Contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders series 1-4.
In the Peaky Blinders series four opener, gangster Tommy Shelby was awarded an OBE – not for services to the British Empire, though as a decorated WWI veteran he sacrificed enough for that cause, nor was it for his extensive charity work as a Birmingham public figure – no, Tommy blackmailed his way to the title.
In series four’s finale, Tommy Shelby OBE went one rung higher on the ladder. Using double-crossing tactics, he sold valuable information about the Communist threat to the British government, and was rewarded with a seat in the Labour government as the member for Birmingham South.
Series five sees Tommy in the midst of the political jungle. Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight tells Den Of Geek and other outlets at the press day that Tommy is “in his element” in the House of Commons.
“He’s found an environment where there are people with power who are not particularly scrupulous,” says Knight. “There’s a lot of in-fighting, there are gangs, there are wars, and his ability to speak and control and strategise is all really useful.”
“It’s not beyond reality,” Knight adds, “Mussolini started life as the head of a razor gang and he became President of Italy. Politicians can come from this sort of route.”
Helen McCrory, who plays the redoubtable Aunt Polly in Peaky Blinders, explains why Tommy and the House make such a good match. “He uses politics as a commodity. Just as he used to deal in horses and then he dealt in booze, and then he started to deal in opium, he starts to deal in politics in the same way. Information can be bought and sold, and your information on people is a way of getting what you want, whether it’s blackmailing or whether it’s trading. He uses politics in the same way as he’s used everything else.”
In series five though, Tommy faces a weighty choice. “That’s the main thing [in series five],” says Knight. “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. It’s a fork in the road for a lot of characters.
[Tommy] has to make a decision, if you put it simplistically, between good and bad – is he going to do the right thing or not?”
Doing the right thing may seem like a strange concept for a face-slicing murder boss like Tommy Shelby, a question the series grapples with, says McCrory. “It’s can you have a good act given by a bad man, or does it make it a bad act? Can a bad person become a good person?”
If Tommy Shelby can, then it’ll be thanks to his politically conscientious sister Ada, actor Sophie Rundle tells us. “She becomes his confidant and ally in lots of ways. They’re the two most intellectual Shelbies.”
“[Ada] had these strong political convictions that she’s had to abandon in a way,” Rundle continues. “It’s that frustrating thing of your older brother getting to do the thing that you wanted to do. That’s not available, that’s not an option for her as a woman in the 1920s, she couldn’t have gone into politics.”
It’s not all bad though, Rundle laughs. “For all that it broke her heart a bit having to relinquish her political ideology, there are perks. She’s aware that she could use that to her advantage. ‘If I’m going to be a Peaky Blinder, I might as well drink where I want and behave the way I want!’ And she’s still got that naughty rebellious teenage streak in her. For all that she’s a bit high and mighty, she’s still got that Shelby thing in her.”
“She’s fully aware that Tommy’s doing [politics] 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 and he’s hugely popular in Birmingham. Everybody looks up to him and he’s suddenly got that influence and power which is what attracts other people to try and get his support.”
One such figure is Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, played in series five by Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games, Their Finest). Knight describes Claflin’s performance as the MP “hypnotic”, while McCrory lowers her voice conspiratorially and calls him “really fucking good.” Involvement with Mosley’s politics, it’s hinted, is the basis of Tommy’s big decision between right and wrong.
What are Tommy Shelby’s political beliefs, Den Of Geek asks Knight. The character was a Communist before the War, now he’s a Labour MP… Does he believe in anything?
“At the moment, no,” says Knight. “At the moment he doesn’t. At the moment everything is for personal gain, but what I want to do is pull off the trick of gradually, the lies he tells become true. Already he’s doing charity work, he’s opening charitable institutions and I want eventually that to be what he wants to do, so the fiction becomes real as he matures.”
“Tommy doesn’t know what he wants, since the War. If anything, what he wants is to go back to being the person he was before the War. Before the War we get glimpses that he worked with horses, he was attached to nature, he had compassion, he had feelings… the War blasted everything out of him. 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, I think that’s what he wants. Even though it’s painful to start feeling again. What I didn’t want to do was series one: First World War, stress-related mental illness. Series two, that’s all over with. I want to keep it going all the way to the Second World War because those people lived with it all their lives.”
Tommy’s trajectory, explains Knight is “a journey, not from being bad gratuitously but from being unfeeling, from being remote and not able to connect with human beings, and then bit by bit that feeling comes back, and with all the suffering that causes, but it does come back.”
Ultimately then, should fans expect an optimistic end for the character, we ask? “You’ve got to hopefully end it on a positive note,” Knight says. “This is ahead. There’s plenty of darkness along the way.”
“Tommy hasn’t reached the bottom yet,” Knight smiles. “He’s got to go all the way down.”