The Peaky Blinders creator on why the world loves the Shelby family. Interview by Louisa Mellor.
‘I always say this’ starts Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, lining up a now-familiar catchphrase, ‘but I think this will be the best series yet.’
The best, and the most disrupted. Days before filming on series six was due to begin, the global pandemic forced a shutdown. The new series has evolved as a result, explains Knight, speaking from his Gloucestershire farm. ‘We’ve had to change a few things because of actors’ schedules. I’ve been through the scripts, so some things have changed, I think, for the better.’
‘Obviously the main concern is for everybody’s safety. Once we’re certain that we can make the show and keep everybody safe, we’ll start.’
Knight tells Peaky Blinders TV why the series is his proudest and most personal project, the question he wrote it to answer and why we love the Shelbys despite them doing really bad things.
Which films and books have influenced your writing on Peaky Blinders?
I’m influenced by Westerns. I like the way that Westerns explore a sort of corrupt chivalry and tell the stories of the outlaw. Or of the sheriff fighting the outlaw, but it’s about breaking the rules, being beyond the frontier.
The Searchers is one of my favourite films
The only time we’d go to the cinema with my dad was to see the John Wayne Westerns and it was great. The Searchers [1956, dir. John Ford] is one of my favourite films. There’s something buttoned-down and unemotional about it, but it’s really big. Instead of emotion you’ve got fantastic landscapes. It’s almost projecting the other stuff onto the environment. In Peaky there’s a lot of smoke and flames and fire and it’s like hell, so nobody has to talk about hell. It’s out there.
In terms of books, I really like Russian literature – Dostoyevsky. In Russian literature there is a sort of… not nihilism, but there’s a tendency to have heroes who don’t care if they live or die and that’s what I find interesting.
And anybody who writes a thing about a crime family that isn’t influenced by The Godfather is an idiot, because it’s brilliant.
And growing up in Small Heath, Birmingham, your own family history is another influence on the show?
Oh yeah. A lot of stories told to me by my family and people I met when I was a kid, the way they talked and acted.
From the beginning, Peaky is almost the recollections of someone who experienced something as a child, that’s how I always see it. A kid remembering something that happened when they were young. Everything’s bigger and better and the suits are smarter and the pub is a cathedral. When you see it for real, it’s not that, but that’s how I wanted it to feel.
The way I write is a bit like dreaming
This many series in, how do you approach writing for your characters and cast?
The way I write is a bit odd. I try not to think too consciously about it, I try to just see what comes out, it’s almost like letting your fingers write the script. I’m not really sitting at the keyboard thinking ‘this is what I must do with Polly,’ it’s a bit more subconscious than that. It’s a bit like dreaming in a way.
I have a vague idea of where the plot’s going to go, but the most important thing is that I really know the characters very well, so I tend to let them get on with it and talk to each other. Then you read their conversation and sometimes the conversation changes the plot.
It’s ‘Tommy has said this. I know what Arthur’s going to say. And when Arthur says that, I know exactly what Tommy’s going to say, and if Tommy says that, Polly’s going to butt in and put them both right’. You know how that triangle works so that’s the structure.
Why do you think that central triangle of Tommy, Polly and Arthur resonates with fans?
They’re bad people, but they’re our bad people
I find it very odd [laughs] because they do really bad things but people warm to them.
I think it’s single-minded loyalty to a cause, which is the family. Somebody in series one said ‘They’re bad people, but they’re our bad people. They do bad things for us.’
Also, we believe that they’re doing bad things for a good reason. I don’t think Tommy or Arthur – with exceptions – have ever done anything purely vindictively, purely for the pleasure of doing a bad thing, they don’t do that. It may not be an acceptable reason, but there’s always a reason.
And they’re effective, that’s the other thing. It’s like in Westerns, Tommy and Arthur and Polly together win. They win against the odds, against stronger opposition they win, and that’s a thing people admire.
