Peaky Blinders: behind the scenes with creator Steven Knight

Peaky Blinders, the violent BBC drama of gangsters set in 1920s Birmingham, has won the award for Best Drama at the British Academy Television Awards 2018. Here we look back at our interview with the show's creator, Steven Knight, who in 2016 on the eve of series three told BBC History Magazine's TV editor, Jonathan Wright, about the real-life inspiration for the series and the historical research that underpins it...

(BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)

Q: We left Tommy Shelby, not for the first time, in a bit of a pickle last time around. What’s the overarching story in series three?

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A: He’s always in a pickle! In this series, he and the other members of the family have a lot of money and they’re getting richer, but it’s not solving their latest problems. As Tommy tries to get legitimate, everybody is trying to escape where they came from in their different ways. Series three is a study in ‘can they get away’? Can they escape from what seems to be their destiny?

Q: That’s a classic gangster narrative, yet it’s not often told in relation to UK gangsters. Why don’t we tell these stories more often in Britain?

A: It’s not just a British thing, it’s a European thing. The very first things that were written in America were on the assumption that this was paradise. Cotton Mather [Puritan minister and author, 1663– 1728] and the Puritans wrote believing they were in the promised land. Everything they saw was God’s work, and Europe was bad and old, so I think the narrative of America is that what happens here is worthy of mythology.

This was an even greater influence on me than gangster films. [Think of] westerns, where they’re telling the story of 19th-century agricultural labourers, cowboys. These are people who were employed to herd cows from one place to another, and their story has become [part of] the mythology of the western world. Americans have done that to something mundane.

In Europe, I believe, our mythologising was done with knights and chivalry. We don’t really do that anymore. I don’t believe [this is] the result of anything other than timidity on our part. The stories in Peaky Blinders are based on what was told to me when I was a kid, and they were stories of things that happened to my parents when they were kids. They saw all of that through children’s eyes, which makes everything more mythological – everything a bit darker, and brighter, and better. I was a kid when I heard the stories [secondhand] and they were double-mythologised.

I deliberately chose in that first-ever series to keep the mythology there, not to say, “Let’s make it gritty and urban, isn’t it a shame”. Why? That’s why the first scene in the [very] first episode is Tommy on a horse riding into town, which is the start of any western. That was the point: I wanted to reference westerns.

Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson), Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), Finn Shelby (Harry Kirton). (BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)

Q: The First World War shapes Tommy and his family. What impact did it have?

A: Historically, before the First World War happened, there was a feeling within Europe and America that science was going to solve everything. Everything was getting better: diseases were one by one being eradicated, life was getting easier and houses were getting warmer. All of the terrible problems of the 19th century and before, science seemed to be mopping them up; technology seemed to be getting rid of them.

Then the First World War came along and the same technology was suddenly blowing people to pieces; it was mass murder – gas that kills people, machines that run you over and squash you into mud.

At the end of that, part of the disillusionment was with modernity, if you like. With Tommy, he wants to get on a horse, he wants to be around horses because that’s the old way. That’s why I like the gypsy element [of the series] because they’re in gypsy culture. They’re in a timeless set of rules, a set of expectations and a sort of chivalry, especially among men, that Tommy is a part of. I hope, underneath all the stuff that happens, somewhere there is a virtue, which is: “I have to protect the family”.

Q: That’s a very difficult line to walk in terms of not over-glamorising violence. How much research did you do into post-traumatic conditions?

A: By chance, I’d just written and directed a film with Jason Statham about someone who came back from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress, so I spent some time with Royal Marines who were all suffering and had all been in prison for crimes they committed after they returned. Some were wounded. I talked to them about it and their ways of coping. A lot of them said they would sit and replay and replay and replay particularly horrible incidents in their heads and they would suddenly become conscious they’d been doing this for about six hours back and forth.

It’s very odd. They also said it gave them – and none of them could explain it – an inability to walk past what they thought was injustice. You’d think it would be the opposite. They’d say if they saw a big person picking on a small person, they’d just go and beat him up. One of them told me that he was in a bar and he blacked out. The next thing he knew he was covered in blood and he’d just beaten the hell out of a policeman. He didn’t know why, he didn’t even remember meeting the policeman.

Their minds were so broken, and I wanted to put all of that into the [Peaky Blinders] brothers, especially Arthur [Shelby] and Tommy.

