It’s 1919 and in grimy, inter-war Birmingham, a lone horseman trots along a muddy street lined with houses. Tommy Shelby doesn’t look like much, wearing a simple newsboy cap and plain suit, but he exudes power. Children flee. Adults shrink into the shadows. A feeling of terror grips the place. We didn’t know it yet, but we were meeting a TV icon.
“The idea was to try and break the mould,” says Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight via Zoom, smiling as he looks back on the show’s first ever scene. Starring Cillian Murphy as the leader of a ruthless Brummie gangster family, Knight’s gritty drama debuted in 2013 and has since become one of the biggest things on telly. It’s watched by millions, has an official music festival, and even kickstarted a fashion wave of undercut hairstyles and sharp ‘20s tailoring. For Knight though, all the success stems from that first introduction.
“When Cillian’s Tommy Shelby, he’s a different creature”
“The whole industrial landscape, people speaking Chinese, the man on a horse, the gypsies, the cowboy, the urban grit, the gangster story, the western. We wanted to mix them all up and make [something new],” he says, gesturing with his hands as if painting a picture. “And then there’s Cillian, the confidence that he had immediately in that opening scene – you just knew he was going to make it work.”
We’re talking to Knight because Peaky is about to be back on our screens, returning for one last run this weekend (February 27). It’s taken six seasons to play out, but Tommy Shelby’s story is finally coming to an end – initially at least, several spin-offs and a feature-length movie are already in the pipeline. “I’m seeing this as the end of the beginning,” says Knight, “rather than the beginning of the end.”
Knight first dreamt up the idea for the show in the mid-’80s. At that time he was a writer for Capital Radio, a few years away from his first television jobs – and more than a decade off co-creating game show smash Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? He’d become fascinated by a real-life 19th century gang with the nickname ‘Peaky Blinders’ – derived from their habit of stitching razor blades into the peaks of their caps – and put together a treatment. The problem was that no one else shared his enthusiasm.
“I presented it to Channel 4 and [they turned it down],” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with Channel 4, but I’m glad it didn’t get made then because we didn’t actually have the [necessary] technology.” Instead, Knight turned the story into a novel, before other work came in and the passion project was shelved. It wasn’t until TV’s current boom took hold in the early 2010s that he “resurrected” the idea for a producer friend at the BBC. They loved it – and quickly commissioned Knight for a full series.
The next step was to cast the thing. They sent the script to a range of up-and-comers including Murphy, who was then a rising star following parts in surprise horror hit 28 Days Later, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Batman Begins – but he was not yet a household name. “There was never any question that we’d audition [Cillian],” Knight recalls of their first meeting. “We had a cup of tea and talked about it. Immediately after the meeting he texted me and said, ‘Remember, I’m an actor’. In other words: the person you just met for tea who’s Irish, slight and nice isn’t the person who shows up as Tommy Shelby. It’s true. When he’s Tommy, he’s a different creature.”
Murphy’s Tommy – a harsh-but-fair family man, haunted by the shattering experience of World War One – is without doubt the show’s heart and soul. But it was also important to cast the rest of the Shelby family well. Throughout the series, Tommy is flanked by his loyal yet foolhardy brother Arthur (played exquisitely by Paul Anderson) and their aunt Polly (Helen McCrory). McCrory sadly passed away from cancer last year, unable to shoot new scenes for the final season. Even so, her death is addressed in sensitive and moving fashion during season six’s first episode.
“Helen McCrory would’ve wanted us to get the final season done”
Knight describes McCrory as a “perfect match” for Polly – and he’s not wrong. Having seen the quick-witted actress joyfully eat journalists alive during press conferences, let this writer assure you she was every bit as authoritative as the Shelby family’s no-bullshit matriarch. Looking back at those early days on set, Knight recalls: “[Helen] just absolutely took control – not just of that role, but the family and often the shoot. She was such a strong human being and a great actor that you just knew: ‘This is exactly who this should be’. It was beyond what we had expected.”
Without McCrory, the mood on set was understandably sombre and “reflective of her loss,” says Knight, “but everyone felt that knowing Helen as a person, what she always wanted was just to get it done with energy and have a laugh.
“That spirit helped to get people through. It was a challenge, but that’s what you take on. Compared to the tragedy, it’s nothing.”
Around Peaky regulars like Murphy, Anderson and McCrory, a strong supporting cast has grown. Over the years, Knight developed a knack for casting young actors just before they blew up. Soon after her Peaky debut in 2019, Anya Taylor-Joy checkmated her way to the top in Netflix chess romp The Queen’s Gambit. Finn Cole, who plays Polly’s son Michael, is now mixing it with Vin Diesel in the Fast & Furious franchise. And even Tom Hardy (who of course was already a Hollywood name) got a career boost from playing rough-but-loveable Jewish mafioso Alfie Solomons.
