Television: Razor-edge acting from Cillian Murphy in ‘Peaky Blinders’, and razor-sharp sports chat from the Second Captains
The Irish actor shines as a 1920s gangster in a complex British cousin of Boardwalk Empire, but it’s surprisingly easy to follow the blokey banter in Second Captains Live
Playing a blinder: Cillian Murphy runs a gangland empire in Birmingham in Peaky Blinders
There’s no getting away from it: Peaky Blinders (BBC Two, Thursday) is the daftest, most unlikely name for a vicious mob drama, never mind one that’s set in Birmingham in 1919. It has historical roots – the Peaky Blinders were a gang in Victorian Britain so named because of the razors sewn into the peaks of their caps – but the action has been moved for dramatic purposes to the end of the first World War, when working men returned from the front to very different lives. It looks fantastic and expensive in its historical accuracy; the BBC is unbeatable at this sort of thing.
The surreal opening scene sees Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) riding bareback on his horse into town – or rather the grimy industrial heart of Birmingham which is his racketeering crime family’s fiefdom. As he clip-clops by, women and children run and hide, men avert their gaze and flames belch from factories, lighting up the atmospheric darkness while a blues soundtrack gives an American feel. Then a sheriff rides into town – Chief Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) with a full-on Belfast accent and a puritanical zeal. He comes by train, where he has an on-board meeting with Winston Churchill and promises to clean up Birmingham and find a stash of weapons bound for Libya (what?) which have been stolen. The plot complexities grow with every scene. It turns out that Shelby had inadvertently taken the cache but, now that he has it, he sees it as the chance to grow his business from small-time gambling and protection to something far more lucrative.
But then a duff scene throws the carefully structured atmosphere of gangster menace so off-kilter it never quite recovers. A pretty Irish girl, Grace (Annabelle Wallis) persuades the owner of the blood-and-sawdust-on-the-floor local to employ her as a barmaid by belting out a few plaintive bars of Carrickfergus. All the other women are in period costume; she looks like Taylor Swift. She’s a police informer, and it’s only a matter of time before she infiltrates the Peaky Blinders by catching the eye of Shelby, who is shell-shocked, addicted to drugs, and supposedly off the ladies entirely.
Some scenes are grittily realistic, others stylised, and the Western tropes are a further layer to grapple with. So yes, there was a lot going on (and I haven’t even gotten to the Bolsheviks and the Fenian/IRA dimension), and it’s difficult to see how the various strands can be satisfactorily explored, never mind resolved, in just six episodes. HBO’s Prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire – to which Peaky Blinders bears more than a passing resemblance – had 12 episodes in its first season and, on season four, it’s still teasing out some of the storylines in its powerful pilot episode.
The performances in Peaky Blinders, though, are magnetic, particularly Murphy, Paul Anderson as his brother Arthur, and Sam Neill as the vicious police enforcer.
Real-life birth scenes are now as much a staple of prime-time telly as cookery shows, and Midwives (Wednesday), TV3’s excellent observational documentary series following birth stories in the National Maternity hospital, is a good example of the fertile genre. Happily, the cameras stay mostly out of the labour ward and away from the business end of birth, concentrating instead on the feelings and fears of women and how they’re cared for by the hospital.