What we learned visiting the set of Peaky Blinders series 2

In May, Juliette went on the set of superlative BBC 2 gangster drama Peaky Blinders to see what series 2 has in store...

Warning: contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders series one.

The world’s foremost gangster drama set in early 20th-century Birmingham returns to our screens this October. Here’s what we learned about series 2 on our visit to the set.

1. The series is moving forward into the 1920s

The extras we see working on our visit are all dressed in dapper 1920s outfits, not quite flapper style, but clearly not far off. Series 2 has jumped on three years from series 1, and is set in 1922, the era of jazz music and cocaine. Asked whether the series will continue to jump forward in time if it continues beyond series 2, Producer Laurie Borg told us it probably will, perhaps jumping another three or four years if series 3 goes ahead. “I suspect [Steven Knight, the writer] will want to end up doing the prohibition era, and then the Depression was ’29. I don’t think you could take this into the ‘40s and ‘50s, I don’t think it would hold up. I think there’s a point where that’s it.”

For now, though, we’re firmly ensconced at the beginning of the Jazz Age.

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2. The Shelbys are making more money, so their world is richer and more sophisticated

“Now about two and half years have passed”, Borg tells us, “in that period [Tommy Shelby’s] got more successful. And that is shown by him having his own legal office.” The main office in Watery Lane has been expanded, Production Designer Grant Montgomery tells us. “Up until now it was only about three houses, they’ve expanded into six houses, so they’ve knocked it through and they’ve built a bar, they’ve built more offices, and they’ve built a safe cell where they keep all their money – and they’re making a lot of money”. One indication of all this wealth will be much swankier sets, frequently decorated with gold – at one point, the crew used 30 gallons of gold paint for the ceiling of a single set.

 

3. The dodgy hair cuts and flat caps are still around, though

While we saw men in boaters and ladies in straw hats wandering around the set, the Shelbys’ characteristic hair cuts are still in place, and we’re assured their flat caps haven’t disappeared either. “[Tommy’s] clothes are a bit more stylish,” Borg says, “but they’ve all got the hats!”

 

4. If the first season was a British Western, the second is a British gangster movie

“This is The Godfather,” says Borg. Although he notes that there are still some moments that feel a bit Western, it’s the great gangster movies of the 1970s and 1980s that have inspired cast and crew on this season. “We’ve looked at films like Once Upon A Time In America, The Godfather, films that resonate from a certain period of film-making, the 70s.”

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5. We’ll still see horses, but more often on the racetrack than in the streets

We’re on set to see cast and crew filming a scene set in a betting enclosure at the Derby, and the buying and selling of racehorses will be a recurring theme this year. We might not see Tommy Shelby riding around on horses quite so much this season, Montgomery tells us, but buying racehorses will be an important part of his business dealings.

 

6. The world of the series is expanding

“I think the stories are much more complex” says Borg of this year’s scripts. “It takes you to all different places, and that makes it a much bigger event. You feel that you’re in a much bigger world.” Montgomery agrees, adding, “I think period dramas can sometimes be quite precious, but this – you can be bolder with it, you can be dramatic, [take] a very broad brush kind of approach to it and be quite big with it, which is exciting.” The series is certainly expanding in terms of sheer people power, with 76 cast members in speaking roles, as opposed to series 1’s 37.

 

7. It’s also getting bloodier

“I think it has a high energy, a garish kind of energy to it,” says Montgomery of this second season. “It has a high intensity. I would say that it’s bolder, it’s slightly bigger, and it’s bloodier. There’s a high body count this series, and I think that’s great for a gangster picture.”

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8. We’ll be moving out of Birmingham to the Big Smoke

If there’s one word that on everyone’s lips on set, that word is ‘London’. The Shelbys’ expansion plans don’t stop at a few houses on Watery Lane and some property in Bourneville – they’re taking on the big boys in the great metropolis. “The London exteriors are quite ‘wow’,” says Montgomery, “I think they’re fantastic. Which we shot in Bolton, which was hilarious. You’d never think you could find London in Bolton but you can.”

 

9. But Birmingham is still at the heart of the show

Those of us who appreciated the series’ fresh look and location take heart, as however much time we spend in London, Birmingham is still the boys’ home. Bolton may have become London, but other exterior filming locations in Dudley and at the Black Country Living Museum reflect the setting rather more closely.

