Steven Knight on Tommy Shelby

‘It was all blasted out of Tommy by the war’

The Peaky Blinders creator on Tommy’s mental health journey and series five’s cliffhanger ending. Interview by Louisa Mellor.

When Tommy Shelby held a gun to his head in the series five finale, it wasn’t the first time, says Steven Knight. Tommy came back from the First World War changed. Though physically whole, mentally he was as ravaged as his brothers-in-arms Barney Thompson and Danny Whizz-Bang, two soldiers who returned from France in body but not in mind.

That’s why the men Tommy served with – the tunnelling clay-kickers, machine gunners and snipers of the Warwickshire Yeomanry – are the only people he trusts. Only they understand the blood and dust and flames raging behind those still blue eyes.

Knight gives Peaky Blinders TV a glimpse inside Tommy’s head.

How was Tommy changed by his experiences fighting in the First World War? 

Tommy came back from the war pretty much prepared to be dead. I always imagined that just before the series began, he’d put a gun to his head but decided ‘I might as well carry on, why not?’ There’s a line by the artist Francis Bacon, ‘It’s all so meaningless, we may as well be extraordinary’. That’s completely what Tommy is at the beginning.

The war was still going on in Tommy’s head

When he got back from the war, the war was still going on in his head. Imagine you’ve been in an environment where you pull a trigger on a machine gun and kill 20 people in 10 seconds, and then you get home and get told human life is precious… He carried on with the war, like a lot of people did, inside.

It shut him down emotionally? 

During really horrific war situations, human beings change very quickly. Some part of the subconscious decides ‘If you’re going to survive, you’ve got to be like this’ so that’s who you become – hard and brutal and all of those things that happen to soldiers. When Tommy got back, he couldn’t stop that. He was frozen inside, like a lot of people who’ve suffered the trauma of war.

Tommy was locked up and frozen inside for a long time. Then he met Grace and she changed things, she unlocked the doors a bit. Then as soon as that happens, it gets closed down again because she gets killed.

What I keep doing with these characters is offering them a road to happiness and then blowing the bridge up and not letting them go down it. Polly too, would have been happy perhaps with Aberama, but then he’s taken away from her as well.

Grace was Tommy’s unearned saviour

Is there special significance to Grace’s name? 

Yes. She was exactly that, the old Puritan Christian concept of grace – whether you’re good or not, sometimes somebody comes to you and saves you, even if you don’t deserve it. The idea of an unearned saviour coming to save you is exactly what Grace was, and Tommy sort of didn’t deserve it. Then she was taken away so he was thrown back.

And in series five, vision-Grace is no longer a saviour for Tommy? 

No, she’s the opposite now. She’s trying to get him over the line, trying to get him to stop, to end it. You could argue maybe she’s doing him a favour by doing that.

In the series five finale where Tommy shoots the bartender and his hand starts to shake and Arthur starts crying, what’s happening inside their heads? 

That scene is a very specific moment when Tommy and Arthur are doing things they’ve always done and they suddenly feel ‘Oh my God, I’m a human being again, and I’ve got to do this?. It’s like the automaton that they were has gone, they don’t have that anymore, they’re having to actually do it themselves. That’s why they react the way they do.

So Tommy’s emotions are gradually thawing?

Tommy doesn’t have the luxury of being numb anymore

He’s in limbo in a way. He doesn’t have the luxury of being numb anymore, so he’s starting to feel things. It’s like if you’ve been to the dentist and the novocaine is wearing off. His previous method was shutting everything down and just going from moment to moment with the only thing being ‘more power, more money’. As the painkiller wears off, he starts to feel things and starts to remember things and as a consequence of that, he is in trouble.

I did some work with people who were in Afghanistan and Iraq and talked to them about how many years it takes for things to start churning around again. That’s happening to Tommy, all the images of war.

At the end of [series] five, he’s on the verge of deciding it would be better if he wasn’t there. Because the thing that he planned, the evil that he was facing, has apparently won and he’s left with only himself. That’s why I ended it with that moment.

