The export/import market between US drama and British fare currently, crudely goes something like this: they give us Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, we give them Downton Abbey and whatever Dickens we haven’t covered lately. They give us guns and difficult men, we give them bonnets and beggin’ your pardon my Lord.
Since HBO revolutionised the market in the early Noughties, US broadcasters across the board have been pumping out prestige drama so good that cinema has started to play second fiddle. You know, Mad Men, The Wire, Christ even Sons of Anarchy. It is now accepted wisdom that the great writing is in American television, a situation that has lured top acting and directing talent to the small screen.
While that has meant a love-in between American television and British acting talent and the export of British shows to the US market (mostly to be remade, and mainly comedies like The Office and Shameless), the sea change in the domestic American market has yet to really be replicated over here.
There was an attempt — by the media, it must be said — to brand BBC One’s The Hour as Britain’s answer to Mad Men, which as good as it was, it most certainly wasn’t. British drama is frequently great but it is small screen, too linear. None of this scrawling, six-series box-set malarkey for us. Face it. We’re very good at selling the Americans the kind of National Trust nostalgia of Downton. But sexy long-form television? Forget it.
So enter stage right, Steven Knight, writer, director and creator of the new BBC Two six-part period drama Peaky Blinders. His is a clear bid to do for British television what The Sopranos did for American boxes: inject the small screen with sprawl and scale and ambition. This is period drama for sure, but a tough, masculine, modern period drama. The kind of period drama that opens with Nick Cave singing “Red Right Hand”.
Knight’s vision was to bring the story of real-life gangsters in Birmingham 1919 to your 19in HD Ready screen. The feared black market gang were called the Peaky Blinders — named after their tradition of sewing razor blades into their caps — and the aim was to tell their tale with the adrenalin kick of American gangster fare.
The idea had been brewing with Knight for over 10 years, who spent the intervening time writing for film. In 2012, he approached director Otto Bathurst with the script. Bathurst, director of TV like Black Mirror and Criminal Justice, is not the kind of guy you approach with a regular period drama. “I told him I had no interest in making a frocks-and-bonnets British film,” says Bathurst, who has always turned down period pieces. “I told him, ‘I want to make a gangster film. Is that what you want done to your writing?’ And he whooped with joy and said, ‘Let’s make a Western’.”
The resulting six-part series, which airs this month is a thrillingly visceral take on the gangster genre and a bold move by the national broadcaster into the kind of prestige drama our friends across the pond have been showing us exactly how to do for the last 10 years. Not to denigrate BBC Two’s strong track record in drama: this year, the channel pulled in its biggest drama audience — for the Belfast set serial killer story The Fall — since Rome in 2005, and followed that up with Oscar-nominated director Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and Trainspotting’s Peter Mullan. Examples of home-grown quality drama abound and the BBC has not exactly been afraid of large scale: for 2012’s First World War drama, Birdsong, it recreated the Somme trenches to the size of three-and-a-half football pitches.
Even so, Peaky Blinders is a definite step change in mood. It reimagines 1919 Birmingham as a industrial powerhouse, sepia tinged and smothered in smoke from blackened furnaces, as cameras delve across sink-estate slums, men-only betting parlours, sweeping through Chinatown, Little Italy, dank canals, dusty saloon bars, broken backstreets and grand tearooms. It is cinematic in range, but the kind of range locked up on Sky Atlantic these days. It is also a deliberate attempt to do a box-set British drama. To do that, the team behind it started to think in terms bigger than television.
Peaky Blinders draws all of its inspiration from cinema, specifically American gangster films and Westerns. Detailed visual homages are weaved throughout. Production designer Grant Montgomery says the staircase in the show’s saloon bar is a direct nod to Unforgiven, even if you barely see it on screen. Bathurst wanted to channel the allure of gangsters from the big screen and to make the audience want into this world. “I wanted it to be like that opening line of Goodfellas,” he says, “‘From as far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.’”
Then there is the calibre of the acting talent, who come direct from cinema. Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Inception, 28 Days Later), who plays the lead character and head of the his clan, Tommy Shelby, hadn’t done television since 2001; Shelby’s counterpart is police chief CI Campbell, played to the hilt by Sam Neill, a veteran of big screen fare from Jurassic Park to The Hunt for Red October.
The soundtrack includes tracks by Nick Cave and Jack White: big, brooding music that can punch its weight against those grand visuals. The costumes are deliberately as glamorous and covetable as gangster can get; Birmingham wholly reimagined on an epic scale. The budget per episode was £1m, small for film but big for television. To quote Neill, the whole thing from peaky cap to coat tails, is “fucking sexy”.
“Otto saw this as an epic film from the first moment,” the 65-year-old Neill reports. “Given the restrictions of a television budget, it is quite extraordinary how that has been achieved. There are very few things you do where everyone feels a sense of commitment from the beginning and a feeling of good fortune that you are involved in something that seems so palatable and, I have to say, fucking sexy. There’s no other way to put it. We were very excited from the moment the spaceship landed.”
