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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Outside. Now.

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This is what the 30 April-6 May 2016 cover of Radio Times looks like. If you live in Birmingham. If you live anywhere else in the country, it looks like this:

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I have been a journalist for 28 years. I know how this works. The first cover story I ever wrote, professionally, was about The Fall and their new album Extricate in the NME dated 25 January 1990. I was inextricably proud. Since that momentous day, I have not written that many cover stories, by which any freelance writer’s stock can be measured. Even when I got my own desk and became a commissioning editor – at NME, Select, Q and Empire – I rarely gave myself the cover story to write. It didn’t seem politic, and in any case, a good features editor will have an army of great writers to call upon, and to not call upon them would be a dereliction of duty. I gave myself Carter USM, twice, and My Bloody Valentine, and Billy Bragg, at NME; I gave myself Blur, and Paul McCartney, at Q; and was given Blur and Alanis Morissette by the features editor at Select; at Word, where I was a humble freelance again, I was given Elbow, and the Stone Roses. Age does not wither the excitement of writing a cover story.

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Peaky Blinders was a story I’ve been writing, as in researching and interviewing for, most excitingly on location of the imminent third series, since November. It is a production that’s close to my heart, and I’ve been more or less embedded with it this time around, hosting the press launch, and a BFI screening. I even had some exclusive material for my cover story, which can be read in the new Radio Times. Even in a cynical media world where instant gratification drives everything, people on both sides of the glass care about magazine covers, the timing of them, the exclusivity of them, the sheer magic of them in a prelapsarian age of paper and staples and shops and high streets. Cillian Murphy was on the cover of the Guardian magazine last Saturday, but that doesn’t count, as you can’t see the cover of a supplement on the newsstand – it’s wrapped and sometimes bagged up around the newspaper itself. The gorgeous full-face of Cillian Murphy on the cover above can be seen, even by browsers. But only in Birmingham.

Here’s the problem: famous and brilliant people have been dying at an alarming rate this year, many of them TV names: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Terry Wogan, Maurice White, George Kennedy, George Martin, Keith Emerson, Ronnie Corbett, Garry Shandling, Prince, and, at a fearfully early age, Victoria Wood. When I heard that she’d died, last Wednesday, I was in the Radio Times office, where the magazine dated 30 April-6 May 2016 was being put together by a team of dedicated professionals. I was, in that instant, sad. Sad for her, obviously, and sad for her friends and family, and for all the viewers who would never see a new Victoria Wood programme on television, which includes me. And I was also sad for the Peaky Blinders cover. Even a show as rich and beautiful and improving as Peaky Blinders will be on again the week after, and the week after that, and the week after that. But you only die once. And some lives demand to be memorialised in the affectionate and comprehensive way that the magazine I work for has done this week for Victoria Wood. (As it did for Ronnie Corbett, and Terry Wogan. Just as you turn to 6 Music to get you through the death of a musical hero, Radio Times does the job with a TV hero.)

Which is why I am personally glad that Peaky Blinders made the cover in one very specific part of the country: its home. (The contents of both versions of the magazine are identical.)

 

 

Birmingham Blues

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With one of my favourite dramas Peaky Blinders set to return to BBC Two for its third season in May (actual date yet to be confirmed), and a lot of activity at my end, having visited the set and written a story for next week’s Radio Times, it seems an opportune time to dust down this passionately corrective column on the lack of depictions of Birmingham and the West Midlands on our TV screens. It was published on the Guardian website in September 2013, but it’s still relevant. (Although who remembers crime series By Any Means?) For the record, I’ve seen the first episode of the new series, and it scales new heights. But let’s talk about Brum …

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Peaky Blinders, BBC2’s big-hitting, six-part period gangster saga may be saddled with an offputting title and unhelpful comparisons to Boardwalk Empire, but it remains a truly unique piece of dramatic television. Why? Because it’s explicitly set in Birmingham, a city that’s all but ignored, dramatically speaking, outside of soaps. Not since Slade In Residence on The Smell Of Reeves & Mortimer in 1993 have we had so many unashamed Brummie and Black Country accents in our living rooms. As a son of the East Midlands, I have an innate soft spot for the despondent downward intonation at the end of a sentence and the over-articulated “ng” sound of my Black Country and Brummie cousins. But a study of regional accents in 2008 found that Birmingham’s gave the worst impression of “perceived intelligence.” In the test, silence gave a better impression.

