“It's a fork in the road for a lot of characters, especially Tommy ...” hmv.com talks to Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight
Ever since it first arrived on TV screens 2013, BBC drama series Peaky Blinders has been steadily earning a reputation – both at home and abroad – as one of the BBCs finest shows in years. Its audience has grown to the point that the new series, due to begin this weekend, will make the jump from BBC Two to a primetime Sunday night slot on BBC One.
Part of the show's appeal, of course, is its talented cast; from show regulars Cillian Murphy and Helen McCrory to stellar guest stars such as Tom Hardy and Adrien Brody, the show has attracted some of the best actors around and that's set to continue with Season 5, which adds the likes of Sam Claflin, Brian Gleeson and Anya Taylor-Joy to its ranks.
Ask any of the actors, though, and they'll probably tell you that the real credit for the show's success lies in its brilliant writing, the handiwork of the show's creator Steven Knight.
With the series now out on DVD, we sat down with Steven to talk about Tommy Shelby's move into politics, his encounters with the rise of political villains such as Oswald Mosley, and everything else we can expect this time around...
Broadly speaking, what kind of themes can we expect from Season 5?
“I think it's a fork in the road for a lot of characters, especially Tommy. And he has to make a decision, if you put it most simplistically, between good and bad. Is he going to do the right thing? That's the main thing. It's members of the family, especially Tommy, being confronted with things that are so huge and potentially damaging that they have to decide whose side they're on.”
What exactly is Tommy's end goal, do you think?
“Well, I think he's driven to acquire power, but doesn't know why. I think a lot of people who want power, if they analyse it, don't quite know why. They would say 'it's so I can get money, so I can get what I want'. But Tommy doesn't know what he wants. Since the war, I think if anything I would say what he wants is to go back to the person he was before the war. And before the war we get glimpses, he worked with horses, he was sort of attached to nature, he had compassion, he had feelings. The war blasted everything out of him and when he came back, he was just switched off.
“What I'm trying to do over the series is: he thaws out, he switches back on and becomes human again, even though it's painful to start feeling again.”
You've said before that you always intended the Shelby family's story to begin at the end of the first world war and end at the beginning of the second...
How much of that long story arc did you have in mind when you started out? Has it changed over time?
“I don't really plan things to that extent. What I do is have a destination, and then when you have a destination, you can get there however you want, at least you know where you're going. With any journey, the most important thing is where you're headed. So that's what I've always had, it's always been a particular scene at a particular moment in history that's going to happen, and it's just how they get there, bit by bit. But I've found that sitting down and doing an episode, planning an outline, just doesn't work for me. So I just sit down and start, and see what happens.”
Is that still the plan? Can you see a way their story might extend beyond that?
“I'm interested in the second world war. I mean they wouldn't fight, but they'd live through it and I'm starting to think that there might be something to be had there."
Like a spin-off? Would it be the same characters?
“Well, I don't know yet. It's just a thought.”
It's a good thought, though...
“It's an expensive thought!”
Have you had any thoughts about a Peaky Blinders movie, maybe?
“I wouldn't rule anything out, you might as well do stuff rather than not do stuff. So I wouldn't rule it out, but I want to get the series finished first. But who knows?”
So when you started to write for Season 5, did you have the ending in sight?
“Yes, and only that. Everything else is up for grabs. You can do anything else, keep Tommy alive, probably. It sounds weird, but I know the characters really well, so I tend to just put them in a room and let them just talk about anything. The kiss of death is if you say 'in this scene, she must reveal to him that this person stole the money' or whatever. Just them talk, and then in the back of your mind have 'maybe this is what's going to be revealed'. And sometimes it isn't, so you have to do it somewhere else.”
“At the end of Season 3, the idea was to split everybody, and then Season 4 forced them back again, but what I wanted with Season 4 was to experiment with the idea that you get to the end of the season, and there's still ten minutes left. So what are you gonna do? So they say 'Tommy, go on holiday', so he goes on holiday and he can't stand it. So what am I going to do now? And then you come up with this thing that surprises everybody.”
You mean Tommy's move into politics?
You've said that at the end of Season 7 you want Tommy to 'come up good in the end', why do you think that's important?
“Because we're human beings, and it'd be nice if people were good, d'you know what I mean?! I just think it's a journey from, not from being bad gratuitously, but from being unfeeling, from being remote and not being able to connect with human beings. And then, bit by bit, it comes back, with all the suffering that causes, but it does come back.”
At the end of the last season, we see that Tommy's PTSD hasn't gone away. How much do you explore his mental health in this new season?
“Very deeply. It's a lot about what's going on his head and where he's at. This is part of that business of coming alive again, he's having to deal with a lot of stuff.”
“He hasn't reached the bottom yet. What I didn't want to do was go: 'Series one, first world war, stress-related mental illness. Series two, oh, that's all gone now.' So I want to keep it going all the way, because those people lived with it all their lives.”
The new season is set after the financial crash of 1929 and charts the rise of Oswald Mosley and the fascists, which seems eerily prescient given the shift towards those kind of rightwing politics around the world...
“It's extraordinarily appropriate. It's fortunate for me - and unfortunate for the world – but those years have a great deal in common with what's happening now. The rise of nationalism, populism, fascism and racism were suddenly gaining currency, they were becoming respectable. And as you'll see in the series, some of the things that were said at that time could've come straight out of the newspapers today, word for word. It's quite chilling, because we all know how that ended up. It ended in war.”
Were you consciously trying to draw parallels between then and now?
