Despite being made on a responsible BBC budget, Peaky Blinders successfully creates the world of gangster-ridden Birmingham as you’d have found it right at the end of the First World War. Cillian Murphy stars as a war vet turned racketeer and gun runner, one of the titular Peaky Blinders gang – so named because they’ve got razor blades sewn into the peaks of their caps. A horrible weapon, and they sure know how to use them.
I spoke to the show’s creator, Steven Knight, about the world he’s re-created, the birth of modern man in the trenches of the First World War and the evolution of TV into a medium under a lot of pressure to impress with its visuals. Here’s some of what he told me – including his comments on future series.
The inspiration came from stories that I heard from my Mum and Dad. They grew up in Small Heath in the twenties, and my Mum was a bookie’s runner. There was a world that existed of illegal gambling and betting shops that obviously attracted gangsterism. So I’d got all of these stories about this world that existed, that nobody knew anything about, that I’d never heard about except from what I learned from family.
My Dad was a blacksmith and a farrier and when we were kids he used to take us out with him. We glimpsed this world of Didicoy gypsies, scrap metal dealers and. Charlie Strong and Curly who feature in the series were real people that I saw. We’re glimpsing the end of this fringe world that existed in Birmingham, and I think in most big manufacturing cities, where you get these incredible characters that nobody else has written about.
When I started doing research I discovered it was even more of an organised thing than I’d been told. For the ten years after the First World War there was a real gangster culture that existed, in Birmingham and London in particular.
I’ve wanted to do period for a long time – I first pitched this idea fifteen years ago, to Channel four. I think there’s a slight heightened reality working in period. What was interesting to me was to make a period drama but not obey the rules where anything over about a hundred years ago, people have to say “can not, will not, do not,” where they talk in a formal, very ‘written-down’ kind of way. I don’t think anybody spoke that way, ever.
It’s great to go back into the past but populate it with people who are just like us. People who are modern in the sense of their anger, their jealousy, their stupidity, the informality of the way they talk. That gives us a period world that is still totally recognisable because there are recognisable characters.
But I don’t think attitudes were the same at all. There were different cultural restrictions and cultural freedoms. But I think the people who went through those systems were the same – they were born the same. I think the thing about this period, it’s the beginning of modernity. Pre-First World War, there was this belief in science and technology, that things were getting better every day. Health was getting better, plumbing was arriving, everything was getting better because of technology. Then 1914 comes along and the whole thing blows up in people’s faces, all of this technology is being used to kill people.
The traumatic effect of the First World War on Western Europe is still being felt. I think there’s a certain cynicism that began then, there was a huge spike in cocaine and opium use in the 20s. People suddenly began to feel quite nihilistic. This was the time when religion started to be far less of an influence on people’s lives. Modern man came back from the trenches and one of the first things he did was gangstering.
Now, I think, people have a greater understanding of soldiers returning from traumatic circumstances. It’s a particular condition, a particular illness. It’s interesting today to tell this story of a great flood of traumatised men return from war, and to look at how they reacted and responded, how they assimilate what happened to them. It’s a modern story in that respect too.
To work for TV, my personal process should have changed more, I think. It’s very difficult to just jump into something like this and to know what the vocabulary is, so in the end, to keep that consistency, I ended up writing the first three episodes, then the last one and ended up co-writing the two in the middle.
I had very different access to the actors than on a film I might have written. I worked very closely with Cillian on getting that character right. That’s always, a bonus, to get that access.
It’s dawning on people, including me, that film and TV are very different, but with TV it would be a mistake to think you’ve got lots of time because it would slow everything down. With film, it’d be a mistake to start thinking “I need six hours to tell this” because you can’t, that’s not going to happen. So you need to have two different disciplines.
Though we have two different directors on Peaky Blinders, I don’t think their episodes feel different. It helped to have the same director of photography – feel that role is very underestimated. It was Otto who established how the thing would look and Tom went on it that way.
I think there should be a rebalance and in TV, directors should get more credit and in cinema, writers should get more credit because, in reality, the two disciplines are not that different. In film, especially in Hollywood, they’re so used to getting a writer to do a draft then getting another to do a different draft so it all becomes completely anonymous, whereas in TV it’s writers who rule the roost, in American television especially, and it’s writers who get shifted around. The work is much more successful if you have a proper collaboration between both disciplines in both of those mediums.
I feel that as television improved, now that everybody has virtual cinema screens in their house, that’s when the look of something became more relevant. Things have got to look great to survive on that big screen. You don’t get away with much at the BBC but I think Peaky Blinders looks much more expensive than it really was.
I’m working on the second series of Peaky Blinders as we speak. I’m going to write all of them for series two. It’s easier, somehow. There’s closure at the end of series on, but there’s that thing were you have to balance that closure with leaving a few cliffhangers, which we certainly have done. We tie up quite a few of the stories but some of them are left with a question mark. We didn’t know we were going to get a second series but I think you have to assume, you can’t have your lead character shot and killed.
Is that a spoiler? I don’t know. I think it’s what we’re used to on TV, for just the reason Knight suggested.
Ultimately, if the show is a hit, Knight wants to follow through with more than two series and eventually take the story up to the beginning of the Second World War. I think he might just get his way – the show’s already proving a bit hit in international sales.
Peaky Blinders kicks off its six-week run on BBC 2 tonight at 9pm. I’ve seen a couple of episodes, and I have to admit, I’m quite frustrated I have to wait a few weeks for broadcast to catch up. That’s the mark of a compelling show, I think – wishing it was all already in a box set for you.