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.
“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”
“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.
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”
“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.
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.