See? Even the actors are giving it the kind of gush usually reserved for Oscar speeches. And if Peaky Blinders is dressed up in cinematic garb, then its writing matches that ambition. In the hands of seasoned scriptwriter Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Hummingbird — which he also directed) Peaky Blinders is a multi-layered, scrawling narrative, rich enough, he says, to take the show to four to six series. He’d like ideally to take it up to the Second World War. There’s ambition, right there.
This project has been something of a personal one for Steven Knight. Birmingham born, he’d grown up listening to stories from his father about the real life Peaky Blinders — his great uncles — who were illegal bookies in Twenties Birmingham. His dad would describe how when he was 10 seeing his uncles immaculately dressed in heavy, black flannel suits with flabby, grey caps pulled over their eyes.
These were the glamour boys of the post First World War-era, scarred by battle but diving fist first into the hedonistic, violent and swinging Twenties. In Peaky Blinders, the Shelby family runs the city through racketeering and swindling on the horses. When a guns shipment goes missing from an arms factory and falls into his lap, Tommy sees an opportunity to shift the whole operation — and himself — up in the world.
Standing in his way is Ulster evangelical CI Campbell, who rides into town at the bequest of Winston Churchill to clean the metropolis up. Campbell — in a thunderingly good turn by Neill — has his work cut out in a megacity swarming with degradation: whores and drunks litter the alleyways, corruption seeps from the city’s sweat stained pores, revolution is the air across Europe and Ireland continues to prove a bloody headache. A pitch battle ensues between Shelby and Campbell for control of the city, beneath which a complex knit of narratives about family, revenge, love and betrayal are threaded.
On the back of his father’s tales of fighting men, Knight researched the era through stories from the time in the Birmingham Evening Mail. The idea was not to get bogged down in history but make what was relatively unknown era ridiculously exciting. The key, says Knight, is seeing the period through the 10-year-old boy his father was when he encountered it rather than say, David Starkey’s relatively sombre lens. It allows everyone involved — writer, director, viewer — to accept the ramped up world that has been created. “In a way, the mythologising of that era and those people comes through that,” Knight says. “What we get is a mixture of fact and fiction but even the fact is quite surprisingly glamorous, exotic and unexpected for English history.”
It’s like cowboys, says Knight. If you take a Western, you are really talking about is 19th century agricultural labourers — some pretty dry material. But the Westerns took those cowboys, added timeless ideas and created their own iconic genre. “The Americans have mythologised their past and we never have,” he adds. “What they are not afraid of is applying big themes to domestic situations, whereas I think the English are. Americans are happy to write songs about towns in the US, whereas it’s very difficult to write songs about Huddersfield or Birmingham.”
Ah, Birmingham. Without doing down our second city, you’d be hard pushed to imagine it the first spot for setting your widescreen adventure. But this, Peaky Blinders makers insist, is what made it attractive to them. Birmingham isn’t weighed down with gangster mythology like London; it hasn’t been raked over like Liverpool or Manchester. It’s relative anonymity makes it perfectly unexpected, just as it is surprising to learn that gangsters ruled the roost there. “With the Peaky Blinders, no one has ever heard of them,” Bathurst says. “Birmingham has [since] been flattened by the bombs and the planners. So you have this exciting blank canvas.”
Step then unto that canvas one Cillian Murphy, a go-to guy when you want to shoot a brainy blockbuster like Inception and a much raved about theatre actor. He’d not done telly for 12 years. Why risk his reputation on a small screen role? The risk is slight, the 37-year-old Cork born actor says, when you’re in this modern heyday of television. “For an actor, to have six hours to develop a character is really unique when you come from the world of film and you have an hour and half. You have to be slightly more reductive. With this, you can go very deep.”
And deep Murphy delves, as Tommy Shelby, a man deeply scarred by time in the trenches of First World War. If prestige drama is founded on the trials of complicated men, then you add Tommy Shelby to that rich canon, struggling as he is to cope with life back in Blighty, his less-than-smart brothers, a controlling matriarch, the emergence of a city rival in CI Campbell, and having his head turned by the new Irish lass, Grace Burgess who in-between pulling pints in the local pub, is not entirely what she seems.
For Neill, taking a role in a BBC drama is a no brainer in these heady days of the smallish screen. “I just finished watching series four of Breaking Bad and it was absolutely compelling. There’s not much that compares to that in the cinema these days. There’s increasing timidity in cinema production, people repeating what worked last time.
“I have no interest in seeing men with superpowers. It just bores the shit out of me. But long-form television with real people in peril and in love and doing all the things you and I understand, that’s fantastic. And some of the greatest stuff of this century comes from television. It starts with The Sopranos and The Wire and Breaking Bad. And hopefully this is part of that.”
Peaky Blinders is on BBC Two, Thursdays 9pm