Matt Allen’s By Order Of The Peaky Blinders revisits series one to four of the Birmingham-set BBC drama, (and a little of the recently aired series five), through interviews with the show’s cast and creators. It’s a good long-read for fans, with plenty of behind-the-scenes access and artwork, including a full playlist of every track used on the show, portraits of the Shelby brothers in WWI uniform, and some fun nerdy nuggets.
Here’s a taste of what’s inside…
1. Series creator Steven Knight first approached Channel 4 with the idea for Peaky Blinders 25 years ago (“Thank God it didn’t happen,” he writes in the introduction, “because it wouldn’t have caught on like it has.”)
2. When Steven Knight’s mother was nine years old, she worked as a runner for local Small Heath bookie Tucker Wright. Because off-track betting was illegal, children were used to collect stakes and bets to evade detection by the law. Knight’s mother used to carry a washing basket down the street into which money and bets would be thrown – Knight’s inspiration for the Shelby family’s betting business.
3. Later during the war, Knight’s mother worked in the Birmingham Small Arms Factory in Small Heath, from where Tommy and co. source a shipment of stolen guns in series one.
4. Benjamin Zephaniah’s character Jeremiah is based on a real Small Heath character called Jimmy Jesus, a barefoot preacher “who evangelized as he walked the cobbles.”
5. Charlie Strong was a real scrap metal dealer Knight met as a child when helping his blacksmith-farrier father shoe horses around the West Midlands. Just like in the show, Strong had a real-life helper named Curly.
6. At one point in the early script, says Paul Anderson (who plays Arthur), there were five Shelby brothers instead of four, with “another middle-tier brother, around John’s age.”
7. The show’s famous Peaky Blinders haircut is based in reality, writes Knight. “In the First World War, British troops and Australian troops had their hair shaved, because nits congregated around the nape of the neck. They didn’t want to be completely shaved, so they cut the back and sides of the skull, leaving the hair on top. When they came back from the war, that’s what they looked like.”
8. The hair styles were partly inspired by a book called Crooks Like Us (2009) by Peter Doyle, on criminals from 1920s Sydney.
9. Before Peaky Blinders, Knight had written 2013 Jason Statham film Hummingbird about damaged war veterans returning from Afghanistan, for which he’d met Royal Marines Commandos who’d returned home with PTSD, and their stories found their way into Tommy’s and Arthur’s.
10. It takes around eight to 10 weeks to set up the betting shop studio where Finn works in series five, because the plywood walls are plastered every time to get the right texture, then they’re papered and painted and aged.
11. The fine artist who painted the portraits in the Shelby Company boardroom is Desmond Mac Mahon, he painted Tommy, John and Arthur, working from three publicity photos from series four.
12. You can visit Charlie Strong’s canalside yard (well, the undressed version), because it’s part of the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley and is open to the public.
13. Julie Walters once played Polly Gray! (Sort of). Helen McCrory was in The Last Of The Haussmans at the National Theatre with Julie Walters when she was cast in the role of Aunt Pol. McCrory asked her native Brummie co-star for help with the accent, so Walters recorded two of Polly’s scenes from the first series using an old Birmingham accent.
14. At John and Esme’s gypsy wedding in series one, the music is provided by Gypsy and folk musician Sam Lee, brought in by director Tom Harper.
15. There’s no physical contact between Tommy and Polly ever, says Helen McCrory, because there’s so much tension between the characters, who are always assessing each other to see what they’re thinking. “Tommy once put his arm around Polly when she has a surprise birthday party and both of us burst out laughing afterwards,” says McCrory. “I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing? Get off!’”
16. Between takes on series two, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy performed scenes from Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski for fun, says director Colm McCarthy.
17. In series two, Tommy takes Grace to a party and introduces her to Charlie Chaplin, a reference to the fact that it’s widely believed Chaplin was born to a Gypsy family on the Black Patch Park in Smethwick, Birmingham.
18. To the prop master’s chagrin, actor Paul Anderson smashed 48 sugar glass bottles of champagne in a series two scene at the reopening party for the Garrison Tavern, after he was asked to make sure the party really got going.
19. Two years before David Bowie died, he asked to meet Cillian Murphy in New York, and Cillian made him a gift of the cap Tommy wore in series one, razor blades included. Bowie, a fan of the show whose song Lazarus was used in series three, sent back a photograph of himself wearing the headgear, says Knight.
20. The series three shot of the female Shelby family members strutting out on strike was inspired by astronaut film The Right Stuff, says director Tim Mielants. Polly’s on the far right because that’s where the most power is, says Mielants, because we tend to read from left to right.
21. Helen McCrory often has a little gun held in her costume stocking and garter, even if it isn’t used in the scene and can’t be seen, because it makes her walk differently.
22. McCrory bought two carved baby charms she put inside the locket Polly wears around her belt in series two, to symbolise her estranged children. We never saw them, but they were there.
23. To prepare for Polly’s episodes of drug and booze-induced madness in series four, Helen McCrory talked to US illusionist David Blaine about seances and mind tricks, and he gave her lots of books to research.
24. The series four scene of Tommy and Alfie shooting each other on the Margate beach was shot as per the script, says director David Caffrey, but the action of them shouting their dialogue and pulling their guns out was entirely worked out by Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy.
Read much more in the official tie-in book, By Order Of The Peaky Blinders, out now and published by Michael O’Mara Books.
Further reading: Peaky Blinders: the hidden messages in the series five sets