With all the smoke in that scene and the black horse and the vision of Grace, does the ending take place in the physical world or the spiritual realm? 

No, that’s the real world. Tommy sees Grace and he’s between two worlds, as he is often, sometimes as a consequence of drugs. I’ve always wanted within Peaky Blinders to treat Gypsy spirituality as real, it’s not just hallucination. In a certain way, it’s a different reality. He’s in between the real world and a different one.

What’s behind the symbolism of the black horse Tommy sees in that moment and throughout?  

I grew up with horses. My dad was a farrier so I was around horses a lot. There’s something very ancient about the mythology of horses, especially in Britain. Amongst Gypsies, horses are still the currency and wealth, they’re still kept and valued and traded.

In series two, Tommy’s got some medicine and somebody says ‘That’s for horses’ and he says ‘I am a horse’ and in a way, he is. It’s about him wanting to escape in the way of the horse, not having the intricacies of being human but running out there, that’s what he wants. A lot of people who own horses have dreams where they become horses. It’s a common theme and that’s what I wanted with him.

For Tommy, that’s as close as it gets to religion

Good and bad, right and wrong seem to be blurred in Tommy’s world because he blurred them himself. He does bad things, he does wrong things. But there’s the black horse and the white horse. In other words, ultimately there is good and bad, there is right and wrong, there is life and death. They represent the idea that somewhere there is some certainty. For Tommy, that’s as close as it gets to religion.

He certainly doesn’t have a bible on his bedside table. In series five, he had Shakespeare and Sigmund Freud though. 

Yes, and Carl Jung. You’ll see lots of books around in the next series. This is the era of analysis. Tommy reads Macbeth and King Lear. I think he finds more in Shakespeare than he does in Freud.

I’ve written a couple of scenes which we’ve never shot of Tommy trying to go to a psychiatrist, which I think are interesting. I might bring them back. Analysis isn’t enough for him, even though he’s so ripe for some Freudian analysis with his mother and all of that. For him, it’s not something that you resolve by studying scientifically.

It was all blasted out of Tommy by the war

Before the War Tommy was… not an artist, but spiritual. He got everything from nature and horses and the countryside and wilderness. That’s who he is really. It was all blasted out of him by the war. He’s much more interested in mythology as a way of explaining things than he is in teasing everything apart with tweezers and trying to find out what’s connected to what, which I don’t think he’s got time for.

How does Tommy’s work as an MP change him? 

He says to himself that he wants political power so that he can take advantage of that power to build wealth for himself and be corrupt, but when he gets the political power, he starts to believe the things he was saying for effect, it starts to become true.

Usually the story we’re told is ‘power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’ but you’re showing the opposite? 

Totally the opposite, exactly that. I’m probably in a minority of one in believing in politicians. The ones I’ve met, whenever I’ve worked with them, could be earning a lot more money elsewhere. That’s not necessarily true in the 1930s by the way!

Politicians and people who work for the local council, people who put themselves out for the good of the community – something I could never do – they are really unsung heroes. Everybody loves to have a go and attack them and say they’re corrupt but they’re not. I wanted to show the opposite.

Redemption through public service? 

Yeah. That’s happened, it’s happened throughout history. Look at Kennedy. How did JFK get to power? Rumour has it – loads of corruption, lots of votes being bought, his old man trying to get him into power so he could take advantage, and then when Kennedy gets into power he starts doing good things.

The ultimate corrupt person decides he wants to do good

I wanted to have the ultimate corrupt person given power and suddenly decide he wants to do good with it.

Finally, how does fatherhood affect Tommy? 

It’s okay to say ‘I don’t give a toss if I get killed, it doesn’t bother me’, but when you have kids it’s different, because then it’s not just you, it’s them. You’ve got to think of somebody else and that completely changes how Tommy works. It’s like he’s a sprinter who’s got this weight on his leg and he’s got to think about it. That changes everything.

Coming soon from Steven Knight:
Peaky Blinders and 1930s populism: ‘It’s all happening now just as it was then.’

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