With a cast that reads like Hollywood movie credits, a score like a 6 Music playlist and suits as sharp as razor blades, gangster drama Peaky Blinders packs a trendsetting punch. Since it first hit our screens in 2013 the nation has fallen for Tommy Shelby and his charismatic family. Birmingham has a new hero. Everyone wants to be in Tommy’s gang.
Quality production values, clever plots, achingly cool music and outstanding lead performances have lifted the series above the usual costume drama clichés to win A list fans around the world and garner comparisons with the likes of Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos. But the show’s charm lies in its British roots. To quote one character: ‘You’re bad men, but you’re our bad men.’
The much-anticipated third series airs on 5th May at 9pm on BBC Two. This is event TV. Expectations are high.
Historia caught up with writer and series creator, Steven Knight, to talk family history, The Godfather and David Bowie…
Let’s start at the beginning: Where did the idea for Peaky Blinders come from?
It came from stories I was told by my Mum and Dad, who grew up in Small Heath in the 20s. As a kid, my Mum was a bookies’ runner. They used kids because betting was illegal and children were less likely to be arrested. The kids would walk down the street, sometimes with a basket of washing, and people would drop in coins, wrapped in a piece of paper with the name of the horse they were betting on. The kid would take all the bets and deliver them to the bookies. That’s how the system worked. My Dad’s uncle was from a family called the Sheldons, which in fiction became the Shelbys. They were bookmakers and were known to him, and everyone else in the area, as Peaky Blinders. He told me the story of the Peaky Blinders when I was little and I just thought it was so amazingly evocative.
Did you do a lot of research into the real Peaky Blinder gang?
I did. My parents obviously watered it down a bit because it was much more violent than they told me, as I found when I started doing research into the racetrack gangs and how they operated, with the razors and guns and all that. I’ve only come across the name Sheldon in one book. He was a friend of Billy Kimber – a Birmingham gangster associated with London, so I found out a little bit about what history tells us. However, the things that I’d heard from my parents differ from what’s been written, and I believe my parents.
How much of that research made it into the show, compared to your parents’ stories?
I honestly think that when history is written, people are looking for order, for the straight line, trying to make sense of it. But reality is so odd – weird things happen, daft people do things for the wrong reason. You have the clichéd perception of Birmingham in 1924 – cobbled streets and people in and out of each other’s houses, no one locked their doors, and kids could play out in the street. That’s all true. But it was also a hard, violent place. There was domestic violence, there were gang fights, there was all sorts of stuff that doesn’t make it into the history books.
I found a really good source of information in archive copies of the Birmingham Evening Mail. You might get a little piece at the bottom of page three about someone imprisoned for two years for sedition. That meant he’d stood up in the Bullring and started talking about communism. My dad remembered going to the Bullring. The communists would stand on a box and start speaking. The coppers would take them; they’d get a severe beating, and often were never seen again. Everyone knew that was going on, but I’ve never read that in any history book. And yet, if you look at the newspapers, it’s there. If you listen to the stories of your parents, it’s there. When you hear real history you know it’s true. When you hear history as written, sometimes it feels like somebody planned it and you know it’s not quite the truth.
Do you feel particularly attached to this project because it’s based on your own family history?
Definitely. I do a lot of other stuff, which of course, I love. Some of it is for the money and some of it is because it’s interesting, but this is different. I don’t see this as work. I love it. I love doing it. Yeah, I’m very attached to this.
You’ve used the historical backdrop to great effect – WWI in series 1 and the conflict in Ireland in series 2 – What’s the historical background to series 3?
I felt a natural tendency to start moving west in the 1920s – because of bootlegging and prohibition – but that’s such a well-trodden path I decided to go east. In Europe at the time there were lots of exiled Russian aristocrats and minor royalty who had a huge sense of entitlement but no money. Tommy gets involved in what was pretty much the last attempt to bring down a Bolshevik government, by what we would now call ‘white Russians’, which happened in Georgia in 1924. Tommy is dragged into it as a minor cog in this bigger picture.
How important is it to you to get the history stuff right?
I think of it as nails in the wall – if you put one or two nails in then you can hang what you want on it. But the nails have got to be there.
For the last series I used an actual assassination of a British Major in Belgravia in 1922. At the time two IRA members were arrested and hung within about nine days, which was really unusual. In the 50s it was revealed, but never admitted, that the assassination had been set up by the government to discredit the IRA in order to cause the Republican government in Southern Ireland to attack the IRA in Dublin, thus sparking the Irish Civil War. So that assassination was the nail for series 2. On it, I hung the fiction that Tommy is the person asked to do the killing. I think it helps to have a real event. It makes your plot so much more interesting because you’re dealing with truth.
I must ask then, Tommy Shelby is one of the best antiheroes of recent years – was he based on a real person?
No, not really. When I was a kid my parents described what men were like back then and they were very different. I’ve still got an uncle who was alive at the time and he said the men were horrible. They were as hard as nails. There were real rules about what they could and couldn’t do. They couldn’t show emotion. When they came back from the First World War they were told to get on with it.
