On a posh sofa in the BFI Southbank bar before the gala press screening of his new BBC Two series Peaky Blinders, we chatted to Birmingham-born writer Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Hummingbird) about the most unfashionable city in the UK, glamour, violence, anti-heroes, and telling a very different kind of working class story…
I’ve just seen episode one and two, so my first question has to be, when can I see the next ones? Great cast, great characters, great style, I really enjoyed it.
Ah, that’s great, thanks. And it gets better. Because in the early episodes you have to do so many introductions, after that’s all established it really gets going.
You’ve assembled quite a remarkable cast of actors. When Cillian Murphy and Sam Neill are first on screen together in episode two, it just fizzes doesn’t it?
Oh they’re just fantastic.
How did you come by Sam Neill for the role of Chief Inspector Campbell?
Pretty much our first choice in virtually every role said yes, and Sam was our first choice for that. We got him the script and he came back and said, ‘I’ll do it’, which was amazing. I think it was just episode one we sent him, but he was on board immediately.
You’re under a fair amount of pressure with the accents. Just a quick look on Twitter shows people saying, ‘Birmingham? They’d better get the accents right, it can’t just be broad black country accents’…
With Sam [Neill], the fact that he’s from Belfast and he said that he was doing his dad’s accent means he’s on home ground really.
Is it true he had to tone the Belfast accent down to make sure it would be comprehensible to a US audience?
I don’t think so. I think the concern always is for broadcasters is that American audiences don’t always get English regional accents, but I think with Irish they get it and I know Belfast is a particular type, but usually Irish is okay, whereas Welsh can cause trouble.
The problematic one was always going to be the Birmingham accent because I’m from Birmingham and you never hear it done correctly. For some reason, they don’t use people from Birmingham. So it was one of the stipulations that we’ve got to get this right. Birmingham in 1919 – it still is – was even more of a melting pot with people coming from the provinces, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, so the accent was still being formed at the time.
When I took Cillian [Murphy] up to the real Garrison, which is in Small Heath, to meet some of the people I know from round there, we spent quite a drunken Saturday just talking, and he recorded it on something like that [points to my Dictaphone], and just got into the accent. The trick with it – which he spotted and the other actors spotted – was that it’s fast. Everybody does it slow for some reason, but the actual town accent is really fast and if you do it quick, you’re doing it. It’s like riding a bike, as long as you keep going, you’ll be alright. And they did it.
Audiences aren’t used to hearing that kind of accent in a gangster setting are they? In comedy yes – you worked with Jasper Carrot on The Detectives of course, and his is probably what a lot of us think of when we think of that voice – but hard men with Brummie accents aren’t all that common.
Of course, yeah. Part of the reason for doing Peaky Blinders, apart from the fact that it was a personal story and I’ve always wanted to do it, was what was great I felt is that Birmingham is probably the least fashionable city in Britain. It’s almost invisible in terms of media. People just don’t do it, which is great, because it’s a blank canvas. I think if you did London, you’d have a lot of baggage, Liverpool, Manchester… With Birmingham, you can say ‘Have a look at this’ and say to people ‘This is real. This really happened’. Being from there, I know people from the Black Country and Birmingham who live there and in a certain part of that culture, it is the Wild West, it still is. There’s a lot of madness and guns and all sorts of stuff going on that just goes under the radar.
On the subject of the Wild West, let’s talk about Cillian’s horseback entrance as Tommy Shelby, riding through the slums. You were going for a Western feel then?
Well, not so much Deadwood, but definitely Western. The great thing about America is that people take its history and mythologise it. I mean, if you said you were making a film about nineteenth century agricultural labourers, that’s a cowboy film, but it’s just looking at it a different way. What Westerns did was to take a world and mythologise it. What I wanted to do was to really look at what really happened in Birmingham – and in other cities – in the twenties and see it for what it was. Very bizarre, very glamorous, very unexpected, very un-English, not un-English but working class English.
I think there’s a tendency in England, when you look at the past, to either have upper middle class period drama with its own rules, or if you’re going to look at working class people, you have to do that in a particular ‘Isn’t it a shame, aren’t they oppressed’ way, or it’s treated comically. When I was a kid though, my dad wasn’t a comedy figure, he was a hero, so do it like that, do it as it really is.
It’s based on your dad’s uncles isn’t it?
You’ve talked in the past about “the authority of truth” in storytelling. Is that what you were looking to present by telling this particular story?
