Is Sam Neill riding a winner?

Sam Neill in BBC2's Peaky Blinders. Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky
Maggie Brown
Maggie Brown contributes to the Guardian, Observer and the Media Podcast and is the author of The Story of Channel 4
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In the past two years BBC2 has established itself as the place for ambitious drama, with famous names attached – think of The Crimson Petal, The Shadowline, The Hour, Parade’s End, The Fall and, most recently, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake.

It has been part of a deliberate strategy and investment policy, with BBC2’s formidable controller, Janice Hadlow insisting on grown up projects “that feel different”. She says: “In the first five minutes you think, ‘this is the only channel it would be on’. You know it when you see it,” she said at this year’s television festival in Edinburgh.

So, how does Peaky Blinders, the first episode of which aired September 12, fit in?

Well, there has been plenty of buzz about it in TV circles. Parade’s End had Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall. This drama stars Sam Neill, sharing top billing with striking Irish actor Cillian Murphy, of Inception and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. It also stars Helen McCrory, who played Cherie Blair in The Queen.

The six-part period series is loosely based on grim historical fact – the vicious gangland of inner city Birmingham, which developed among its 19th century industrial underclass, and morphed into even more violent and warped activity in 1919, when thousands of damaged young men returned from the trenches.

The creator and lead writer of Peaky Blinders is Steven Knight, best known for his films Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, not period drama. But he was born in Birmingham, and sees this lawless period as one of the untold stories of a post-war period, with Irish insurrection a constant threat.

In another departure, the near £7 million project was developed with Caryn Mandabach, the acclaimed US comedy producer who reintroduced sitcom to the US networks in 1984 with The Cosby Show, then Roseanne and 3rd Rock from The Sun, and most recently produced Nurse Jackie for Showtime. She relocated Caryn Mandabach Productions to Britain in 2004, when US networks turned to in-house comedy production and the BBC opened up more opportunities for independent producers. An Edinburgh TV

Cillian Murphy. Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky
Cillian Murphy. Photo: BBC/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky

Festival regular, her most recent UK credit is a BBC sitcom, In with the Flynns.

This is her first period drama, although she has other projects in development with ITV, Sky and Channel 4. She developed Peaky Blinders with Knight, a former comedy writer, after speaking to him about another project for HBO in the US. Knight says: “The story I want to sell is based on family legend and historical fact. A fiction woven into a factual landscape which is breathtakingly dramatic and cinematic, but for very English reasons has been consigned to historical text books”. The BBC matched the pair with the expert drama production company Tiger Aspect, which makes the period Ripper Street, now owned by Endemol.

Ben Stephenson, BBC drama controller who has driven the new BBC2 slate said the BBC had supported its development, and had wanted to work with Steven Knight for the first time. Peaky Blinders, he says, takes viewers into an unknown world with “brilliant scripts”.

The central fictional family of scoundrels, the Shelbys, arrange robberies and rackets in Birmingham’s Small Heath, including a bookmaking scam. Peaky Blinders refers to the Shelby gang’s practice of stitching razor blades into their caps to slash the faces of people they headbutt. The basic premise is that this family operates as a Midlands mafia so cue horse betting scams, raw pub scenes and a good deal of violence.

The main plot driver is a robbery at an arms factory in Small Heath. This triggers the arrival of the brutal Irish chief inspector Campbell, (Sam Neill) and his bobbies from Belfast. It also leads to a cameo part for secretary of state for war Winston Churchill (Andy Nyman), who thinks the arms are destined for the IRA. “If there are bodies to be buried dig holes and dig them deep”, he growls.

The opening few minutes do pass the Hadlow test of being different, starting with a well-dressed man, Tommy Shelby, (Cillian Murphy) on a racehorse, riding down a squalid slum street, openly ordering an oriental girl to perform a “magic spell” with red dust to ensure the horse wins its next race at Kempton. In order to drive home the scene of post war mayhem, Benjamin Zephaniah wanders by as a street evangelist. Another main character is a communist.

Mandabach said the casting was assisted by market conditions. “Luckily for us money is going out of independent films and into television, and we are the happy beneficiaries,” she says. Stephenson adds: “The talent will do it for television prices.”

Peaky Blinders is designed as a returning series, and if an audience approaching three million turns up another six episodes will go into production next March.

One problem is that, for all the staged furnaces, canal scenes, and grim poverty, it does not seem to be rooted in Birmingham. This may be because the drama is the first recipient of subsidy from the new Yorkshire Content Fund, administered by Screen Yorkshire, so railway scenes were shot around Keighley. Sally Joynson, chief executive of Screen Yorkshire, says: “It is the type of production we are looking to attract to Yorkshire”. Endemol has also topped up the budget, though the BBC is the main investor.

So far it has not been sold to a US broadcaster, though Mandabach is hopeful. She describes her approach to new projects as “always looking for that which isn’t there”, and that comes through in Peaky Blinders. It is neither a First World War nor a high society drama, unlike Birdsong and Parade’s End. But there’s plenty of skulduggery, a spoof execution, betrayal and strong women.

Hadlow said at the Edinburgh Television Festival that BBC2 drama was about “style, complexity, assurance”, adding that “they require a bit more from the audience”.

So now it is up to the audience to decide whether the mix of talent, script and direction has created a niche hit.