You wait a whole lifetime for a lavishly shot, starrily cast, mega-budget gangster drama set in Birmingham to come along. Then when it does, it’s absolute rubbish.
Well, I’m sorry but it is and as a Brummie — near enough: I grew up in a village called Alvechurch, just outside, and I come from a long line of Midlands industrialists — I feel particularly aggrieved by the entirely unjustified acclaim being heaped on the dismal Peaky Blinders (Thursday, BBC2).
Let’s start with the accents. Some sound like a mélange of Liverpool and generic northern; others sound Irish, even when spoken by characters who aren’t supposed to be Irish. The series is set in Small Heath in 1919. Times have changed a bit since then, I’m sure, but Brummagem accents? I doubt it. Birmingham, by then, had had a good three centuries as one of the nation’s industrial epicentres to establish its particular style and voice. More likely in this series they either a) couldn’t be arsed, times being sloppy and voice coaching not being what it was, or b) deliberately chose not to make them real on account of the Brummie accent emerging in numerous polls as Britain’s least popular, or c) they were worried it might jeopardise its chances with the US market.
Then, the sense of place. What we have is generic industrial northern grime with some canals thrown in. Fair enough: Birmingham was bombed to buggery in the war, so they had to do most of the location shooting in places like Manchester. Really, though, apart from the references to the BSA factory — and the fact that a brutal gang called Peaky Blinders (so-called because of the razor blades they concealed in the brims of their flat caps) did once operate out of the city — you could be anywhere.
So how do I think they could have made it more plausibly Brummie? In the dialogue, of course. I don’t just mean the accents (did I mention them? Well I’m going to again. It’s a disgrace I tell you and I don’t care if the Brummie accent I did on the BBC Review Show on Sunday night was crap: that’s allowed. I’m not paid to be an actor), I mean in that sardonic, perpetually piss-taking, sing-song flippancy that real Brummies have.
It’s why, whenever I hear the accent, I always feel cheered. It doesn’t just remind me of my childhood, it makes me know I’m also among people who are naturally much, much funnier than, say, Scousers, but don’t make a big deal of it because they prefer to waste their comedic talents on life’s cutting-room floor. (Jasper Carrott would be the exception. And we’re not going to spoil things by mentioning L***y H***y are we? Nobody mention L***y H***y.)
This gang in Peaky Blinders, though, take themselves so very, very seriously it’s as if they’ve got steel rods up their bottoms. There’s this character Auntie Polly whom Helen McCrory plays like she’s the matriarch from Bread (sorry, luv. Wrong city), all strong, wise, capable womanhood because, don’t you know, while the boys were away in the trenches she has been running the Family and she’s not going to accept going back to her traditional little woman role in this bold new post-war age. Again, fine: I’ve no problems with the historical point, just with the characterisation one: GET A BLOODY SENSE OF HUMOUR, love.
As for Cillian bloody Murphy, I ask you. Whenever he enters the pub, loosely modelled on the saloons in Deadwood — (because that’s what this series thinks it is: the Wild West relocated to Birmingham, which would be fine if it had the roguish twinkle of Ian McShane in it but, more’s the pity, it doesn’t) — he does so almost in slow motion, with a halo superimposed on his head and his cheeks looking like they’ve been bathed for five hours beforehand in ass’s milk.
Yes. Cillian Murphy is pretty. Very pretty. I can see that and I can see also there is something both unsettling and alluring about having somebody who is ruthlessly violent with the face of an angel. BUT…That’s all there is to him. He has even less inner life than Don Draper from Mad Men (the war, you know), which might have been fine before The Sopranos, but James Gandolfini spoiled us rather, did he not? Slick, glossy, stylised ultraviolence is no longer enough. Of course we still want our gangster chiefs to be unutterable bastards: but unutterable bastards about whom we really care.
Anyway, that’s enough mithering to be going on with. I also hate: Sam Neill’s charmless Northern Irish policeman; the pornographically lush stylisation; the walk-ons from Winston Churchill; the nasty razor violence; the ludicrously implausible pretty Irish girl who can sing beautifully, apparently; the even more ludicrously gratuitous presence of Benjamin Zephaniah as one of those Rasta poets one used to encounter so frequently in Birmingham back in 1919…
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