Yeah. I think people don’t realise that this all went on. The race-track gangs and the wars to do with illegal betting in England are incredibly evocative, they’re quite violent, and there were real gangs with real characters, they almost sound like fictionalised names, but they were real people who fought battles and wars and had guns and knives. In England we buried that completely. All it is is finding what’s really there, pretty much sticking to what really happened, and then making it look good.
And you’ve achieved that. Your directors and cinematographer [Otto Bathurst, Tom Harper and George Steel] certainly make it look good. You used the word ‘glamorous’ just then, which is interesting, because Peaky Blinders is a stylised portrayal of not, as you say, oppressed mill workers trudging around, but there’s a rock star, glamorous element.
Of course. If you look at photographs of working class people at that time and talk to people – there’s not many people left alive now – about men in the twenties, women as well but particularly men, they were incredibly clothes-conscious and very conscious of how they looked, especially people who were in the underworld. Shoes were polished so that they shone. Lots of money was spent on clothes. There was a sense that, because life was so hard and so crap, anyone who escaped, escaped immediately into this really glamorous, theatrical world. So pubs were like huge theatres, which is why the old-fashioned Victorian pubs and gin palaces were beautiful, because this environment was a contrast to what they’ve come from. So the glamour was there, and especially in the twenties when everybody was so sick of the First World War. Everybody went a bit mad for about six years.
The idea of glamour becomes problematic though when you’re depicting violence doesn’t it? You’ve talked in the past about having to walk a tightrope in your films between making violence look good but not making it seem too enjoyable?
The thing I always think, in anything that I do, is that violence always has consequences, so make sure you show the consequences. It’s not casual, it doesn’t just go away. If somebody gets cut, they stay cut and they will be cut for the rest of time. These things don’t just come and go. You don’t see people being casually shot in Peaky Blinders. Any violence is earned in the sense that it does make you feel quite squeamish, and that’s the idea.
Continuing with the rock star tone, you’ve chosen some anachronistic music for the soundtrack that really works. Jack White, The Black Keys… and you use a fantastic Nick Cave song for the theme…
Oh he loves it as well, he loves the show.
Nick Cave does? How did that come about? Did you show him it without the music first and ask permission?
We showed him – I think it was episode one – with the music on and said ‘Is it okay?’ and he loved it, he loves the show.
I’m not surprised, it’s up his street.
He’s brilliant, Nick Cave.
The idea of the soundtrack is that the emotion of music is timeless so at that time, that music is appropriate to use. That’s the other thing about writing period stuff. What I’ve tried to do is make the characters modern, because there’s no such thing as non-modern characters. People are people and maybe they have a different culture, but they are as modern in their jealousy and anger and spite and all of those things, they don’t change. So with the music, in order to reflect what’s in the characters’ heads for a modern audience, you need to give them a modern reflection.
Did you ask Jack White directly for permission to use his stuff too?
He loved it as well. I think his suggestion was “Can it be called The Jack White show?”.
This is eventually going to be broadcast in the US. Did you make allowances for that in any way?
No, absolutely lot. I think that’s always a mistake. You do what you do and if people like it, good and if they don’t, well…
With the BBC’s recent The White Queen, the version they saw on Starz in the US apparently had more nudity and longer sex scenes.
More nudity? Yeah, I can see that. American telly is a bit more… I think it’s because they can segregate their audience because of cable.
Let’s talk about the politics in Peaky Blinders. You show the threat of Communist revolution through Freddie’s character. Is that something you particularly wanted to put on screen?
Well at the time, obviously after the First World War, the soldiers came back and the Russian Revolution happened and there was a great deal of paranoia that there was going to be a revolution in England, and people were particularly concerned that gangsters and revolutionaries would come together because gangsters had guns and a lot of our soldiers had brought their own guns back.
Winston Churchill was particularly paranoid, to the extent that in the end, people were questioning his sanity because he was so worried about Bolsheviks. I’ve sort of toned that down a bit, he’s not frothing at the mouth in this, but he was very strident. Of course, you also had the Irish thing going on, so that idea of revolution and rebellion was very close, which also features. Some very good people have made political dramas about the times, and I didn’t really want to make a political drama at all, because the politics are there, but the main character doesn’t want anything to do with it, he sort of sees through it, and that’s how I wanted to play it. It’s another element in the mixture.
On the subject of Tommy. We’ve already mentioned Deadwood, so you have Al Swearington in that, Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell from The Wire, maybe Nucky Thompson from Boardwalk Empire, … is Tommy Shelby the next name in that list?
Do you know – and I’m not just saying this – but I’ve never watched them. I’ve never seen The Wire, I’ve never seen Boardwalk Empire, I’ve never seen any of them.
You’ve deliberately avoided them?
