A very specific image and sound pops into our heads when we think of what ‘gangsters’ are. Classic movies and television shows like The Godfather, Goodfellas and The Sopranos have perpetuates the stereotype of the smooth Italian American gangster; the three-piece suited wise-guy with the thick New York accent. However, Peaky Blinders, one of the best television shows produced by the BBC for many years, focuses on a very different breed of gangster.
The crime family at the centre of this drama, created by the film writer Steven Knight whose work includes Eastern Promises and Dirty Little Secret, is from Birmingham. They are a real-life family of working class brothers who in the late 1910s made their money by running an illegal betting ring from their pub. They ruled the streets of Birmingham by striking fear into those who oppose them, sporting flat caps containing hidden razor blades within – which is why the gang and the show calls itself Peaky Blinders. The brothers were led by the ambitious Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins) with the fearsome but tortured Arhur Shelby (Paul Anderson) and fresh faced John Shelby (Joe Cole) following his orders.
The first season, only six episodes in length, follows their attempts to seize more power for their illegal betting operation by taking on rival gang leader Kimber. Meanwhile, after the Peaky Blinders unknowingly acquire a shipment of stolen arms, the then war minister Winston Churchill assigns stubborn Irish inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) to bring the gang to justice.
It is refreshing to see a crime drama set not under the shadow of Manhattan like The Sopranos or The Godfather, nor on the glitzy boardwalk of Atlantic City like Broadwalk Empire, but in the working class suburbs of Birmingham instead. Steven Knight’s drama may be based on a true story from the early 1900s but don’t mistake this for being another polite period piece. This is stylish, gritty and blood-thirsty drama with a thumping contemporary rock soundtrack of music by Arctic Monkeys, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds and The White Stripes.