Wednesday, 9 October 2013

BBC's Peaky Blinders - It isn't Breaking Bad.. its just Peaky Blinders

<UPDATE 2 : Writer of  Peaky Blinders, Steven Knight, turns out to have written Eastern Promises, one of my favourite Cronenberg films. I'm still not keen on the rest of this output but just based on his Russian London gangsters I'm going to swallow my  bitter negativity and give this show another go. He also wrote Taboo.>

<UPDATE : I feel compelled to point out this is my opinion of first four episodes, not even the first series. People tell me season 2 is actually pretty good, note sure if these people have seen Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire though..>

I have been ranting about British tv recently in comparison to US TV. I know it's a cliche by now. Various people have suggested I watch the new BBC period drama, Peaky Blinders, essentially 'Gangs of Birmingham', set just after the First World War with a cast of ex-soldiers dealing with trauma.. blah blah blah

The process of submitting scripts to the BBC is hugely dispiriting, demotivating and likely to make you quite bitter.  (So I am saying right out front - I AM ONE OF THOSE FAILURES). Your script has to fulfill an enormous range of criteria, including backstory detail on characters, and if it is a tv pilot, scripts and plots that cover a whole first season of 12 episodes. BBC writers room has its own Word template for scripts, which is seriously time consuming to apply and will make the latest draft of your script pretty much unreadable to anyone else afterwards. Six months after printing all this out and posting it to the BBC the rejection is a postcard with "Sorry" written on it.

So you have to be pretty special to get considered for an original script at the BBC. Potential writers are encouraged endlessly not to actually write but to invest in and read training on how to write scripts. Half the income from Guardian Media Group these days seems to come from writing courses for people that don't actually have a hope in hell of making it into the closed shop of professional writing.

But if we can't write, and certainly can't get paid to write, because of all the lectures and training we've got a pretty good idea of where we are going wrong.

Which leads me to Peaky Blinders

If I submitted a script with as much expository dialogue as can be heard in the pilot of Peaky Blinders you are the son of ?? and and I am the daughter of ?? that means blah blah blah..

... I'd be brutally mocked for being an amateur and wasting everyones time including my own. While I'm listening to that dialogue I'm sitting on the sofa surrounded by books I've payed for on screen writing, which were suggested by the very same industry that has produced Peaky Blinders, in a effort to stop me pestering them with my own crap.

Well we can confidently say now that my crap - is crap - but at least I specifically avoid making it look like anyone elses crap.

In terms of era and characters, Peaky Blinders retains only the settings and accent of a great setting, the Birmingham Small Arms factory post Great War, while choosing to rip-off whole plot points and characters from HBO's Atlantic City gangster epic Boardwalk Empire, set at exactly the same time. In terms of look and feel, Peaky Blinders is so desperate to be HBO's acclaimed down and dirty Deadwood it reminds you of the young lady who performs services on Al Swearengen when he can't get Tricksy.

I am sure this is not the fault of the writer, who must be talented as well as tough and determined to get where he is. But as often with current BBC drama it stinks of re-writes and committees and compromises to an overall purpose - in this case "write me a British Boardwalk Empire". An added problem being that writing for Daily Mail readers watching BBC1 with their phone on their lap is not the same as writing for HBO subscribers.

An example. In Peaky Blinders smoking is rampant. Very authentic in that respect.If anything it is played down, the clouds of cancerous gas in the pub for instance don't look too real to me.
But there is no swearing.
In the HBO shows this completely reversed, and what smoking there is is often a plot point. With regards to the swearing.. we're back to the dialog again. The swearing in Deadwood, which is NOT period authentic, is maybe the most audacious use of dialogue I've ever heard. They say the dialogue is Deadwood is written in iambic pentameter, and I wish I could have heard Shakespeare go and rock and roll with profanity the way the Deadwood characters are able to.
But for the BBC swearing is the big no-no while smoking is ok. I guess, unlike creative swearing, Daily Mail never gets on the BBC for smoking because most of British society is in still in the last century and the tobacco industry has its supporters.

The positives:
Peaky Blinders looks SENSATIONAL. Plotwise it might be a British Midlands photocopy of Boardwalk Empire but arguably looks even better than that multi million dollar HBO epic.
 It is well directed and has an all star cast, I've not seen Cillian Murphy and Sam Neill better and even their regional accents are passable. (Few things nicer on their ear than a good brummie accent).
Every ten minutes I think I should watch this with the sound off but some of the soundtrack choices, mostly good Jack White sourced material (Icky Thump would be an inspired choice) are quite arresting. 
That brings me to the biggest needle however.

I like to end on a positive but main crime is the main theme of Peaky Blinders, which is indicative of the whole show.

Boardwalk Empire's choice of main theme is so left field and ballsy it just took the breath away at first hearing. Scorsese and co picked a song by narky 60s revivalists The Brian Jonestown Massacre - for a story about Prohibition in the 1920s. An obscure West Coast band mostly known for antics in DIG!, I love BJM with a passion but even I wouldn't have picked them for that gig. But, in it's channeling of 1960s hedonism above images of the failure of Prohibition (the Canadian Whiskey on the shoreline) it works.

There is a galaxy of great unused tunes that might have fitted Peaky Blinders  area, era and material. We could probably name a few well known bands formed within a few miles of the actual BSA factory depicted in the show. (Black Sabbath?) Anything off PJ Harvey's Mercury award winning Let England Shake would have been contemporary for the viewing audience, thematically appropriate and it would have sounded pretty spot on for the period as well.

The theme actually selected for Peak Blinders is 'Red Right Hand' by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a classic song - which is unfortunately already over-used in an a number of movies and tv series going back two decades, including Dumb and Dumber, Hellboy, and The X-Files television series. Red Right Hand is also the signature theme for Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson's Scream series (four movies, $600 million in worldwide box office, not obscure) and presumably for the Scream tv series now in development in the US.

There is probably an entire library of moody Nick Cave songs to choose from and also a very good cover of this actual track by the Arctic Monkeys which would have sounded pretty good - why pick a version that is already overused and a signature tune for a movie series and another TV project?  It is a safe, predictable and frankly desperate choice for an opening theme, which is the overall impression left by Peaky Blinders.

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