We became so familiar with good British drama, and then we lost interest, as the good came to look much less stellar when compared with the best of U.S. cable.
This year, two entries, The Fall and Broadchurch changed some opinions. The Fall was a clever, tense thriller, alive with menace. Broadchurch, more conventional but with an unusual eight-episode length, had more depth and invention than anything from Britain in years. Neither was a masterpiece. Now along comes another puzzling, brilliant and maddening drama.
Peaky Blinders (Super Channel, 10 p.m.) is a must-see. I implore you to watch this magnificent mess.
It’s a costume drama, a crime drama and, in part, it’s about class warfare. All the familiar ingredients. And yet there’s an awful lot about it that’s unfamiliar. It aims to be epic, visually stunning and disorienting. And it achieves much of that.
The setting is Birmingham in 1919. The English industrial city is seething in post-First World War tension. Crime is rife and the most dangerous gangsters are the Peaky Blinders, so named for the razor blades they tuck into their cloth caps and use as weapons. When they cut, they aim to blind. They control betting rings and much more. Meanwhile, communist agitators are fanning the flames of revolution in the factories and streets. The city looks like a particularly grim Dickensian hell hole but worse, as it’s peopled by many men carrying the raw wounds of a recent war.
The opening scenes are awe-inspiring, visually poetic and bewildering. A man on a horse moves slowly through dark, satanic streets. He’s bookmaker Tommy Shelby (Irish actor Cillian Murphy), a decorated war vet, dressed well in tweed, an impressive figure. And yet as the viewer is oriented into a period drama, the loud soundtrack happens to be Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand, a song of contemporary rage and madness.
We’re in 1919, but a portion of the texture of Peaky Blinders is 21st century. When we truly meet Shelby and his cronies we notice their haircuts appear to be inspired by the coifs of the 1980s’ New Romantic bands. The clothes seem oddly contemporary, too, as if designer Paul Smith had been handed the men’s wardrobe for Downton Abbey and assigned to extrapolate the street style of now.
Series writer Steven Knight (who also wrote the David Cronenberg movie Eastern Promises) has created an extraordinary hybrid here. There’s obvious inspiration from several dark HBO dramas and, at the same time, a twisted homage to the traditional British period drama featuring tweedy gents and women in nice frocks. It’s a messy hybrid, but magnificently ambitious.
At the core of the plot is a theft. The authorities are aware that guns and ammunition have gone missing from a Birmingham factory. With political revolution simmering and a war of independence being launched by the IRA in Ireland, the authorities fear that the weapons could help several groups launch outright war on the government. But who has the weapons?
To resolve the issue, Winston Churchill (the character makes a few brief appearances) sends to Birmingham one Chief Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill), who has brutally put down rebellion in Belfast. A policeman of ferocity, Campbell loathes communists, Catholics, thieves and anyone who might undermine the established order. He launches a war against Shelby’s gang, and there are scenes of outrageously staged violence, chases and confrontations. Like Murphy as Shelby, Neill is excellent as the ferocious-minded Inspector Campbell.
There are flaws – a character, Grace (Annabelle Wallis), is introduced and we are led to believe that she melts the hearts of hard Birmingham men with her singing of quaint Irish songs. Grace is a cipher, less a character than a perambulating plot device. And, at six episodes long, Peaky Blinders seems too intent on rushing the plot forward, helter-skelter.
For all that, mind you, the series is an astonishing reach for British TV drama. It aims for the darkness and complexity of the best of U.S. cable and misses, but only just. Anyone interested in the inventiveness of contemporary TV must see it.
Also airing tonight
The Condo Game (CBC, 9 p.m. on Doc Zone) is a cautionary tale, well made and bound to have an eager audience. It suggests that Toronto’s extraordinary condo boom is about distant “forces at play,” a complex game of investor profit and ruthlessly cheap construction. Anyone simply looking for a residence, it suggests, is a pawn in a game they don’t understand. Made by Helen Slinger and Lionel Goddard, it won’t leave you sleeping easily in your condo at night, if that’s where you live.
All times Eastern. Check local listings.
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