Peaky Blinders was conjured out of stories its creator Steven Knight was told as a child. Larger-than-life images from his parents’ Birmingham families had been burnt onto his nine-year-old mind. A mountain of silver coins piled on a table in a shabby terraced house. Bare-knuckle boxers bound at the wrists and pushed into the canal for losing a fight. Gypsy horse fairs. Barefoot children running messages for illegal bookmakers. A pub called The Chain whose only drinkers were factory women who’d beat any man who dared enter. And immaculately dressed gang members who’d swapped the mud of their WWI uniforms for crisp creases and sharp tailoring. It was all magic and glamour, to the mind of a child.
That was how Peaky Blinders chose to present the past on screen – as somewhere heightened, glamorous and now. It wanted to evoke in its viewer the awe of a kid marvelling at unforgettable things. Forget the drudgery of realism, the show’s 1920s Birmingham would be a place where fairy tale kings and queens walked through fiery streets, towered over by pulsating industry and non-stop newness. For once on screen, the British working classes wouldn’t be drab and pitiful, they’d be mythic and cool. As Knight told Den of Geek, “let’s do legends.”
One detail from Knight’s childhood legends, as reported in GQ Magazine, was his father’s memory of seeing the real Peaky Blinders gang dressed to the nines. “Every crease as sharp as the razors in their hats, reflections in their toe caps, dicky bows and ties pulled tight on studded collars.”
Everything about the men projected wealth and status, Knight’s dad told him… apart from the glasses from which they were drinking. These expensively dressed gangsters were knocking back whiskey not from pricey crystal, but recycled jam jars. Knight explains: “The money was in the fibre and the leather of their clothes, in their grooming and their guns. Not a penny of that fortune would be spent on anything so mundane as kitchenware.”
You might say that approach to priorities was shared by Peaky Blinders the show. When it arrived in 2012, what counted was the first impression. The look – as designed by series one director Otto Bathurst and his art teams – was the thing. Forget the mundane, it was all about impact.
No Hovis-Ad Nostalgia
Impact was unarguably made by Peaky Blinders‘ opening sequence, in which Cillian Murphy’s character rides on horseback through the gristly, teeming streets of Birmingham’s Small Heath. Filmed as one long, continuous shot, it introduces Tommy Shelby as a feared and respected local king, the protagonist in a British Western. Just as importantly, it also introduces Peaky Blinders as not-your-average-period-drama. Don’t expect the grateful poor, the kindly gentry and Hovis-ad nostalgia. This place is alive with modernity.
You only have to look at the skyline to see that. Instead of the CGI set extension faithfully recreating what real canal-side inner city Birmingham would have looked like with an historian’s accuracy, director Bathurst chose impact. Bigger. Higher. More impressive. His reference points weren’t archive maps, but Blade Runner and Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One.
Like the gang members drinking from jam jars, the creators of Peaky Blinders faced the question of where best to use their money. As producer Jamie Glazebrook confirms here, in 2012, Peaky Blinders had a budget of around £7.5 million for the entire first series, a snip compared to Game of Thrones $60 million first season, and The Rings of Power’s $450 million season one price tag. Achieving the cinematic look sought by Otto Bathurst and Director of Photography George Steel – both of whom won Baftas for their work on the first series – with a BBC Two purse, would mean sacrificing some things in favour of others.
That opening sequence, DoP George Steel told this Esquire Oral History, sucked up an inordinate amount of Peaky Blinders‘ cash. “We spent all our special equipment budget was spent on that first shot, with the horse and the Russian arm [a crane camera mounted on a car],” says Steel. “Otto was adamant that we shoot it all as one shot and the only way that we could really do it was on a Russian arm, which is £10,000 a day.”
“After that we ended up with very rudimentary equipment, which is why a lot of it looks the way it looks. It has that slightly old fashioned feel, because we didn’t have the money to whizz around on technocranes.”
Location manager Andy Morgan backs Steel up. “The budget for Peaky had pretty much been spent halfway through the series.” Producer Jamie Glazebrook told The BBC Academy Podcast in the early days, “There was a terrible point at the end of the first series where every scene, we kept on saying ‘we can’t do this location, could this happen in the Garrison Pub?’ and Steve [Knight] was like, ‘This is going to become like Coronation Street soon, everything going back to the Garrison!'”
Sometimes, Glazebrook continues, necessity was the mother of invention. At the climax of series one, Knight had written a big action set-piece between the Peaky Blinders and racecourse king Billy Kimber’s gang. “There was going to be a huge gun fight and we just didn’t think we were going to be able to achieve it. Rather than do things in a half-arsed way, it’s better to do fewer things really well than to do lots of stuff badly, so we said to Steve we don’t think was can have a huge gun fight.”
As a solution, Knight wrote the gun fight to the point that both sides were lined up, facing each other and armed, and then – a classic Peaky Blinders twist. Sophie Rundle‘s character Ada Shelby, dressed in widow’s weeds, pushes a baby carriage right into the no-man’s land between the two sides and tells the boys to shut up and listen. They were all in France, they know what happens next, they all know who’ll wear black for them. Fight if they want to, says Ada, but her baby isn’t moving and neither is she. It’s a brilliant dramatic moment, and a better surprise than any expensive action scene could ever have been.
Enter: Tommy Shelby
The opening shot that took such a big chunk out of the first series budget was only four minutes long, but its legacy is inestimable. It’s a masterclass in world-building, and a fitting introduction to a series that would become, without overstatement, iconic.
The opening words spoken on Peaky Blinders aren’t in English, but Cantonese. There’s a panicked exchange among members of a Chinese community. A girl has been summoned, and nobody seems to want to keep the summoner waiting. As Steven Knight’s stage directions say “We might think we are in Shanghai until we see a caption…. BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND, 1919.”
The first we see of the man on the horse is the shine on his boot, the neat, clean cut of his suit and his closely shaved hair under a Stetson Hatteras flat cap. Women and children scatter as he rides bareback into a slum and stops to pay the Chinese fortune teller in pound notes. The girl performs “the powder trick”, whispering an incantation and blowing a cloud of red dust into the air. It’s a spell to make the horse win a race, whispers a watching kid in awe. “The horse’s name is Monaghan Boy,” says Tommy Shelby, “Kempton 3 o clock Monday. You ladies have a bet yourselves but don’t tell anybody else.” Profitable bookies’ wildfire rumour thus begun, he rides on.
Tommy rides to the opening bars of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” – a song from 75 years further down the century – past iron barges, through a pile of a city, layered and growing, dressed in smoke and fire. He turns down Garrison Lane, its spill of people parting around him. A Jamaican street preacher touches the rim of his hat as Tommy passes, men drink and gamble outside a pub, a trio of blind war veterans troop past and he puts coins in their cup, kids dart around, fires belch, sacks are hauled, locals square up to each other, and two policeman tip their hats in salute with a “Morning Mr Shelby.”
Finally, we see the rider’s face in profile as Nick Cave’s song tells us “He’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a guru. You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan, designed and directed by his red right hand.” A tubular bell clangs, and Peaky Blinders begins. Out of pocket, maybe, but never out of ideas, and never looking back.
Peaky Blinders is available to stream on BBC iPlayer and Netflix.