My mum told me that men used to walk down the street, very well dressed, and they would suddenly stop and tie a shoelace that wasn’t even undone. Really, they were sheltering from an imaginary artillery shell. But they couldn’t be seen to duck, they had to pretend they were tying their lace. And that, for me, was a picture that really said it all. So what I tried to do with Tommy is make him someone where it’s all happening inside his head and he will never, ever let it out. And with Arthur, he’s less successful at keeping it all in. But you know they’re all traumatised.
You mentioned earlier that you could’ve taken the story west, into the sphere of American gangsters. How much of an influence were the classic American gangster dramas like The Godfather and Goodfellas?
I think it’s impossible to write anything about a family who are gangsters without reference to The Godfather. It’s so good, why wouldn’t you? But it’s only because the Americans are the ones that have depicted gang families so often that their version is considered to be the template. In fact, when you look elsewhere – the Russian gangs I wrote about in Eastern Promises, or British gangsters in the 1920s – it’s exactly the same. You have the hierarchy of the family, the exclusion of all others because you don’t trust anybody and the ambition to become legitimate. Whoever is the most intelligent usually becomes the leader. I think those are universal themes, first depicted by Americans in The Godfather, so that’s why anything to do with gangs feels American, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
And the other western influence is the Western itself…
Yes. Americans took the story of 19th century agricultural labourers, because that’s what cowboys were, and mythologised it. I love the idea that you can take your own environment and make it magical. I was glad that Birmingham had never been done – it wasn’t the East End, it wasn’t Liverpool – there was no glamour there at all. I really wanted to push it and say: OK, yes it’s Birmingham but it’s really glamorous, they’re like cowboys, to make the point that you can do this with your own backyard, that your dramas and jealousies and intrigues are just as important as anybody else’s, no matter where you’re from.
Was that Western theme something you intended from the beginning?
Yes. If anything I wanted it to be more like a Western than like The Godfather. That first shot of Tommy riding a horse – that’s the start of every good Western, you know? And that’s exactly how I wanted it. You have the gunfight in the street at the end, you have people meeting in bars and spinning glasses across the bar. Why not? That stuff is great.
The way you’ve used contemporary music is really pivotal to the appeal of the show. How did that come about?
We made the decision early on that we would use contemporary music over a period piece. It wasn’t even that much of a decision. Whenever you’re editing you normally play a track that you’d love to use as a guide to whoever is doing the music. But in this case it was so perfect that we kept it and it just stayed that way. It was sort of odd when people were saying it was groundbreaking because we hadn’t really thought about it that much. Also there was no period music that we could have used. In 1919, Jazz wasn’t really happening in England yet, so we couldn’t find anything that felt right.
Music has an effect that is completely mysterious to me. The music is the thing that tells you how the characters feel. And it’s the thing that gives people permission to cry. I don’t know how it works but it does. It’s the music that gets them. And with Peaky Blinders, these are modern people with the same feelings, emotions, and jealousies as we have now. So the modern music means there isn’t a barrier between their modern emotion and our modern emotion.
I’ve read a few hints that you might be including some Bowie in Series 3. Can you tell us more?
We knew Bowie was a big fan but his people had a real desire to get the music from the new album onto series 3. I was really honoured to be played the album before release. And of course I said yes, we really want to use it. And then, when he passed on, we went back and checked, and they were still really keen. So it’s been wonderful that this tiny part of his legacy will be in the series.
Moving on to the new series you’ve worked with a new director – Tim Mielants. What has he brought to the show?
He’s European so there’s a European sensibility about his stuff. We have a look and feel which we don’t want to change – if it’s not broke don’t fix it – and we’ve got a rhythm to the way scenes work, the way things are depicted. But each director brings a new interpretation of it and I think his work is absolutely brilliant – it looks better than ever.
People are really excited about the addition of Paddy Considine to the cast. What can we expect from his character and what does Paddy bring to it?
He’s probably the most evil character we’ve ever had. Campbell was redeemable, some people liked him, but I don’t think anybody’s going to like this one. He gets under Tommy’s skin in a way that no one else has done. To get Paddy to play this part was sensational because he is just so, so good. And one of the great pleasures of this series is that I know I can write Cillian and Paddy together and just know that it is going to happen.
You’ve spoken before about your vision for the end of Tommy’s story – how the final episode will end with the first air raid siren of WW2. So, can we expect more?
Yes, you certainly can. As long as they keep saying yes, I’ll keep writing. As you say, I’d love it to be the story of this family between the wars. The first air raid in Birmingham was 1940. I just want to hear that siren.
So we we, Steven. So do we.
Peaky Blinders series 3 begins on 5th May at 9pm on BBC Two. We’ll be watching.
All photos © Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd & Tiger Aspect Productions Ltd 2016. Photographer: Robert Viglasky
- Cast of Peaky Blinders series 3
- Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby
- Helen McCrory as Polly Gray
- Steven Knight on the set of Peaky Blinders