“I didn't even have to. That was the thing, I didn't have to force it, because it was all there, you just read what happened and what people said, and you go 'well, I'll just quote that'. And I think people will probably think that I've made it up, but hopefully they'll go and look it up.”
What is Tommy's approach to all of that?
“Well, you'll have to find out! This is one of the many things he has to confront, whether it's emotional things or gang things, but the biggest thing he has to confront is this new sensibility.”
How much did you play with the storyline around Mosley?
“It's like with Churchill, you take things that are real and then dance around them and join the dots. But there was a lot going on and it's great for driving the plot when you know that history is marching along beside you, dip into it.”
And of course, you've got Sam Claflin in the role of Mosley...
“Sam is great. He's absolutely hypnotic in the role, he really is."
You've had some incredible guest stars over the four seasons so far and there are more besides Sam in the new season too, like Brian Gleeson and Anya Taylor-Joy, for instance. Have there been any actors along the way that you wanted to get, but weren't able to make it work?
“We get a lot of approaches from quite astonishingly A-list actors, who love the show and would love to be in it and all that, but we've always tried not to make it a spot-the-celebrity kind of thing because it would ruin the atmosphere. We tend to get who we want, I can't think of an occasion when we haven't, which is great. And because of Cillian and Helen and the other great actors in there, they get attracted.”
The show has some celebrity fans too, David Beckham is a big fan isn't he?
“Yeah, David came to the set, and he's doing a Peaky Blinders clothing range in September. Snoop Dogg is a fan, too. What I'm thinking is, in season 6 and 7, I'm gonna open the doors a little bit to some of those people. If I'm judicious, I think we can get some of those people in there.”
How will we see Tommy adjusting to life as a politician? Is this the straight and narrow for him now, or not so much?
“I think he's sort of in his element in the House of Commons, because he's found an environment in which there are people with power who aren't particularly scrupulous. There's a lot of infighting, there are gangs, there are wars, and his ability to speak and control and strategise is really useful. And it's not beyond reality. Mussolini started out as the head of a razor gang and he became Prime Minister of Italy.”
Up until now, it's been Ada who seems to be the politically-minded one on the family, is she involved in Tommy's new career?
“Yes, she's working with Tommy now. It's an interesting one, because she's fully aware that Tommy is doing this, originally, for the wrong reasons, and it's almost like 'if you meant it, you'd be dangerous', because he's a very good speaker, he's hugely popular in Birmingham, and he's suddenly got that influence of power which is what attracts other people o try and get his support. And Ada is there with him.
“At the moment, everything is for personal gain, but what I want to do is pull off the trick where, gradually, his lies become true. He's opened charitable institutions and, eventually, that's what he wants to do, so the fiction becomes real as he matures.”
How will we see the family dynamics change after John's death? Are we going to see the likes of Michael and Finn stepping up to fill his shoes?
“Yeah, we'll see Finn coming in and a couple of other characters too. What I want to do is bring through the next generation.”
It sounds like the way you write is quite fluid, do you even have an outline for each season?
“No, not at all. What I've started to do is start with a date when something happened and think: 'how would that affect them?' So you've got something to start with and you start writing the scene where it affects them, and then what's the next effect? What's the consequence? In the way that history affects all of us, we get hit by something that's happened and then we deal with it in our own way. So that's how I try and do it, rather than sit down and plan a plot, I try and take it from what happened.”
Where do you look for this stuff? History books? Newspapers?
“I don't find history books the source of the best material, because I think historians – quite rightly because that's their job – they find patterns in what happened, and so it always feels as if what eventually happens was inevitable. But it wasn't. It's much more chaotic than that and it's a billion decisions going on all at the same time. I think one of the best ways is by talking to people who were there, which is increasingly impossible, but then looking at newspapers of the time.
"If you look at the Birmingham Mail at that time, you not only get what happened, you get how people felt about what happened, or how people automatically assumed everybody else would feel about it. This was the current thinking, and so every news item is seen through that way of looking at things, and it's really useful. You get a lot of news items that are so odd and don't fit in with everything, and I try to use that as inspiration."
Is that how you discovered Jessie Eden, from Season 4?
“Yeah, exactly. She was forgotten by history. And it's such a great name too, which helps!”
Was there much about the Peaky Blinders themselves in the newspapers?
“Not really. That's the thing, particularly about working-class history, a crime committed in Small Heath wouldn't have made the papers. No-one cared, it wasn't really reported. You would get it when it became political, so if someone's standing up at the Bull Ring making a speech about communism, you'd get 'man arrested for sedition, gets three years in prison.' So you get that, but the best, if you can ever get it, is always from first-hand accounts.”
Who did you get those accounts from?
“The stories originally were from my parents, that I heard when I was a kid. So the 'world' came out of that, and then subsequent to that it was uncles and aunties, over the years. Now I've got one uncle left who's still alive, who told me those stories.
“What's more interesting, I think, is almost the way they say things about how things were. Often there's a bit of nostalgia, but sometimes there's no nostalgia at all and there are just little details, and it's the details that are really amazing. Sometimes you can't really get them in, although I'll try. My mum told me there was a pub called The Chain, and only women were allowed in. If a man went in there, they'd beat the hell out of him. They were all chain-makers and they'd be sitting there with snuff and pipes. If you put that in now, everybody would think it was ridiculous. But that's what really happened.”
Surely that'd be popular with the show's female fans though?
“I'm not ruling it out for Series 6, because it was a true thing and if anybody said it was ridiculous you can say 'well, it's true'. The authority of truth is always important.”