 

10. We’ll meet some significant new characters, some played by well-known faces…

Tom Hardy and Game Of Thrones’ Noah Taylor join the cast this season as big names in the London underworld. “Tom came in because of Locke, with Steve, but also because of us,” says Borg. “I think he just loved the idea of doing something that is gangster-y, with Cillian.” We’ll be introduced to the Sabini gang, who are historical characters – Italian and Jewish gangsters based out of London’s Little Italy who ran racehorse protection rackets in the early 1920s. “Tom plays this hairy Jewish gang leader,” says Borg, “with his big beard.”

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11. …others less well known.

18-year-old Finn Cole, in his acting debut, plays a new character of his own age, a member of the family who shakes things up considerably on arrival. “It’s the right time to start drinking,” Cole observes, “to start living the Peaky lifestyle.”

His character isn’t used to how the family does things and they aren’t used to him, but he learns to fit in. “He’s quite a cool customer,” says Cole, “so he fits in very quickly. He’s not used to what the gang is used to, he doesn’t know what’s going on a lot of the time, he doesn’t know the rules, but he learns it very quickly. He wants to learn and he wants to be a part of it and he thinks it’s really cool. And that’s what being a Peaky’s about. I think he fits in very well. He’s a lot like Tommy.” However well he manages to settle in, though, there’s still a lot of potential for trouble, as Cole notes that his character “has, you could say, psychopathic tendencies. The kid is obviously missing something out of his normal life.”

 

12. There is a long-term plan for the series

“I think Steven has plotted out the next series,” says Borg. “I can’t tell you what it is! We have so many twists and turns – it’s quite shocking, what happens. You’re thinking, how do we cope with that in terms of the next series?” Cillian Murphy tells us confidently that Knight has got his story mapped out up until the beginning of World War Two, “so we’ve got a long way to go!”

 

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13. Actors and audience alike are drawn to Cillian Murphy as Tommy

“I think Cillian has invested so much time into this character,” Borg tells us. “Cillian is the key component. People love Tommy Shelby. They love Cillian. He gets himself into such a mess in this series, and he’s trying to cope with it all and keep himself on an even keel, and [Cillian] does it so beautifully. Without Cillian you don’t have a show.”

For Cole, coming in to his first acting job, working with actors like Murphy, Helen McCrory and Sam Neill was clearly a positive experience. When asked whether it was intimidating to work with such big names, his answer is clear. “Definitely not intimidating, no. It’s brilliant! Even watching those guys is awesome. And you learn a lot with them. There are so many completely different styles of acting on set as well, so many different characters, and it’s awesome to watch Sam Neill’s character who’s very, very straight and Tommy’s character, who doesn’t give anything away, and Helen’s character who goes through a lot in this series, and then there’s Paul Anderson’s character that is really big and flamboyant but is very, very emotional as well. Intimidating would be the wrong word, exciting I think is what I’d say.”

 

14. We’ll see more of the show’s female cast this year

Well see more women in this series, with some minor characters from series 1 returning in big and unexpected ways. We’ll also see plenty more of Helen McCrory’s Polly, whose family and business life is becoming ever more complicated. McCrory herself has loved the experience – she tells us it’s one of “the best parts [she’s] ever played”.

 

15. Cast and crew alike are huge fans of Steven Knight’s script

Everyone we talked to was thrilled with Steven Knight’s script for series 2, with Borg telling us, “Steve’s writing is quite wonderful”. When McCrory is asked whether she thinks Murphy should have won a BAFTA for last year, she says she was “very surprised” that he wasn’t recognised, but adds “and Sam Neill – I thought Sam Neill was just shit-hot in the last series. But there’s only four nominees and there’s only one gong. I think it’s a terrible shame that they weren’t at least mentioned in the line-up. I think it was wonderful that Otto [Bathurst, who won at the BAFTA Television Craft Awards for Director – Fiction] got a nod. But Steve Knight… do writers get BAFTAs?” (There is an award for Writer – Drama at the BAFTA Television Craft Awards, won by Dominic Mitchell for In the Flesh in 2014. Peaky Blinders also won for Photography and Lighting and was nominated for Production Design, Sound – Fiction and Special, Visual and Graphic Effects).

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16. The series will continue to have a cinematic feel to it

“It really does feel like we’re shooting cinema here,” says Borg. “These are some big sets. We’re making films. It’s telly, but it’s very high-end telly and I think the one thing we set out to do was to create something that has a quality to it, and I think we’ve really kept that.” When it’s observed that the show is very stylish, where British dramas tend to be really good at squalor, Borg agrees; “Squalor or the Downton Abbey syndrome, which is kind of the antipathy of where we are.” “It’s big,” Montgomery agrees, “I love that about the series. It has that cinematic quality to it, I think that’s what’s key about it. It does wear its ambition on its sleeve.”

Peaky Blinders series two starts on Thursday the 2nd of October on BBC Two.