It’s sort of deliberate in that I don’t really want to be looking at other people’s work because it does affect what you do inevitably, but I don’t really watch them, so I don’t know. He probably is [laughs] but I don’t know.
Is it just TV drama you avoid watching?
And film as well. I try not to watch them. I know, it’s very weird. Previously, I’ve always pretended, especially in Hollywood when you go in and they say ‘It’s a film a bit like so and so’ and you go ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah’ and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about’.
I suppose it’s understandable that you might avoid things that could influence or draw your work in a certain direction…
It’s sort of because I also find it hard work.
To watch other people’s stuff?
Yeah, because you end up going ‘Oh right, okay they did that’ and it’s not relaxing at all, it’s really horrible actually [laughs].
Do you find yourself constantly thinking about how you would have done it differently rather than being absorbed in the story?
Yeah, and usually it’s really good as well, especially American stuff, and you think ‘Fuck!’ But no, I don’t watch it. I haven’t seen an episode of any of those.
Well Tommy does fit with the current trend for antihero protagonists. I suppose people like me love seeing patterns in things and putting things in groups, which no doubt really annoys people like you…
No, no, not at all. I think when you look at anything, when you look at literature or film or television or whatever, there are seasons, or types of era, which I think are born more from what’s going on in the world than what’s going on in the media. At a certain time of hardship, certain sorts of heroes appear and when it gets really hard, fantasy starts breaking out all over the place. Do you know what I mean?
There’s been plenty of that lately, with the popularity of superhero films.
Yeah, which I hope is coming to an end [laughs].
So what’s happening in the world today that’s made this type of Tommy Shelby anti-hero, or anti-establishment hero at least, appear?
I think that a while ago, audiences stopped believing in complete heroes.
The sort of lantern-jawed Captain America type?
Yeah. I think that, for a long time, that was fine, but people stopped believing in it.
I think now there’s a tendency to say ‘Right, our hero has got to be really flawed’, and the flawedness of the hero is getting worse and worse. If you take a look at real people and see when they’re good and when they’re bad, it’s fifty fifty, or fifty-five, forty-five. In the end, people are more concerned with whether someone’s doing something for the right reason. Are they doing a bad thing for a good reason?
The Robin Hood thing
Which you sort of had in Hummingbird [Knight’s recent Jason Statham feature]…
Yeah, bless him!
Tommy Shelby’s a charismatic lead, thanks to Cillian and the way you’ve written him. He’s clever, and we like seeing clever people be clever. We’re on his side. But then, we also see him blind people…
Yes, I know. Well, that’s the thing. I hope people don’t think that the intention is to make an unequivocal hero out of somebody who does bad things. It’s just like, look at yourself being on the side of this person because see what else he’s done, and then make people think about that. Tommy’s in a very violent era, and everything has to be put into the context that he’s just come back from a place where a General would order sixty thousand people to be killed in a single morning routinely.
That had sent a lot of those men mad, hadn’t it? There was little understanding of it in those days of course, no PTSD or what have you, no treatment.
No. It was, ‘just get on with it.’
And let the community sort it out.
It was such an epidemic, a really fascinating time. I’m going to deal with it a bit more in the second series, the way that it sort of got worse before it got better. People just didn’t give a shit, they didn’t care, there was a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol, real hedonism, and the violence came with it. Just people who just really didn’t care about life, because they’d got through the First World War and they were so damaged.
Those at home just had no idea either, in the First World War, of what conditions were like with trench warfare and so on…
No. And they didn’t talk about it, that was the thing. It was a point of principle that the soldiers never spoke about it.
Was it deliberate then, that your industrial backdrops in this are bursting with flames and all this black and orange, to reflect that sort of infernal, hellish sense of the war?
Well it is sort of hell. I mean, Birmingham at the time manufactured more goods than Detroit and Chicago; it was the centre of the world in terms of making things and it’s twenty-four hours. The men who worked there worked in unbelievably hard conditions so they would come out and just drink and drink and drink and drink, just to get the crap out of their systems. So we were trying, within the budget we have, to suggest this landscape of constant industry.
How did you go about recreating 1919 Birmingham? Was that a lot of CGI work down by the docks and in the skylines?
We were lucky, a bit of it was CGI but we were lucky to have Stanley Dock in Liverpool, which is this gigantic abandoned dock with loads of empty warehouse space, so it was like a playground to be honest. The skylines have to be done in CGI. I’m sure it’s going to get cheaper, CGI, but it’s very expensive.
You mentioned the second series, that’s all been confirmed then?
