Tommy, a rock opera

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I’ve spent so much time since my first set visit to Arley Hall in Cheshire in November in and around Peaky Blinders (BBC Two) – in fact, since I flew to Dublin in August 2014 to meet Cillian Murphy for an interview to herald series two – I seem to have almost forgotten to simply review it. With all the interviews I’ve done on set, in trailers, in pubs and hotels and private clubs, on the phone, and in panels after screenings, and all the column inches I’ve written subsequently, I feel like I’ve done nothing but talk about, and thus “review” Peaky Blinders. But now we’re halfway through series three, which all involved promised me was the best yet, it’s a pleasure to be able to confirm that. It is the best yet, and furthermore a completely different beast to series one and two. All that was magnificent about one and two – the ambition both practical and emotional, the epic scope, the anachronistic music, the intensity of the acting, the almost expressionistic look of the thing (the work of three directors in total: Otto Bathurst, Tom Harper, Colm McCarthy) – is present and correct in three, but more so.

And if any scene in last night’s third episode summed all that up, it was the disarming montage set to Soldier’s Things by Tom Waits. It goes something like this.

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Oh, and this one is for bravery …
And this one is for me

Tommy has been prevented from torturing the doomed head of the rival Italian mob family, Vicente Shangretta, played by Ken Colley (Jesus in Life Of Brian, trivia fans), by the swift intervention of Arthur, who shot Shangretta in the head before his grieving, raging younger brother could subject him to a long night of short knives. A coup de grace, it was a decisive moment: an insubordinate act, an act of mercy, a challenge to Tommy’s increasingly fraught and unpredictable methodology (and an echo of the name of his deceased wife, Grace). The plaintive piano of Soldier’s Things, from Waits’ pivotal 1983 LP Swordfishtrombones, immediately sets the tone of the aftermath, one of quiet reflection, perhaps a moment of clarity for Tommy. The lyric speaks of a military veteran assessing the flotsam of his life, counting his medals, and selling his belongings.

And everything’s a dollar
In this box

Tommy orders younger brother John – not exactly a centre of gravity himself but we’ve seen him, too, show mercy – to get rid of the body and, importantly, get rid of his torture kit (“for good”). The song, which lays everything out, becomes a lament for Tommy’s past life and offers potential hope of a settlement, or a deal with the God he doesn’t believe in, in the future.

He drives himself home, and pulls into the ornate drive of his country compound, the grand house that he and Grace and baby Charles called home until she got caught in the crossfire. Steven Knight declined to show us the funeral (having made such a big deal of the wedding) and instead jumped forward this episode into the depths of Tommy’s grief, which drove him into himself, and into his Gypsy roots, with fire and horses and spells. This line was perfectly synched with the image of the car pulling up:

It’s good transportation
But the brakes aren’t so hot

This is the fusion of great writing and plotting, deft direction from Tim Mielants, who, with Ben Wheatley’s talented DP Laurie Rose, has injected the series with a certain roving urgency as well as an eye for grandeur and Grand Guignol, and attentive editing from Celia Haining.

Neckties and boxing gloves
This jackknife is rusted
You can pound that dent out on the hood

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A tinker, a tailor
A soldier’s things
His rifle, his boots full of rocks

A sudden burst of light, as Tommy is reunited with his and Grace’s only son – so much more than a “thing”. This almost Athena-like tableau of father-son bonding provides another rare moment of Tommy looking at ease with the world, rather than railing against it. He is indeed a tinker, and a soldier, and a thief. It’s as if Waits wrote the tune for him.

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Then it’s back to business. Tommy, the Godfather, back behind his oak desk, pensive, caught between the legitimate and the illegitimate, in cold limbo in fact. The dusty, almost sepia look is clearly a nod to the work of Gordon Willis on The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. We with long memories remember that Michael Corleone started out as a decorated war hero, a Marine returning from World War II with a Silver Star for bravery. He’d dropped out of college to enlist and shunned his family’s business. Tommy had no college to drop out of, and was conscripted in the First World War, but the melancholy of stars on the chest is the same.

Oh, and this one is for bravery
Oh, and this one is for me

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And everything’s a dollar
In this box

Tommy finally walks silently into the room where Ada, still “legitimate”, is studying. She’s his sister, not his wife, but like Kay Corleone, there is a tacit understanding between them that she will not ask about “his business” and he will not tell her about it.

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As the song ends and Tom Waits’ piano – so very rarely licensed to TV or film – tinkles out, Tommy slumps in the chair, a man who’s learned some heavy lessons, not least the one of mercy from his own, born-again elder sibling.

But the song’s end signals the end of reflection, for now. It’s back to work: “There’s someone ahead of us, and I need to know why.” Ada has been doing some investigative work on the Shelby Company’s behalf (she’s a librarian, and a Communist), and so she’s crossed a line, and Tommy is about to lure her over it.  Swordfishtrombones is an album of gin and ruin, wild years and after effects, bullets and shore leave, and one foot in a mythic American past. It couldn’t have been better chosen, as Tommy now has his sights on the port of Boston (“Boston, America?”), and there’s “a vacancy.” What could possibly go right?

