BBC2, Thursday, 9pm
Channel 4 Monday 9pm
The Wipers Times
BBC2, Wednesday, 9pm
I can’t stand Adrian Chiles, though, and wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with six primetime hours of Brummie accents. But Peaky Blinders? Oy kwoyt loik it.
This is a 1920s gangster saga, so comparisons with Boardwalk Empire were inevitable. Instead of fedoras and Nucky Thompson’s bowler, the Peaky Blinders (they’re a gang) wear applejack caps with razor blades sewn into the rims. The reason for this soon became clear. “We’re not scared of coppers,” said one of their number. “If they come for us we’ll cut them a smile each.”
Are the comparisons justified? Well, this show’s cinematic. It’s got scale. Every third building seems to house a blast furnace or somesuch cauldron. When a character reveals she’s helping the polis bring the gang to justice to avenge her father’s murder, I think: “Too simplistic – Boardwalk wouldn’t do that.” But I like Cillian Murphy as second-highest Peaky Thomas Shelby – he’s got a terrific, sinister, watery-eyed look. I like the use of rock music (White Stripes, Nick Cave). And the accents don’t grate because they’re very often drowned out by Insp Chester Campbell, who comes from Belfast and speaks in small explosions. This is a grandstanding role and Sam Neill gives it everything. Winston Churchill, no less, flatters Campbell: “Like the hat, by the way.” “Thank you,” he replies, “it’s beaver.”
Neill might have based his accent on Z Cars’ Bert Lynch. “It’s well within my interest to have you and your scum family face down in the canal before the year’s out,” he warns Shelby. By then, I hope we’ve heard some Black Sabbath. Indeed, I’d like to see guitarist Tony Iommi given a small part in recognition of having lost some fingertips while working as a machinist. This altered the sound of his instrument, enabling him to found modern civilisation. Sorry, I mean heavy metal.
Most of Peaky Blinders happens in semi-darkness. I often moan about the BBC not being able to afford much more than a gas lamp and two bent candles for its period dramas but that’s not the case here; the gloom is deliberate. It was deliberate in Blackout, too: Britain was suddenly hit by a power-cut, possibly as a result of a cyber attack. In that moment, a rock band lost sound (they weren’t a patch on Sabbath), football floodlights went phoof (prompting the chant: “What the f**k is going on?”) and a single mum’s online dating quest was poignantly interrupted. These moments and others were filmed on phones. Well, we film each other doing everything now. We’re all stars and star-makers.
Pretty soon there was panic on the streets, angry queues at the pumps, fights over food, and the filming continued. Blackout was a mix of found footage spliced with created scenes; of morons escaping a stuck lift to go on a looting rampage juxtaposed with David Cameron on the Downing Street doorstep, pronouncing gravely. Cleverly, clips of him from real emergencies melded into our fictional tale. Depressingly, you got the impression he has a standard, one-size-fits-all response for such occasions, possibly pinned to the back of the door to No 10.
I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to stick 100 minutes of vlogging that called itself drama, but Blackout was surprisingly involving and at times genuinely scary, because this could really happen and zombie takeovers can’t. There were running stories. The idiots from the lift eventually blew up a tanker park. The dating mum and her daughter hitched a lift, the girl’s ever-roving camera soon picking up a “funny watch-thing” on the driver’s ankle. The man with the electronic tag turned out to be a good guy, while shockingly, the self-sufficient chap with the home generator and the biodegradable poo bags would commit murder by the end.
Dates, the series of two-handers about romantic rendezvous in over-lit bars, was one of the best things I’ve seen this year and Ben Chaplin was great in it. I was keen for more of his borderline louche charm and The Wipers Times delivered. This was the Private Eye of the trenches, a First World War satire mag which poked fun at the generals and brought mirth to the cannon-fodder amid all the bully-beef and mud. Most of the BBC’s historical budget for the week was clearly spent on Peaky Blinders’ hats as The Wipers Times had to make do with one-and-a-half mortar blasts, but it was a charming film in which Chaplin as the Ed again excelled, ably supported by another favourite of this column, Julian Rhind-Tutt.