Peaky Blinders, never a great drama, returns without the electrifying Helen McCrory

TV review: The BBC show is still a triumph of style over plot but it hasn’t lost its swagger

Peaky Blinders (BBC One, 9pm) is a hit costume drama but it is also a philosophy, an aesthetic and a haircut. The philosophy is that villains make the best heroes. The aesthetic is Nick Cave meets Quentin Tarantino. And the haircut is obviously the "textured crop" – floppy at the top, buzz-cut up the sides – once again sported by Cillian Murphy as brutish Tommy Shelby as the sixth and final series gets under way.

The season starts, as it must, with a tragic sleight of hand. Helen McCrory, who brought an electrifying hauteur to her portrayal of Shelby's scheming Aunt Polly, passed away last year age 52. And so showrunner Steven Knight is required to sensitively hand-wave away her absence while keeping his caper on the road.

His solution is to pin Polly’s death on “three Dublin brigades of the Irish Republican Army”, who have killed Tommy’s “crutch” – Polly – as part of their plot to keep in power British fascist leader Oswald Mosley (whom Tommy attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate last time out). As the records attest, the IRA had little compunction about getting into bed with the Nazis, or a U-boat in the case of Seán Russell. And so perhaps it isn’t so huge a leap for Knight to imagine a rump ’Ra going ra-ra for Mosley.

Either way, Polly’s exit is dealt with briskly in a prologue which picks up the action straight after the end of season five (we learn that the IRA has, for good measure, bumped off Aidan Gillen’s jittery gypsey Aberama Gold). Next comes a palate-cleansing time jump of four years. It’s 1933 and Tommy Shelby is on Miquelon Island, a French territory in Newfoundland.


He's there to plot the next chapter of his life in crime, following the imminent ending of Prohibition in the United States. With a keen eye on the future, Tommy sees potential in the opium trade. Forget about a Brummie Al Capone. Tommy is about to become a proto-Scarface.

These global ambitions – the opium will be sourced in China and shipped from Liverpool – have put him in conflict with some familiar faces. Among those opposed to his transatlantic expansion are Polly's son Michael (Finn Cole) and Michael's scheming wife Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy). Back home, meanwhile, Tommy's own wife, Lizzie (Natasha O'Keeffe), is physically and emotionally distant from her husband and feeling increasingly isolated.

Tommy's machinations are rather murky, and Knight could never be accused of making Peaky Blinders easy to follow. Still, it's clear Shelby has undergone a spiritual transformation since Polly's death. He's given up the booze and taken to quoting William Blake at meetings with fellow crime bosses.

Knight’s calculation would seem to be that the audiences are here to watch Tommy quoting William Blake rather than for Peaky Blinders’s convoluted storylines. But of course style over substance has long been Knight’s mantra. And as his period juggernaut takes its curtain call, he’s going all in.

Which means endless shots of Shelby strutting towards camera in slow motion, grimacing as if negotiating a mild tummy ache. And there is the return of that signature anachronistic soundtrack, this time featuring Joy Division and Anna Calvi.

Peaky Blinders was never great drama and, in terms of storyline and character advancement, this victory lap season is, once again, all flatcap and no trousers. But it has undeniable swagger and a rock ’n’ roll air of danger.

In other words, Peaky Blinders has peaked at just the right time – and fans will appreciate both its riotous observation of its most celebrated cliches, and the respectful send-off given to Helen McCrory, to whom the episode is dedicated.