Peaky Blinders (and other Gangs of New Street)

Just watched the first episode of Peaky Blinders, the BBC’s much-hyped interwar gangland drama. With its strong storytelling, lush photography and a big name cast delivering top-notch performances, I’ve got to say – it was one of the best things I’ve seen on TV for ages. Then again, I’m not exactly impartial. Having lived in Birmingham for most of my life, it was a rare pleasure to watch the brutal history of my much-maligned adopted city draped in the tropes and archetypes of cinematic myth. A rare pleasure, but not a unique one. Back in the 70s, the BBC made another series that delved into the dark criminal underbelly of the Second City, only this one didn’t feature a title song by Nick Cave. And while Peaky Blinders featured the stars of 28 Days Later and Jurassic Park, Gangsters (1976-78) featured a bloke from Howard’s Way and Denzil from Only Fools and Horses.

The bloke you see running for his life through the recently reopened Queensway Tunnel is John Kline, the show’s protagonist, played by the late Maurice Colbourne (he was the one from Howard’s Way). On the face of it, John Kline seemed to embody all the essential qualities of a 1970s TV anti-hero: he was an ex-con, a nightclub owner and he even used to be in the SAS. Unfortunately, these not insignificant macho credentials were somewhat undermined by the fact he sounded a bit like Alan Partridge.

Kline is released from prison after serving time for the manslaughter of a local gangland boss, and – as is so often the case – opens a nightclub, gets embroiled in a criminal turf war and finds himself running for his life through the Queensway Tunnel. The series started off gritty and luridly violent, but as it progressed it became increasingly odd. It seemed to quickly tire of its adopted genre, and before long it was shamelessly taking the piss.  Each episode climaxed in an increasingly ridiculous cliff hanger, which often strayed perilously close to Adam West territory, and it developed a rich vein of black comedy, although some of the humour was a bit on the nose for my tastes. In one episode, for instance, some evil cocaine smuggler types are busted on the site of the abandoned Snow Hill Station.

Get it?  Like I said, a bit on the nose.

As odd as the first series was, that was nothing compared to the madness that would follow. The second series of Gangsters remains one of the most thoroughly demented things ever to be subsidised by licencepayers money. Up there with Twin Peaks or the final episode of The Prisoner, it seemed determined to alienate its mainstream, peak time audience by mutating into a post-modern, fourth-wall shattering work of surrealism. Oh, look – here’s a new villain: some Fu Manchu-like head of the Birmingham Triads who carries out arcane rituals in a secret lair underneath a church. And over there… the show’s writer is hammering the keys of a typewriter in Pakistan, creating a scene that now unfolds outside his window. Did a kidnap victim just get rescued by characters from Radio 4’s The Archers?  Did a major character get killed by the poisonous touch of long-dead American comedy performer W.C. Fields?

Yes, all these things happened in a primetime TV crime show that started out being a bit like the Sweeney but didn’t stay that way for long.  So there you have it. Peaky Blinders is very good, but Gangsters is like Get Carter Goes to Brum, directed by David Lynch, and starring Alan Partridge.

That’s got to be a hard act to follow….