Peaky Blinders, episode one review: Slick, superficial and absolutely gripping

Caryn Mandabach/Matt Squire
Caryn Mandabach/Matt Squire

Have we reached peak Peaky Blinders? It certainly feels that way as Steven Knight’s retro gangster romp returns with a promotion to BBC One and amid Game of Thrones-levels of hype.

With everyone getting their flat-caps in a twist ahead of the show’s fifth series, the pressure’s on then. But Peaky Blinders is more than up to the challenge. It arrives with a swagger and an opening montage that sees anti-hero Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) doing what he’s best at: clopping on a horse in stylised slow motion as Nick Cave croons “Red Right Hand”.

We’re soon zipping around the Peaky Expanded Universe. It’s off to New York, where black sheep Michael (Finn Cole) has sunk the family’s lucre into stocks and shares. Alas, it’s October 1929 and the Wall Street Crash is just a few hours away (Michael, to be fair, is distracted by a new girlfriend, played by Anya Taylor-Joy).

Meanwhile, back in Blighty, baby-faced Finn (Harry Kirton) is leading an excursion into London’s opium den underworld on behalf of Tommy. Guns blaze, the rock’n’roll infused soundtrack cranks up and finally the opening credits flash. It’s breathless, slightly hard to follow and wonderfully stylised. Peaky purists would surely have it no other way.

Season four and Tommy’s election to parliament as MP for Birmingham South are two years behind us. As the global economy burns, he’s in the House of Commons fighting the good fight for the common man.

Shelby’s impassioned warning not to make the poor bear the brunt of the market meltdown confirms his oratory is almost as sharp as his ability to run a secret criminal empire. His backbench barnstorming brings him to the attention of an oily fellow MP with a superlative moustache (Sam Claflin). He pulls Shelby aside later for introductions – the name’s Mosley, Oswald Mosley – and to declare he has his eye on the Shelby strutter.

He isn’t the only one keeping tabs on Tommy. An emergency family meeting to discuss the Wall Street wipeout lays bare the tensions between Shelby and Arthur’s devout wife Linda (Kate Phillips). She questions Tommy’s stewardship of the business and points out that, technically, Arthur (Paul Anderson) is chairman of the board.

Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) takes the opportunity to break the happy/controversial news that Ada (Sophie Rundle) is pregnant (she leaves us in suspense as to the father). And it is revealed that the sortie into Opiumland was a move by Tommy against a child trafficker. That’s at the behest of a blackmailed judge who has agreed to pay him £50,000 (he later tries to welch on the deal – earning a stiff and chilling rebuke from Tommy).

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This is all very Peaky Blinders. Which is to say slick, a bit superficial and absolutely gripping. As is often the case with Knight, the plot can feel held together with sticky tape and a silent prayer to the prestige TV gods. But the cast are as supercharged as ever.

As Tommy, Murphy, especially, gets a lot to bite on. Early on, he has to put down one of his horses. The killing traumatises his family and plunges the Shelby kingpin into an existential crisis. He holds a gun to his head and is visited by the ghost of his dead wife Grace (Annabelle Wallis). Which is obviously silly yet also utterly riveting.

It’s a reminder, too, that Peaky Blinders is at its best when it sets realism to one side and spirals into a Brummie-noir fever dream. There’s lots of that in the episode. As is the tradition, the show literally hits its stride when Tommy dons cap and walks in slow motion while some interesting punk rock strikes up in the background.

Scenes such as this encapsulate what Peaky Blinders has become. It’s a rock’n’roll riot in vintage clobber and, judged by those standards, an absolute triumph. With more people than ever watching, the series saunters out of the gate, brushing the hefty expectations off its shoulders with barely a pause. You have to take your hat off to it for that.