For those who remember the seventies period piece, When the Boat Comes In, BBC 2’s Peaky Blinders – series two starting on Thursday – will have a familiar ring. Both are set in the turbulent aftermath of WW1. Both give prominence to abysmal working class conditions. Both feature anti-heroes of humble origins, mavericks of quirky morality who routinely outsmart both their social betters and less likable peers. And both carry the message that political resistance is for fools and dullards; communism a “fantasy”, the IRA staffed by humourless and spectacularly unlikeable thugs.
Series One saw vicious and formidable police chief Campbell, a Sam Neill riddled with sexual hangups and ‘anger management issues’, arriving in Brum from Belfast. His brief, set out by Churchill – then Secretary of State for War – was to tackle the evils of gangsterism, fenianism and communism. But his hands were tied to some degree. Churchill warns Campbell that this is not Ireland: subtler methods are required. “If there are to be bodies, they must be buried deep.” Therein lies leverage for gang leader Tommy (Cillian Murphy of the sparkling eyes) who manages to embarrass Campbell, to hold this dangerous man to ransom and, of course, to win.
Production values are superb. Does anyone do period drama better than the beeb? Stars seldom available for telly add to the glamour while a gripping if credulity-stretching storyline is driven along by larger than life characters whose lapses into cliche (like Helen McCrory’s hard-headed/soft hearted matriarch, Aunt Polly) I found easy to forgive. Good too to see our second city, under-represented in TV drama, placed on the map with such panache. (Though some of the atmospheric scenes were shot in Liverpool and Manchester.) Add in a wondrously anachronistic but strangely effective sound-track, brooding subterranean canals and bible bashing Benjamin Zephenia striding the streets to proclaim the impending Judgment, and what do you get? Well, something more interesting than your average TV drama, that’s for sure. Mad Men it ain’t but, along with the likes of Line of Duty and Happy Valley, it’s a decent answer to those who say the only gripping drama these days comes from Scandinavia.
Shame about the reactionary sub-text. That bothers me a lot more than Aunt Polly’s one dimensional likeability