Secret Sets

Nicole Northridge and Jonnie Mead reveal the hidden messages in series five

Warning: contains spoilers for series 5

If Nicole Northridge and Jonnie Mead are doing their job right, you won’t know they’ve done it, says Mead. “Our aim is to create something visually stunning that people don’t actually really notice.” On series five of Peaky Blinders, their work was to build the world in which the drama exists, collaborating with the director to create a visual language and atmosphere that enhances but never distracts from the story.

On a monumental drama like Peaky Blinders, known for its dramatic visuals and mythological scale, there’s room for a bit of swagger and symbolism. Production designer Nicole Northridge (whose website before and afters are a treasure trove for Peaky Blinders fans) and set decorator Jonnie Mead talked to Den Of Geek about the hidden messages and Easter Eggs of series five…

‘The swan was the motif for Grace this year’
The green tiles on the wall of the Garrison Tavern snug and in the fireplace of the back room feature pairs of white swans. An original 1920s design, the tiles are part of a visual motif that runs throughout series five. There’s also an abstracted swan on a wall plaque at the Tavern, and swan-shaped food platters on the banquet table at Tommy’s house for the Swan Lake ballet performance.

A real swan was also filmed but later cut from the episode four scene in which Tommy stands on the bridge over the canal contemplating suicide, and has a vision of The January coal barge bearing the half-buried corpse of his dead wife Grace. “We had a swan who swam under the bridge for real with an animal wrangler and then the barge came under with Grace in it. There’s a little clip that’s missing,” says production designer Nicole Northridge.

“The swan was the motif for Grace this year,” she explains. It represents Grace’s purity and elegance, and its repeated appearances across the series reflect the way the Grace is continually playing on Tommy’s mind. “Grace is calling him home, saying. ‘Come and be with me’. It’s pretty chilling with the swan being such a beautiful, iconic animal, that it’s a metaphor for Grace and Tommy’s suicidal thoughts.”


‘The stained glass is a connection to Tommy’s regiment’

The Garrison Tavern set was entirely rebuilt for series five, after being repurposed for other locations after series two and falling into disrepair. The new build came with stained glass windows, included as a nod to the beautiful coloured glass in 1920s Dublin pubs (a reference to the Dublin and Cork backgrounds of director Anthony Byrne, production designer Nicole Northridge and actor-producer Cillian Murphy).

The motif on the windows is a standing bear and ragged staff, the symbol of the Warwickshire Yeomanry –  the army regiment to which Tommy, Arthur and John belonged in WWI. “We wanted it to represent something that was close to Tommy,” says Northridge. “The stained glass is a connection to his regiment.” Its presence is also a reminder that Tommy’s PTSD as a result of the War has never left him, says Northridge. “Though I don’t think anybody clocked it!”

‘The rising sun of hope’
Also incorporated into the stained glass design on the Tavern windows is a rising sun bursting with rays. “One, it’s the 1920s, we’re into the deco period,” says Northridge, “but it’s also the rising sun and rays of hope.”

That’s all part of Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight’s plan to take Tommy Shelby on a journey from PTSD-related numbness back to optimism over the show’s final series. Note that the very first image of series five is a barren, war-like wasteland in which there grows a solitary plant – the literal green shoots of a more hopeful future.

Credit: Nicole Northridge

‘The black horse is haunting Tommy’
The logo for the Shelby Gin Distillery is a white horse, as seen on the bottle label, an etched mirror at The Garrison, and painted on the Tavern’s back wall. It was designed to contrast with the black horse that haunts Tommy through series five. (He shot his racehorse Dangerous in the series opener, and it reappears in the final scene of the series when he holds a gun to his head.) “Shelby Dry Gin, you’re drinking it to get to the bottom,” says Northridge, “where there’s a white horse of hope!”

“In Tommy’s office in parliament,” explains Northridge, “we have that white horse picture behind him, which is connecting to the fact that Tommy’s mother came back with the white pony in that finale conversation with Charlie, and also to where they started with betting and the race courses. He’s a man who doesn’t forget his roots, no matter how high he rises.”