You say that, but Tommy didn’t win against Oswald Mosley at the end of series five.
You’ll see [laughs].
What is it about those relationships that makes them fascinating to write?
It’s a series of disjointed things that resemble something but aren’t it. The older brother is Arthur, but the older brother in the relationship is Tommy. Immediately, that’s not how you would expect it to be.
Imagine if Tommy was the elder brother and Polly was their mum
Polly is a mother-figure, but she’s not Tommy’s mother so you can’t resort to what mother-and-son or older-brother-and-younger-brother normally do. It’s continually having to improvise in terms of the relationships, because there’s no set format for that.
Imagine if Tommy was the elder brother and Polly was their mum, it would be totally different. There would be things that would just have to happen in terms of dialogue. By mixing that around, it changes everything and opens the door to all sorts of possibilities.
Is there a main theme you wanted to explore in writing the show?
In terms of the whole thing? ‘Is it possible for people from the background that the Shelbys are from to escape?’ Can they become what would be called ‘respectable’ or accepted?
By the end of series four, Tommy has learned that he can’t escape where he’s from and who he is, so he’s carrying on almost to prove a point. He wants to make as much money as he can, to get as rich as he can. It’s a very familiar path trodden by working class entrepreneurs in English history for 300 years.
I like the supernatural element. ‘Is Tommy cursed?’
I also like the supernatural element. ‘Is Tommy cursed?’ In other words, is everything predestined, are lives already mapped out? Do you have free will or not?
Tommy sometimes feels that he doesn’t because it seems that everything is destined to stop him or move him in a particular direction. It’s the same with the whole family. I explore that more in the next series.
It’s also a family without a father. Their father came back but is gone. Michael doesn’t have a father, he has Tommy. There’s a great Dostoyevsky line [The Brothers Karamazov, pub. 1880] saying ‘Who doesn’t want to kill their father?’ [laughs]. There’s a lot of that going on.
Peaky Blinders is no longer only a TV show, it’s also a festival, a video game, a clothing line, a beer…
Some people were doing their own unofficial merchandise, and we decided we needed to launch our own legitimate, curated merchandise and events. It has been really successful and there’s more to come.
Because of the internet, you have this fanbase that talks to each other and communicates their feelings about the show, so why not give them things to watch and listen to and play? It helps feed back into the show and the show helps feed back into that. I think that’s the future of TV.
How much are you plugged into that online fandom?
I do read stuff on the internet. I look online to see what people are saying, especially when the series is on because what you want is to start a conversation that carries on between episodes. I think it’s fantastic. I love it. The fan art and the tattoos are just amazing.
What makes you proudest about the show?
It’s the way people have taken to it. The international audience that all get it. Birmingham, 1920s, gangsters… it doesn’t immediately sound like an international franchise.
I couldn’t give a comprehensive explanation of why it’s become so popular, even in places where there’s no familiarity with this world.
It’s not because it’s been marketed to death. It’s been discovered
The best thing is it’s not because it’s been marketed to death, it’s not because millions of dollars have been spent. It’s been discovered. Netflix don’t release the figures, but they are astonishing for Peaky in America.
It’s found its own audience and the audience have stuck with it and when you’re writing, it gives you energy to know that that’s out there.
How does it feel now when you watch the finished episodes?
It’s like seeing your kid do well in a concert
A lot of things you watch and go ‘aghh’ and die inside because it isn’t what you meant. That can happen quite often but it never happens with Peaky.
With Peaky, because it’s the most personal project I do, you feel as if the lines are yours, and the movement and the action is yours, so when you see it being done really well, it’s like… seeing your kid do well in a concert. Because it’s in the hands of people who are making it really good. I always feel that.
Coming soon from Steven Knight:
‘The series, beginning to end, is an exploration of Tommy becoming human again after being dehumanised in the War.’
Peaky Blinders and 1930s populism: ‘It’s all happening now just as it was then.’