However, as with a lot of classic series – The Sopranos, Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad – it took a while for the world to warm up to the show. Upon its debut in 2013, Peaky was met with acclaim, but not total adoration. The Arts Desk was “overwhelmed by a tide of historical baggage”, while The New York Times said the series didn’t “have quite enough juice”. Meanwhile, average viewership was in the relatively modest ballpark of 2.3million on BBC Two. Gradually, ratings crept up – and when Netflix came on as worldwide distributor in late 2014, the show’s course was set. A huge fandom evolved rapidly which pulled in tellyheads across the globe.
Did Knight foresee it becoming the cultural behemoth it is today?
“It’s as much a shock to me as it is to anyone else!” he says. “The idea back then of 1920s Birmingham becoming an international brand was very unlikely. I just hoped that it would strike a chord with people here.”
We last found the Blinders in a bit of a pickle. Season five, which aired in 2019, saw Tommy become an MP and stalk the corridors of power in Westminster. He rubbed shoulders with Winston Churchill and plotted the downfall of rising fascist Oswald Mosley (played by Sam Claflin). Unfortunately, someone betrayed him – and the thrilling finale left Tommy in a foggy, muddy field, screaming into the distance with a gun to his head.
It all adds up to a tricky job for the writing team. How will they save Brum’s most famous son this time? To make matters worse, COVID swept the globe in March 2020 and shut down hundreds of production sets, Peaky included. Add to that a growing impossibility to align the A-list cast’s busy schedules and you’ve got the makings of an “incredibly difficult” shoot – as director Anthony Byrne tells us. Luckily, it all came together in the end.
“[This season] is about a man who’s fighting for his soul”
“[This season] is about a man who’s fighting for his soul,” says Byrne, video-chatting with NME direct from Peaky Blinders’ cutting room as he puts some finishing touches to the series. “This is a very deep dive into the psyche of Tommy Shelby.
“[Seasons] five and six feel like they’re a pair, and that was the attraction for me to come back. I want to know what happens in that field. I want to know how far down he’s got to go before he can get out of this and we really take him all the way.”
To aid (or test) Tommy on his road to salvation are some familiar and some new faces. Stepping into the foreground, Michael’s scheming wife Gina (Taylor-Joy) emerges as a “major player”, while Esme Shelby (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), who left the family after husband John’s death in season four, returns to “prove just as influential, though in a different way”, says Byrne. And yes, in a move that was revealed to ecstatic fans during the trailer, Hardy makes his final appearance. “There was no point in keeping that a surprise,” laughs Byrne.
As for newbies, relative unknown Amber Anderson serves as a “very present” protagonist and the long-rumoured Stephen Graham appearance finally happens. Embargoes prevent us from telling you who they play, but both Knight and Byrne were overflowing with enthusiasm for the energy each brought to set.
Quizzed on Graham’s role, Byrne teases: “His is quite a soulful character, but I think Stephen Graham is quite soulful too. If you’ve seen [BAFTA-nominated chef thriller] Boiling Point, you’ll know that. He has this energy where he can be very accessible and loveable, then he can spin it around and be violent. That’s the balance that some of these great character actors have.”
Another important character on the show is the music – and returning to pen the score as she did on season five is Anna Calvi, this time assisted by Nick Cave and Public Image Ltd. producer Nick Launay. There’s also classic tracks – handpicked by music nerds Byrne and Murphy – from Sinead O’Connor, Patti Smith, Joy Division and some surprise original material by two famous Radiohead bandmates.
“Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood contributed some original music”
“Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood contributed some original stuff,” Byrne reveals excitedly. “I’m over the moon about all of that. The music has always been really important historically, and I was keen to bring a dramatic score into it. We’re using that much more in this season. It’s a much heavier season so the score is taking things in a very different direction.”
It all sounds very exciting – and there’s plenty more to look forward to. Last year, it emerged that plans were afoot for a movie set to shoot in 2023, with spin-off shows and even more official barbershops, themed pubs and bars to come. “It’s just the Peaky world in another form,” says Knight. “As long as there’s an appetite for this world, then we’ll continue to make it.”
We press him for more details, but Knight remains coy. “I’m not being secretive, because I don’t know what the [spin-offs] will be. We just know that post-film, we want the world to continue.
“What I can say though is that if the movie never happened, this season is a perfect ending. If this was the last time you saw Cillian as Tommy Shelby, then it’s a really great way to end the arc of the six seasons. Then with the film, who knows?” The beginning of the end indeed.
‘Peaky Blinders’ series six premieres on BBC One this Sunday (February 27) at 9pm