‘Symbols of power’
On Tommy’s desk at his stately home is a golden eagle inkstand flanked by two golden lions, each selected, explains set decorator Jonnie Mead, to represent Tommy’s leadership and power. “He’s being challenged by everyone, by the family and those outside of the family who he fears want to take his crown, so consequently he wants these markers that say ‘I am in charge, I’m the boss. While these things stay on his desk, he is the guy you do not challenge.’

‘…an act of love’
Visible on Tommy’s desk at The Shelby Company is a small brass tin that set decorator Jonnie Mead considers a key prop for the character. In 1914, a Princess Mary Christmas Gift Box containing chocolate and cigarettes was sent to every soldier “wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas day”. This is Tommy’s, brought back from France and kept safe for fifteen years.

“Because Tommy is living in a world where he can’t shake off the memories of his experiences as a tunneller during the war,” explains Mead, “this was a symbol of kindness to the troops that would have been very important to them. It would have been something Tommy received when he was miles from anywhere and really, really suffering, and it was an act of love. I hope that will always be part of his [set] dressing and always remain with him.”

Credit: Nicole Northridge

Glitz, glamour, beauty and danger
Subtly included on fabric and prints in Ada’s beautiful London house, among the lavish Swan Lake banquet tableware and in vases in the backstage dressing rooms of Bingley Hall in series five, fans will see a repeated motif – peacocks and peacock feathers.

If the horse is Tommy’s spirit animal, then the peacock represents the Shelby family as a whole, explains Jonnie Mead. “Peacocks were heavily used in design and print of that time, so it sits very comfortably with that, but there’s just something about the stunning array of feathers, the fact that they strut, the slight arrogance combined with beauty…” The swaggering Shelby family are peacocks, he means? “Exactly. And peacocks also make you a little bit nervous in that they’re incredibly beautiful but you sense a slight unpredictability and danger. It’s not quite ‘spot the peacock’ but we did use that motif a lot!”

Credit Nicole Northridge

‘Alfie is in purgatory, hovering between life and death’
On the floor of Alfie Solomon’s Margate apartment is a tiled mosaic of the word “Lethe”, the river of oblivion in Hades, the underworld in Greek mythology. It was requested by director Anthony Byrne to symbolise Alfie’s otherworldly status as a character who sort of returned from the dead (after being shot by Tommy at the end of series four).

“Alfie is in purgatory effectively,” says Nicole Northridge, “he’s in a state of stasis. He’s hovering between life and death.” The apartment was dressed to reflect a sense of decay, says Northridge, filled with coral and bones and stuffed animals and caged birds, inspired in part by an image from this book. “I wanted a sense of entrapment. Even the paintings and pictures on the wall had a sense of decay. It was a room that was once splendid and grand and now it’s really frayed. Lethe also means concealment and forgetfulness, so it’s almost as though Alfie’s trapped in the room that time forgot.”

“Bring it back to The Godfather”
Tommy’s office at the Shelby Company was designed by Grant Montgomery and his team for series two, “very much modelled on The Godfather,” says Northridge. Back then, there was even a bowl of oranges included to evoke their ominous death-signalling significance in Francis Ford Coppola’s film trilogy. The repeated horse motif, both black and white, contribute to that homage and in series five, the oranges also made a comeback, not that you can see them in the final cut.

“When the journalist got shot in the lift [in the series five opener], he walked in carrying a paper bag,” Northridge tells Den Of Geek. “That bag was full of oranges. We wanted to bring it back to The Godfather again, without being too obvious about it, because it was that sort of violence.”

“A lot of the references we had were from Road To Perdition”
Sam Mendes’ 1930s-set mob movie Road To Perdition, starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law and Daniel Craig, provided some of the lighting inspiration for the look of series five. “What we loved about that film was the focused light on specific areas, and the richness of colour and detail in the dressing, alongside the simplicity of the composition of the shots and how cinematic they were,” says Northridge. “There’s a dedicated website just to screenshots of it, and you might be able to see the [series five] similarity.”

