There’s an annoying trend in the media of comparing every new UK drama to American shows. It’s hard not to though, when British writers are taking huge chunks of American shows and incorporating them into their own. Top Boy was heavily influenced by The Wire, Inside Men by Breaking Bad, and now there’s Peaky Blinders, filled with similarities to Boardwalk Empire, with the resemblance made particularly apparent considering season four of that American drama began airing this week.
So, as with Boardwalk Empire, we have here an early 20th century-set drama, about a gangster returned from WWI, haunted by the conflict. There’s the IRA, and gangland power struggles, and even very similar characters, like the good Irish girl entering the corrupt world, but one who is more than she appears.
The plot is sufficiently different though. Set in Birmingham, the show revolves around the gang controlling the city. In this first episode it was revealed that top gangster Thomas Shelby had accidentally stolen a shipment of machine guns. Belfast cop Chester Campbell was brought to the city to find them, bringing with him his hatred of Irish nationalism and Communist ideology.
One of the problems of taking inspiration from a successful US show is that it is hard for the imitator to measure up, and that is certainly the case here, with the first episode of Peaky Blinders having a lot of obvious flaws.
The dialogue was at times really bad. Exposition was painfully obvious. For example, gangster Aunt Polly telling Tommy: ‘You’re a bookmaker, a robber, a fighting man, not a fool,’ spelling out every detail of Tommy’s character. Later, Grace, the Irish barmaid in the episode, was revealed to be a spy working for Campbell. The policeman told her: ‘You must not let your personal history affect your judgement.’ ‘What history?’ Grace replied. ‘That the IRA murdered my father…’ The writers can’t just have characters state those facts outright. Let it emerge naturally.
The show also has an annoying habit of underlining everything with unnecessary dialogue. ‘As you know, the man you killed was Italian,’ Tommy said at one point. Yeah, we know. We just saw that scene. In another scene: ‘We’re all home in England. We’re not in France. You are not an artillery shell.’ Only one of those sentences is needed. We can tell from the context what is happening, that the guy is suffering from PTSD. Similarly, the same guy later attacked someone brandishing a knife. ‘Fixed bayonets!’ he shouted. Again, we know, he’s having a flashback. The show really needs to stop holding the viewer’s hand at every single step.
The music in the show is jarring, purposefully out-of-synch with the time period, with Nick Caves Red Right Hand and Jack White’s version of St James Infirmary featured in the episode. I’m not really sure what the point of this is. It doesn’t, in my opinion, work aesthetically, having 21st century music playing over a drama set in 1919. It feels like I’m watching a music video at times.
And this problem is made worse by some of the directing, which could be very over-the-top. I counted three separate slow motion scenes. The bulk of the show’s problems are with the writing though. The scene with Grace singing in the bar was almost embarrassingly overwritten; ‘my singing made them cry and stopped them fighting,’ is an awful piece of dialogue. And what kind of undercover spy makes themselves look as conspicuous as possible?
The final scene of the episode was incredibly annoying. After a five minute, emotional scene in which Tommy shot dead the ex-soldier with PTSD, it was revealed that it was all a big ruse designed to get him out of Birmingham safely. You can’t do that. You can’t have five minutes of emotional dialogue, of ‘bury me on a hill,’ of ‘look after my kids, get them good jobs, they’ll make foreman one day,’ of Tommy looking all mournful and sad, and then be all ‘Ah ha! Not really! Just kidding.’ It is incredibly false. For one thing, why would Tommy go to such incredible lengths, allowing big speeches, and acting so sad? The Italian witnesses to the ‘killing’ didn’t need such a fucking Shakespearean level of acting. One thing that really annoys me in television is when characters act in a way that makes no sense just to fool the audience about something.
This was only episode one though. I’m not writing Peaky Blinders off. The issue with the music might go away once the show settles and finds its rhythms. With the first episode over, there will be less need to ladle so much heavy exposition into the dialogue. And the acting seems fine, and the show has an interesting premise and an interesting location. There are six episodes in total, and I hold out hope that Peaky Blinders can grow into a decent series. But this first episode was no Boardwalk Empire, nor was it a decent alternative.
- Another example of the dialogue underlining everything: three separate characters explained the ‘powder trick’ with the horse. The audience are not that dumb.
- The communist stuff could be interesting going forward, and I like that there are many competing factions in the city.
- Apparently, Peaky Blinders was originally conceived 12 years ago, a fact The Guardian uses to argue that the show isn’t Boardwalk Empire influenced. I’m not sure I believe that. I’m wondering just how much was added to the script after the American show aired four years ago.
- Peaky Blinders is an awful name. I realise that they were a real gang, but give the show a name that doesn’t sound like a character from a Carry On movie.