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Caryn Mandabach never thought the second act of her career as a television producer would take her to Britain, specifically to the dirty streets of early 20th century Birmingham, the stage for the gangster drama Peaky Blinders.
Mandabach made her name as producer of such U.S. hits as The Cosby Show, 3rd Rock From the Sun and Nurse Jackie. But since launching her London-based shingle, Caryn Mandabach Prods., she has become an expert on the street gangs that ruled the seedy underworld in northern England at the turn of the last century.
Peaky Blinders, which has just received a third series order from BBC Two, was created by writer Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), inspired by family lore from his mother’s family, whose ancestors were runners for the Peaky Blinders gang, a group of Birmingham toughs so named for the razor blades they hid under the brims of their hats and brandished to bloody effect.
Peaky Blinders has been more than just another hit. The violent drama, which features an A-list cast including Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins), Tom Hardy (Inception) and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) has become part of the British zeitgeist.
Murphy’s directional haircut and distinctive herringbone tweed outfits have been spotted on London runways and city high streets, and Peaky Blinders-style flat caps (without, one hopes, the accompanying blades) have become the accessory of choice for the British hipster.
“It’s really seeping into the culture,” says Mandabach, who produces the show together with Tiger Aspect and in association with The Weinstein Co. for the BBC. She attributes Peaky Blinders‘ success to its focus on the British “working class.” Unlike, say, Downton Abbey, which focuses on the English aristocracy, Blinders’ characters are jumped-up street thugs trying to make good.
“Peaky Blinders is violent but I don’t really think the series is about violence. It’s really about a person who doesn’t want to be a gangster; he wants to change his class.”
Murphy’s character, Thomas Shelby, is the ambitious boss of the Peaky Blinders gang who seizes any means necessary to carve out his place in Britain’s growing middle class. The series traces his rise, first on the streets of Birmingham and then, in the second season, as he expands his empire south to London.
“Class is at the center of a very big dialog in the U.K. and has been forever,” says Mandabach. “I think the reason why Peaky Blinders is exceptional is because it was the first period drama to bring the working class into focus. You think of England in that time and most people imagine castles, aristocrats. But 95 percent of British people then belonged to the working class.”
In the U.S., where audiences have embraced the upper-class melodrama of Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders remains an insiders’ tip. That could change as buzz around the show continues to grow. Netflix only started streaming the first season of Peaky Blinders in September. The second season goes out Friday, Nov. 14.
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