Yeah, I mean as far as the BBC ever do, but yeah, we’re pretty safe. I’ve started writing it and it’ll start in 1922 and take us through that year and see Tommy make his next steps.
How far do you see the series running? You’re a busy man, but what’s your long-term aim?
My hope would be to go to the Second World War, that’s long-term. Three series would be great. But I just want to see Tommy become this huge, respectable businessman and see if he can ever escape. Because it’s also about, if you’re born in that environment, can you get out, ever? Can you actually ever escape? And we’ll see. In terms of social class, can he ever be accepted? Obviously racing is one of those places where you’ll see the aristocracy, will he ever be able to break into that world? You have to look at history, it’s very difficult.
Because of your time period – I know you said you don’t watch much television, but you must be aware of Downton Abbey, which takes place at the same time – it’s a facile comparison to make between that and Peaky Blinders, but that won’t stop people from making it.
I’ve never seen it, but I am aware of it. I’m sure Downton Abbey’s really good, because I mean, look how popular it is, people love it.
They love it for its escapism I think. Do you see any escapism in Peaky Blinders?
Maybe. I think a bit like a Western, I think that when you watch Peakies, you get the feeling of a bit of liberty, freedom. I think the reason people like Westerns is that people can do things, then ride off into the sunset with the freedom to do something else, you don’t get the feeling you’re being looked at. In that society, you get the feeling that men can make a decision and do it – women, not so much because of the period – but people can make things happen in their own little worlds.
Mentioning women, Helen McCrory is great as your Shelby family matriarch, Aunt Polly.
She’s so good.
Tell me about her character.
It was a very common thing for there to be a strong woman in any illegal organisation. My dad had an Aunt Pol, so she’s sort of based on a real character. It was also to reflect the fact that when the soldiers came back from the First World War, they found that things were being run quite nicely by women, and it was a real source of trouble. Somebody like Polly, who ran the business perfectly well – probably better – is an interesting character. Polly will come into her own in the second series because as you’ll see later in this first series, she’s got a back story about children who were taken away from her. With an actress like Helen, it’s easy, she’s so good.
For series two and onwards then, is your cast locked down?
Yeah. All the main players are down for it and really enthusiastic and Sam is like, tweeting all over the place in New Zealand about how he can’t wait. Without giving too much away, there’s going to be two new villains in the second series, we’re going to have some good names, good actors to play those.
And you already have those actors in mind?
In my mind.
But not yet on paper?
Yeah, getting there. Getting there.
Anyone you’ve worked with before?
I don’t know yet, we’ll find out. I’d like to work with Tom Hardy again [Knight recently directed Hardy in Locke], he’s fantastic.
You’ve been quite tight-lipped about details on Locke so far, though I understand you went about filming it in a different way to usual, filming it as a play ten times then cutting the best parts of those together?
Yeah, we shot it as a play with Tom, who’s brilliant, he’s fantastic and it works so well. It’s having an astonishing effect on audiences.
What was the thinking behind doing it that way?
I don’t know, it was taking a look at film-making and thinking well, what is the task here? The task is to get a load of people into a room and turn the lights off and make them look at the screen for ninety minutes; what other ways are there of doing it? How can you get them engrossed? This one’s a particular thing when the lights go up, everybody’s crying, which is really good.
I have to ask. Could there be a part for Jason Statham in Peaky Blinders?
We wanted him in the first series.
As which character?
I can’t say, but it was difficult because obviously he’s so committed elsewhere. I’d love him to be in the second series, he’s such a great, great guy.
You don’t have to tell us that on Den of Geek!
He’s such a good bloke and such a nice bloke, as well as all the stuff that goes with it, he’s a really nice bloke.
And a potential for the second series?
Yeah, if he’s not busy.
Finally, tell me about the title, Peaky Blinders. It’s such an odd phrase to get used to, but perfect really because it’s so attention-grabbing and strange, because people haven’t necessarily heard of the gang. I certainly hadn’t.
No of course, even in Birmingham people haven’t heard of them but they were called Peaky Blinders. First of all, at the turn of the century, young tearaways used to put these razor-blades in their hats and they were called Peaky Blinders.
The gang had a particular uniform didn’t it, with the haircuts and scarves.
Yeah, they had all sorts of things. They were immaculately dressed. After the war, these young kids that were causing trouble became more organised and this particular gang were known as the Peaky Blinders.
Was that always going to be your title?
Yes. There was some question about should we change it because nobody knows what it is, but that’s a good thing. That’s the hook.
Steven Knight, thank you very much!
Peaky Blinders starts on BBC Two on Thursday the 12th of September at 9pm. Read our spoiler-free review of episode one, here.
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