This certainly seems to have been taken to heart by TV commissioners. And who can blame them when, in an otherwise glowing review of Peaky Blinders in the Sunday Times, critic AA Gill complained, “It’s not that it’s impossible to sound … intelligent with a Brummie inflection. It’s that the rest of us just don’t care. We know from the first flat vowel that it’s going to be probably about boilers, or carp fishing.”

Benny from Crossroads has a lot to answer for. The infamous motel-based soap was set in the fictional Midlands village of King’s Oak and filmed in and around Brum. Many of its stars were local – Roger Tonge, Ann George, John Bentley – but it was simple-minded handyman Benny, played by local boy Paul Henry from 1974 to 1987, who came to epitomise the show; a gift to Tuxedoed impressionists. He lingers as the region’s woolly-hatted ambassador, with his entreaties to “Miss Diane” (rather, “Miss Doy-ane”).

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Brickies-abroad comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – produced by Midlands franchisee Central – had a token Brummie: low-voltage, Wolves-supporting electrician Barry. He was so endearingly played by Timothy Spall over the show’s two decades it became impossible to extricate the Black Country accent from bumbling innocence. The rise to MTV reality-show superstardom in the noughties of damaged Aston-born rocker Ozzy Osbourne in The Osbournes did nothing to reposition popular opinion; the downward intonation signalled “lovable idiot”.

Concurrently, Jasper Carrott of Acocks Green bestrode TV like a comic colossus throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s; it’s a great accent if your job is to make people laugh, as Frank Skinner might subsequently testify. Carrott wrapped his horizontal vowels around the mock-biker anthem Funky Moped in 1975, a Top 5 hit.

It was produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne to underline its “Brum Beat” credentials. Birmingham has long been a cradle of rock, its foundries giving birth to heavy metal and a civic fondness for leather and long hair, hence the “Grebo” movement of the late 80s. That the latter scene’s prime movers were the larky, fart-lighting Pop Will Eat Itself and acid-tongued pranksters The Wonder Stuff may not have helped the Black Country’s bid to be taken entirely seriously. (Although now that PWEI’s leader Clint Mansell is a prolific and respected Hollywood film composer, maybe detractors should check their prejudice.)

Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders, former gagsmith for Carrott and a native of Small Heath, was asked by the Visit Birmingham website why Britain’s second city is so rarely represented onscreen. “Birmingham people stay in Birmingham,” he replied. “In London, you’ll meet a lot of people from Manchester and Liverpool because they want to get out. Whereas in Birmingham, people tend to stay, so that pollen doesn’t get distributed.”

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It’s a theory that, like the 160 miles of canal that helped make Birmingham “the workshop of the world” during the Industrial Revolution, holds a lot of water. The tragedy is that the bulk of Peaky Blinders was shot in Leeds and Liverpool. Meanwhile, By Any Means, BBC1’s glossy new contemporary crime show, is shot in Birmingham and produced out of the spanking BBC Drama Village in Selly Oak, but makes no mention of its geographical location. At least Doctors is set in a fictional Midlands town, Letherbridge, while the soap’s Mill Health Centre is an affectionate nod to decommissioned production hub Pebble Mill. Perhaps we’ll glimpse the incredible new Mecanoo-designed Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square in a future episode of By Any Means. Surely that wouldn’t give a bad impression of “perceived intelligence”?

As Lynne wrote in the ELO tune Birmingham Blues, “It may be kind of homely but it sure is sweet/Industrial Revolution put it on its feet.”

First published in September 2013