HBO’s The Sopranos. As for the rest of the cast, I guess if you are not living in the UK or a regular watcher of BBC dramas, many of the actors and actresses will be quite new and fresh for you.
While the series is nowhere near the likes of The Godfather or The Sopranos, it is still an impressive drama for you to watch. I found it compelling and quite intriguing. With a great cast, the show is beautifully filmed, the story holds your attention, and the characters are well-drawn. Watch for the grand performances by the three leading ladies – Aunt Polly, Grace, and Ada Shelby. You will also note the contemporary music by Nick Cave, which while anachronistic , does add an unexpected element. You can watch the six one hour shows at your leisure, or you can binge watch.
Have a look at this Peaky Blinders Season One featurette:
The Second season of Peaky Blinders has a new cast addition. Film star Tom Hardy will be on board for the second season. I’ll be there to see it when Netflix launches it in November.