Linda Shelby (Kate Phillips) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson). (BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)

Q: You’ve told us about how your family told stories of Birmingham gangsters. How did you go about building on these family stories?

A: One of the stories that really made me want to write Peaky Blinders is one my dad told me: he said that when he was eight or nine his dad gave him a message on a piece of paper and said “go and deliver this to your uncles”. His uncles were the Sheldons, who eventually became the Shelbys [in Peaky Blinders]. Even though the history books say the peaky blinders were only around until the 1890s, they weren’t – people in Small Heath knew these people as peaky blinders.

My dad was told to go and deliver this message, so he ran through the streets barefoot, knocked on the door, the door opened and there was a table with about eight men sitting around it, immaculately dressed, wearing caps and with guns in their pockets. The table was covered with money – at a time when no-one had a penny – and they were all drinking beer out of jam jars because these men wouldn’t spend money on glasses or cups. Just that image – smoke, booze and these immaculately dressed men in this slum in Birmingham – I thought, that’s the mythology, that’s the story, and that’s the first image I started to work with.

Q: Were these ‘uncles’ blood relatives?

A: Yes, they were my dad’s mum’s brothers. Then, because I had these stories in my head for years and years, when I decided to do Peaky Blinders I thought I’d better look it up and see what really happened. And of course, it was much more violent than I’d been told. When you’re a kid they keep bad things away from you.

I read about the racetrack gangs, [gang leader] Billy Kimber and the fights with London gangs. That’s when I started to fit this together, but I always gave priority to the stories I’d been told rather than what the books said, because I think people who write history look for patterns and they look for order, and they look for things that would make sense. In reality, a lot of the stuff that happens makes no sense; there is no pattern.

Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and Duchess Tatania Petrovna (Gaite Jansen). (BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)

Q: There are connections between Birmingham and London gangsters in Peaky Blinders, but presumably these stories must carry on – eventually you must be able to trace lines to 1960s gangsters? To what extent is there a kind of secret history of Britain here?

A: Absolutely. The tradition is still around, especially in Birmingham. There is a long line of families that formed into gangs, and rivalries and alliances inevitably formed. And it goes back to the 19th century as well. It is absolutely a secret history, because, if you go back 100 years, for some reason [history] seems to have to be either politics or the aristocracy, or the general condition of the working class – in other words, how awful it was, or rickets, or the housing situation.

History is never a specific analysis of a particular family or a particular person, plus the things that went on in Small Heath [Birmingham], for example, wouldn’t make the papers. The papers would never have written about things going on there because it wasn’t considered newsworthy, it was considered to be “other” to the people who wrote things down. And that’s the point: [the criminals and those who lived in Small Heath] didn’t write things down, so their history doesn’t really get told.

I love the things [this kind of history] throws up: Charlie Chaplin was born in a gypsy camp, for example. It is the oddest thing, that Charlie Chaplin was reputed to have been born in London. In fact, there was a person from Birmingham who wrote a letter to him saying, “I knew your mum, I was there when you were born”. It was a letter he kept [locked in a writing desk], this letter talking about his mother. The story is he was born on a thing called the Black Patch [in Smethwick, near Birmingham], which was a gypsy camp. His mother was a travelling entertainer, so it’s known she had gypsy connections. [This refers to a story from 2011, when the existence of this letter, said by Chaplin’s son Michael to have been significant to his father, came to light].

Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy). (BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)

Q: British history is in so many ways about class. Is this ‘secret history’ about people who don’t fall easily into class categories?

A: Absolutely, [class] dominates the way English history is perceived. Eras are named after kings and queens and people’s behaviour is considered to be defined by births and deaths and monarchs.

I just think there’s another history of England and the English, which is 10 times more interesting. The working-class weren’t hanging around either being comical or tragic; in these communities there were kings and queens and there were movements and monarchs and fashion. You find out that in the 1920s the Manchester gangs had Mohicans. When do you ever see that in a period drama? There were all these bizarre, flourishing cultures, just like punks and skinheads, all over the country.

Q: Are you hoping to continue the Peaky Blinders story?

A: As long as they keep commissioning it, I’ll keep writing it. I’m going to do stepping-stone jumps, because what I’m hoping to do is end the story with the first air raid sirens in Birmingham in 1940, so it’s truly a ‘between-the-wars’ story.

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The third series of Peaky Blinders begins on BBC Two on Thursday 5 May at 9pm.