Minor spoilers ahead
Peaky Blinders, BBC2’s new Autumn drama approaching its end run, has blown away the dusty cobwebs from traditional period storytelling fare. Writer / director Steven Knight (Eastern promises, Dirty pretty Things, Hummingbird) has created a stylised urban gangster drama based on fact, set in a post WWI 1919 Birmingham – a hitherto little known side note in history. The arena is a slum infested, industrial Dante’s inferno of gangsters, rebels and communists agitators to rival the underworld melting pots of Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire. Anti-heroes populate both sides of the law.
Our ostensible hero is Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), a veteran of the trench war who smokes Opium to dull the flashbacks to the horrors he encountered there. He is the brains behind the Peaky Blinders, a feared family gang who run illegal bookmaking. They are so named because of the razor blades they stitch into their caps as a handy weapon. Tommy has loftier ambitions for them, although a consignment of stolen guns from the nearby factory that falls into his lap threatens to undo his best laid plans, attracting Winston Churchill’s chosen enforcer, Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill).
Churchill, then Minister for War and Air, was obsessed with the threat of the Bolshevik uprising spreading to the disenfranchised of Britain, and is determined the guns do not fall into the hands of local Communists, as well as the IRA, a background the Belfast detective Campbell is familiar with combating. The fact that his success in that uniform kept him from the front, which Tommy points out, vexes him.
Campbell could be a one-note character, and in many ways his single-mindedness allows very little light to chip away at the dark cloud that surrounds him (save his feelings for a young female agent). However, Sam Neill is deliciously Machiavellian, adept at letting Tommy think he holds all the cards until he can strike. Neill told BBC Drama:
“He’s a tough cop from Northern Ireland. He’s probably fairly psychotic but he’s a righteous man, an upright man whose mission is to clean out the cesspit that is Birmingham in 1919 and by God, he’s going to succeed. Campbell is clearly a man of his time and haunted by several things. There’re other dimensions to Campbell apart from being a maniac: he’s kind of a sad character too, he’s got a sad dimension to him. I think he probably served in the Boer War and he learnt some practices that probably shouldn’t have been reimported back to the British Isles.
What drew me to the character was two things. One was the story and the second is the words really, beautifully written dialogue, you don’t get a chance wrap the laughing gear around words like this very often and so I was very excited about that.”
Sam Neill spent his first seven years growing up in Northern Ireland, and blames his friends James Nesbitt and Liam neeson for his Belfast accent (which is actually pretty good). It is Campbell’s introduction to the show in the first episode that brilliantly conveys his raison d’etre: he doesn’t have time for bemoaning society’s ills, he is an establishment man, a blunt instrument. Perhaps he rose above such poverty he sees around him, and despises it all the more for that. He uses brutal methods, but will not brook his officers snouts in the Peaky Blinders troughs.
We first see him driven through the filthy streets, disgust beneath his stony facade and glittering just behind his gimlet eyes. His officers assembled, he slowly descends, silence replacing the hubbub, and gathers his thoughts, before sermonising on the degradation he sees all around. He parts the ranks like a coldly furious Moses, come to lead his officers from purgatory to a promised land of pride and justice, sweeping aside “A three headed beast”- Fenians, Communist and Peaky Blinders. Like the notorious Black and Tans in Ireland, he brings in his own Belfast Regulators, like-minded men:
Mosaic imperatives bang home like rivets;
God is a foreman with certain definite views (Seamus Heaney, Dockers)
“God help those who stand in our way,” he finishes, sweeping out the door.
More Biblical imagery follows as he commences operations:
“And I looked, and I beheld a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was death, and Hell followed with him.”
Originally posted 2013-10-12 10:41:14. Republished by Blog Post Promoter