Richard II and Sigmund Freud
“You’ll notice on desks where Tommy’s working, under the paperwork, there’ll always be a book open to suggest that he’s been reading. They’re sort of buried under paper,” says Mead. “That was in stage directions from Steven [Knight], it was a particular thing that this series, Tommy was studying.” In particular, he’s reading Freud’s Interpretation Of Dreams and Shakespeare’s Richard II, the first for obvious Black Cat-related reasons and the second as it’s a play about a king who is usurped, reflecting his own fears.

“Cillian [Murphy] likes a busy desk because he likes to work with props and he always likes to be doing something,” says Mead. “He’ll always be smoking, obviously, but he’ll also always be reading something or touching something or putting something away and under all of it you will find books.”

‘Nowhere to escape from his own mind’
While mirrors were used in connection with Oswald Mosley’s character to reflect his extreme narcissism, for Tommy Shelby they meant something else. In the Bingley Hall dressing room, Tommy was reflected on both sides, creating a hall of mirrors effect says Northridge. “It’s so he can’t escape his own mind,” explains Northridge. “It’s just confusion and chaos, which is why we wanted that layering of reflections going on for infinity. He’s finally met the man he can’t defeat – or understand – and it’s himself.”

Peaky series five Easter Eggs and Trivia
– In the script, Aberama Gold was supposed to crash through the roof of the Chinatown house in the series opener, but the location was a National Heritage property and they couldn’t make serious alterations. Instead, a lathe and plaster wall was built for Aberama to burst through – actor Aiden Gillen nailed it on the first take.
– On the chalkboard behind Finn in his Small Heath office are written the names of race horses, many of which have narrative significance. One is ‘Golden Brown’, a reference to the family’s opium deal this series.
– The green tiles behind Aberama Gold in hospital were painted wallpaper as the budget couldn’t stretch to tiling the room.
– Aberama’s hospital set was repurposed as the Quaker meeting house where Arthur attacked Linda’s friend, and then recycled again into Alfie Solomons’ Margate apartment.
– The ‘A. Byrne Grocer’ shop sign glimpsed outside Bingley Hall in the finale is a nod to director Anthony Byrne.
– The sign for W. Northridge and Son Builders seen in the exterior of the Shelby Co. office is a tribute to the production designer’s father, a builder by trade.

Credit: Nicole Northridge

– The dramatic, abstract lighting in the Commons Chamber set at the Houses of Parliament was in part a nod to Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour film about Churchill in WWII, and partly a canny budget save to avoid building more of the set than would be seen.
– The Commons Chamber benches were repurposed for the gallery set where Ada watched Tommy give a parliamentary speech.
– In Monte Carlo, after she learns that they’ve lost a vast sum in the stock market crash, Polly steals a silver statue from her hotel room that later turns up in Ada’s apartment – a gift from Aunt Pol.
– Oswald Mosley’s lightning strike within a shield fascist symbol was designed by the art team to resemble the real British Union of Fascists logo, which couldn’t be cleared for copyright reasons.
– While the other characters take opium and cocaine from plain bottles, Polly’s are always ornately decorated with silver carvings and stoppers. “You go up a stage for Polly,” says Mead, “it’s always that bit more decorative and beautiful”.
– Arthur’s reluctance to embrace change and modernity is reflected in his home. Despite having a new house for series five, fans will spot the same crucifixes, photos and pictures that he’s had on show for years. “He’s not about moving forward,” says Mead. “He still wants to hold onto the Shelbys as they were.”
– The positioning of the Shelby men’s portraits in the company boardroom is significant as a visual demonstration of Tommy’s power over, and in series five, distance from, Arthur and Michael.
– There’s a “family tree of guns” says Mead, a hierarchy ensuring that Tommy always carried the weapon with the most authority compared to the rest of the Shelbys.

– The film posters decorating the corridors of Bingley Hall (actually Stockport Plaza) were created by graphic designer Rebecca Rose Carey and assistant Andrew Berry, based on real films of the period and deliberately featuring traditionally Jewish names as a visual fight back to Mosley’s vile antisemitism.
– The gold paint used in the show is called ‘Peaky Gold’ and mixed by Bristol Paints. Gold and deep red are recurring colours throughout, especially in The Garrison Tavern where the red symbolises the pub’s warmth and womb-like significance to the family, as well as the blood in which they are bathed.

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