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Stylish and gritty gangster saga has me hooked

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 14, 2013

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All the best Westerns start with a man riding into town. It doesn't much matter if he's a "goodie" or a "baddie" but he needs to ooze charisma and mean business.

That's just how Thomas Shelby sidled into the mean and muddy backstreets of bleak, semi-sepia, industrial post-First World War Birmingham, suited and booted, sitting straight-backed on a handsome black steed, his eyes menacingly shadowed by the peak of a flat tweed cap.

Women and children scattered behind washing lines and awnings, watching in awe and fear as a young Chinese washerwoman cast a magic "winning" spell over Thomas's racehorse with a potion of red powder. Then man and mount exited with a triumphant twirl and a proclamation, serenaded by the heavily percussive and guttural strains of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Red Right Hand.

That was it... I was hooked. I can't remember the last time a British drama has bewitched me quite so forcefully in its opening sequence. I do love our homegrown films, and our period TV shows can be world-class (Downton, of course), but Peaky Blinders (BBC One, Thursday) is in a league of its own.

On the face of it, its subject matter wouldn't usually be up my street – a gangster saga set in the grim Midlands in 1919? But this gem of a piece has every element in just the right place. It has a cracking script based on a true story; it uses techniques borrowed from the classic Western movies and brought bang up to date in the vein of recent epic American television series like Boardwalk Empire; and it has a rare and inspired rock-fuelled soundtrack, featuring the likes of Jack White and The Black Keys, which should feel incongruous but doesn't.

It's bursting with big characters, portrayed by a first class cast too, not least Cillian Murphy as our introductory anti-hero, leader of the Peaky Blinders family gang of the title who run and illegal bookmaking and protection racket and command both fear and dutiful respect in their neighbourhood.

The name, by the way, doesn't refer to a habit of getting blind drunk and looking a bit under the weather – although there were a few examples of that kind of behaviour in the late night pub exterior scene. No, it actually comes from the gang members' calling card – they insert razor blades into the peaks of their caps at an angle that could seriously damage an opponent's eyes with a swift, head-butt. These are nasty and ruthless people... but there's something irresistible about them.

Thomas, like a many of the young men in the community, has been deeply affected by his time fighting in the trenches in France. In his absence his tough Aunt Polly (see interview with Helen McCrory, right) has been running the show. Now he's taken back the reins – although brother Arthur seems to think he's in charge. Thomas sees an opportunity to move up in the world when a shipment of guns and ammunition goes missing.

His equally striking nemesis entered town just as memorably, in his case on a big old train puffing out clouds of white steam. The equally cruel and ruthless Inspector Chester Campbell – played by an impeccably-accented Sam Neill – has been called in from Northern Ireland by the Government to step up the fight against burgeoning organised crime, and he has in his sights both the Shelby family and Thomas's erstwhile childhood friend, Freddie, (Iddo Goldberg) now a union activist. Clever and wily, he incidentally, is bedding Thomas's sister, Ada, one suspects with an ulterior motive in mind.

And then the real young heroine wafted in on the breeze... young and pretty Grace Burgess, blown in from Ireland with a song on her lips and a proud upright stance. Watch out, Thomas! She'll steal your heart...

Oh, and I'm still intrigued by the mysterious What Remains(BBC One, Sunday). I can't wait for the finale. Who did kill poor Melissa?

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