Most dramas on TV you couldn’t even watch once. This one demands repeated viewings. They’ve created a rock opera. And there’s nothing else on telly like it.

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15 thoughts on “Tommy, a rock opera

  1. I always hear something of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler in Waits’ lyrics. That hardboiledness that ties in beautifully with the 20s Blinders.

    Waits’ characters have more of the Arthur Shelby about them don’t you think? I could easily picture Arthur as the tragic character in Frank’s Wild years:
    “Frank settled down in the valley and he hung up his wild years on a nail he drove through his wife’s forehead”

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  2. Steven Knight is swiftly turning in to the most interesting ‘auteur’ figure at work in British film and television. The success of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE seems to have given him the financial space to create a whole liad of interesting stuff. I really loved what he did with Tom Hardy in LOCKE and DIRTY PRETTY THING, EASTERN PROMISES and HUMMINGBIRD all do very interesting things with the London landscape and their respective genres – even if not entirely successfully. Yet all of these wonderful things just feel like preparation for the epic grandeur of PEAKY BLINDERS, a series in which every single visual and aural detail counts.

    My personal favourite moment was the magnificent use of PJ Harvey’s taut and teasing IS THIS DESIRE, as two different forms of Tommy’s lust were precision spliced together. There really is nothing like it on the Telly at the moment, which made the governments shenanigans toward the Beeb all the more crackpot. Thankfully the worst of them hasn’t come to pass and I can go on enjoying big, bold dramatic projects like this. Knight has come a long way from his days toiling away on THE DETECTIVES for Jasper.

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    • It’s very noticeable how carefully chosen the songs accompanying particular scenes are, as well as the fact that they seem to have been able to licence music from artists that you don’t often hear in television programmes. I think that Nick Cave is involved in the production somehow, isn’t he, but it’s rare to hear Radiohead or Waits songs licensed for a programme (at least in the original version as opposed to a cover). I wonder if that suggests they are fans of the programme (as well as the production having a bit more money behind it having become popular in the US as well as here)?

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      • Steven Knight has told me that they’re all fans of the programme. Radiohead gave them the master tapes. David Bowie also bequeathed them a track from Black Star before he died. I look forward to seeing it used.

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      • I know that Cave and Harvey were both involved in the music side of things, along with Warren Ellis. I am guessing the other songs are due to the quality of the production as a whole. Waits in particular rarely licenses his songs to anyone, for anything.

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  3. It is rare that a show is a “must see” for me, but Peaky Blinders is one of those rarities. My week isn’t complete until I’ve caught up on the most recent episode.

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  4. Enjoying this series (how could anyone not do?), but one worry I have is about killing off Grace. I’ve no problem with a programme having limited focus, not trying to represent all demographics or sectors of society, and so on. After all, while everyone might have a story, you can’t tell a particular story if you’re trying to tell everyone’s story at the same time. So it’s necessary to focus, and Peaky Blinders has always been more about the brothers Shelby and less about the women in the story (though Polly is an interesting, well-fleshed out character in her own right). But I do think there is something wrong with using such a cliched way of developing Tommy’s character. After all, even James Bond has had the dead wife story line. It then begins to look as though the decision to have him choose Grace (always a bit of a thin character since she got up and sang in the pub in the first series) over May (a much more interesting character) at the end of the last series was to make it easier to have Tommy become a widower. I’m reluctant to criticise such an otherwise enjoyable drama, and one that sketches the relationships between the different brothers so well, but it has the feeling that the relationship between Tommy and Grace was all along a lazy plot device rather than something plausible and a stand-alone part of the story.

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    • Grace’s character development has been really my only problem with the show. Her journey from cold-blooded killer, to charity dinner host felt frequently out of tune with the rest of the show. I kind of see her death as a neat way to succinctly address this problematic role. Always found May a far more interesting character once she came on to the scene in Season 2.

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  5. I’ve asked this question over on Sarah Hughes Guardian recap of episode three, and thought I’d post it here, too, to see if I’m totally off the mark. Does anyone else think that Linda Shelby could be the secret Soviet agent who was identified to Tommy after the cutaway from the jail cell scene? That would explain Tommy’s dour look when he found out Linda was pregnant, and then when he hugged and congratulated Arthur. Historically, that story line has a bit of credence. After the Russian Revolution, Quakers worked diligently to establish hospitals in Russia. Linda might have offered the Soviets information in exchange for making inroads into the creation of medical centers in Russia (especially since she wasn’t enamoured by the Shelby enterprises in any case, and would see its downfall as a way of breaking Tommy’s grip over Arthur).

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  6. Hi Andrew,

    my last comment was removed so I’m guessing that it broke one of the moderation rules. Sorry about that, I didn’t think I had written anything offensive. Please could you let me know what was wrong, or what the rules are, so I can make sure not to do it again.

    thanks.

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    • It wasn’t knowingly removed. Let me see if I can reinstate it. There’s only one moderation rule: no abuse. Nobody has broken that one yet!

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      • Oh, I’m glad about that, I was a bit worried for a moment. I didn’t think I’d written anything insulting and the plot spoiler I talked about was mentioned in your post so didn’t think that could be it.

        Thanks.

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