Pat Stacey: Why Peaky Blinders season 5 is set to play a blinder and prove to be the best one yet
Eighteen months after we last saw Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and his criminal clan in a blood-soaked finale full of twists and turns, Peaky Blinders makes an auspicious return to television with two episodes on Sunday and Monday. It’s a bank holiday weekend in Britain, hence the double-helping.
Things are a little different this time. For its fifth season, Steven Knight’s magnificent series has been granted the ultimate accolade the BBC can give one of its own dramas: a shift from BBC2 to the more mainstream and widely-watched BBC1, where its rapidly growing audience (season four added two million viewers in Britain) is likely to swell even more.
Not only that, but Peaky Blinders has displaced Poldark, the very last episodes of which are also going out on Sunday and Monday, from the coveted 9pm slot. For the first time, the Cornish period saga will be shown at 8pm instead — a move Poldark’s producers might reasonably interpret as a small but stinging slap in the face.
Presumably, the “promotion” of Peaky Blinders is the BBC’s way of rewarding it for finally winning its first best drama series award at last year’s Baftas, a recognition that was thoroughly deserved and long overdue.
You have to wonder why it took the BBC so long to realise what a lot of us, as well as viewers in the US, where Peaky Blinders was added to Netflix in 2014, have known since the first season in 2013: that the series is one of the greatest it has ever produced and light years ahead of nearly everything else around.
From the mesmerising opening shot in the very first episode of Tommy Shelby — a demobbed sergeant-major home from the carnage of the First World War — riding through the grim, grimy streets of industrial Birmingham on a horse while workshops belch fire and smoke in the background and Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds booms and chimes from the TV speakers, it was obvious Peaky Blinders was something a bit different, a bit special.
The series it has been compared to most often is Boardwalk Empire, although Knight revealed in a recent interview that he has deliberately never watched a single episode, or indeed US television’s two other great crime epics, The Sopranos and The Wire, for fear of being influenced by them.
Personally, the first thing that came to mind when I saw Peaky Blinders wasn’t Boardwalk Empire but a BBC series from the 1970s called When the Boat Comes In.
That also featured a tough, ambitious, ruthless young working-class man — Jack Ford, played by James Bolam — who returns from the Great War (to Newcastle this time) looking for his rightful slice of the cake enjoyed by his so-called “betters”, the officers and gentlemen who had sent him and other young men of his generation to fight in the rat-infested trenches.
Read more: ‘You have to cancel reality for a while’ – how Cillian Murphy brings Thomas Shelby to life
But When the Boat Comes In didn’t look this stylish, this cinematic, this damn cool. It didn’t look like it had been filtered through the twin prisms of The Godfather Part II and a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, then set to a pulsing soundtrack of modern songs by The White Stripes, Radiohead, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Arctic Monkeys and many more.
Unlike Jack Ford, Tommy Shelby was already used to taking a slice, although not out of a cake. Out of people. He is, after all, the leader of the Peaky Blinders, the most feared gang in Birmingham’s thriving criminal underworld.
Tommy is an entirely fictional character, as are all but the historical figures who feature in the series. But the Peaky Blinders were a very real criminal gang whose history remained largely in the shadows until the series brought it to light. They specialised in robbery, violence, intimidation, political influence and the control of gambling. They flourished in the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th but, unlike in the series, they didn’t survive into the inter-war years. They’d all but vanished from the scene by the start of the First World War, edged out by other criminal outfits.
The popular myth is that they got their name because of the disposable razor blades they stitched into the peaks of their caps, which they used as weapons to blind their enemies by slicing or headbutting them.
As historians have pointed out, however, not only would this be an impractical way of fighting, but disposable razor blades weren’t manufactured in Britain until 1908, by which time the Blinders were already in decline. It’s more likely the name arose because a flat peaked cap was known as a “peaky”, and because the gang members were known for their attention to sartorial elegance. “Blinder” was, and still is, Birmingham slang for a snappy dresser.
Another possible explanation, even more mundane, is that the name derives from the gang’s habit of sneaking up from behind and pulling their victims’ caps down over their eyes, so they wouldn’t be able to identify who’d robbed them.
The series prefers to stick with the myth, and wisely so. Why should dull old history get in the way of a colourful yarn? As David Mamet said of his screenplay for The Untouchables, which features Eliot Ness nailing Al Capone when in fact the real Ness’s involvement in the downfall of the Chicago mobster was minimal: “Just because a story is true doesn’t mean it’s interesting.”
Read more: ‘Tommy takes to politics like a duck to water – he enjoys the corruption I think’ – Cillian Murphy and cast talk Peak Blinders’ return
That’s not to say Peaky Blinders plays totally fast and loose with history. From time to time, it bends real historical events and real historical characters — most notably Winston Churchill, with whom Tommy has had various clandestine dealings — to fit the narrative.
But for the most part the backdrop — the police strikes of 1918 and 1919, the activities of the IRA in Britain, the establishment’s fear that the country was about to be overthrown by communists or anarchists, the surge in cocaine use in the immediate aftermath of the war — reflects the historical record.
There have been many times during the previous four seasons when the storylines also seem to chime with what’s happening in the present day. This is especially true of the latest season.
In an interview with Radio Times last week, Knight said: “I’ve always been fortunate in that the times Peaky is dealing with seem to have some resonance with what’s going on now. We cover a time of rising populism, racism and facism that sees the emergence of a renegade politic that is weird, dangerous and dark.”
Season four ended with Tommy wiping out two of his most dangerous enemies, New York mafioso Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody) and Jewish East End gang boss Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy), and being elected a Labour Party MP, having secretly passed a list of Communist Party contacts he obtained from Jessie (Charlie Murphy) on to the Crown in order to secure political endorsement.
Two years have now passed and Sunday’s episode opens on a fateful date: October 29, 1929, the day of the Wall Street Crash, which all but wipes out the Shelby family’s American investments, forcing Tommy — who’s making his presence felt in Parliament as the champion of the working class and has been edging closer to legitimacy and respectability — to rely more heavily on the family criminal activities than he’d perhaps wish.
Not that the line between his criminal and political activities is all that well-defined. In short order, we see him blackmail both a pompous MP and a gay journalist who’s threatening to dredge up and expose the more unsavoury details of Tommy’s past. Not that blackmail is strictly necessary when Tommy has two of his henchmen machine-gun the journo to pieces in an elevator.
He also comes into fleeting contact with a fellow politician who threatens to have a significant impact on his life: real-life facist Oswald Mosley, played with just the right degree of weaselly menace by Sam Claflin.
Meanwhile, there will also be four new Irish additions to the show as Charlene McKenna, Brian Gleeson, Emmett J Scanlan and former Fair City star Daryl McCormack join the cast.
Knight has suggested that we’ll see a new side to Tommy this time, as he tries to rediscover the good man lurking somewhere inside him, while fighting off enemies old and new.
Peaky Blinders hasn’t wavered once over its four seasons. But if the remaining episodes live up to the standard of Sunday’s, we might be about to see the best one yet.
Peaky Blinders airs on Sunday and Monday at 9pm on BBC1
Read more: Peaky Blinders: Series 4 recap and everything you need to know ahead of series 5
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