Steven Knight: ‘With Peaky Blinders, I wanted to do to my own history what the Americans did to theirs.’

Bogotá is an awfully long way from Birmingham, so it spoke volumes about Peaky Blinders’ extraordinary cultural reach when Cillian Murphy’s Midlands mobster, Tommy Shelby, appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone’s Colombian edition recently (knocking Billie Eilish down to second billing).

“It’s been astonishing,” says showrunner Steven Knight of watching his creation become a global TV phenomenon, with viewers in more than 180 countries. “It’s huge in Brazil and Argentina, Turkey and China – where it’s actually illegal to watch it! And in America, its audience is a really diverse cross-section of the population. They tell me it’s huge in South Central New York and Harlem. Snoop Dogg is a fan.”

Given the debt that Peaky Blinders’ outlaw antiheroes owe to Knight’s love of westerns, the Birmingham native takes great satisfaction in being able to sell the Americans back a version of his own mythology. “That was part of the reason to do it – to redress the balance,” the 62-year-old tells Weekend over Zoom. “I wanted to do to my own history what the Americans did to theirs. My parents told me these stories about working class life in Birmingham in the 1920s. They were kids when they came across these larger-than-life characters, who were gangsters and bookmakers. They sort of mythologised them in their own minds, and as a kid I doubly mythologised them. 

“When I came to write this, I decided I wasn’t going to turn it into a kitchen sink, ‘wasn’t life terrible?’ sort of thing, but instead do what the Americans did. When you think about it, 19th century agricultural labourers working with cows doesn’t sound very interesting. But they’re cowboys. So I wanted to take that history, our history, and do what the Americans did with the west.”

Launched in 2013, Peaky Blinders is loosely inspired by a real-life Midlands gang of the same name. Over five series, viewers have followed the fortunes of the Shelbys – a Birmingham family of Irish Romany origin – and their mercurial, charismatic leader Tommy, who’s still burdened by the trauma of the Great War.

When we last saw him, Tommy was a broken man – screaming and holding a gun to his own head, following a botched (and bloody) attempt to assassinate the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. And now the Shelbys are back in typically swaggering, rock and roll style for a sixth and final series (a feature film will follow), facing what Knight calls “odd greater than anything they’ve ever been up against before”.

Making this latest run has been far from easy. “Covid basically took 12 months out of the schedule,” explains Knight. “We were about three weeks away from shooting and then we had to close down. There were many obstacles, not least the very tragic death of Helen, which makes everything else pale into insignificance, really.”

Helen, of course, is Helen McCrory – aka Aunt Polly, steely matriarch of the Shelby clan – who died from cancer last April, aged 52. “She was so full of life, so open,” says Knight. “We would have these premieres in Birmingham, to which I’d often invite friends and family who are the furthest thing from the world of glamorous showbiz you could imagine, and all of them said the same thing: that Helen was the one who would nip out with them for a cigarette. She was completely not showbizzy, not pretentious. An absolutely wonderful person.”

The opening episode of the new series sees Polly – and Helen – receiving an emotional send-off. They were difficult scenes to film, admits Knight. “It was a very emotional time, and that emotion didn’t go away. It was there throughout the shoot. But it was also a motivation for people – we wanted it to be a fitting tribute to Helen.”

Was there a version of the new series with Polly in? “There were various incarnations of it,” he says. “First of all she was in it all, completely. Then the number of days [Helen could manage] got smaller and smaller, and then it all got taken out of our hands…”

In happier news, Stephen Graham will be joining the cast, in an as yet undisclosed role. “He is brilliant, and he’s doing his real accent – that’s all I can say,” smiles Knight. 

By British TV standards, Peaky Blinders has always attracted an unusually starry cast, with major roles for the likes of Tom Hardy and Sam Neill, and current screen queen Anya-Taylor Joy returning for the new series as Polly’s scheming daughter-in-law, Gina. Hunger Games star Sam Claflin is also back as Oswald Mosley – whose appearance feels particularly timely in the current climate.

“It’s a complete accident,” says Knight. “I set the first series in 1919 and decided to jump two years every time, and that’s naturally taken us to the 1930s. And unfortunately the 30s and our 20s seem to be mirroring each other, in terms of the rise of populism. Hopefully they don’t end the same way.”

Growing up in Birmingham’s Small Heath, the youngest of seven children, Knight caught a glimpse the fast-disappearing Peaky Blinders world when he accompanied his blacksmith dad, George, on his rounds shoeing horses in stables and scrapyards. “Without that I would never have written Peaky Blinders,” he says.

It was a very emotional shoot. But it was also a motivation for people – we wanted it to be a fitting tribute to Helen

Steven Knight

And then there were his parents’ stories. “When he was about eight, my dad was given a message by his dad, and he ran barefoot – I mean, actually barefoot – over the cobbles, and knocked on this door,” says Knight. “When it opened, there were, like, 10 men around a table, which was covered in coins, in a place where there was no money. They were all immaculately dressed, and drinking whiskey out of jam jars.”

Sharp dressing was central to the Peaky Blinders’ image, from the caps that gave them their name to their trademark haircut. (The close-cropped back and sides was a legacy of the First World War trenches, where they’d been cut short to avoid lice, while the caps provided cover to grow out the top as long as they pleased.) It’s no surprise, then, that there is now an official Peaky Blinders clothing line, a look you’ll find in plentiful supply among attendees at the regular Peaky Blinders Festival in Birmingham – part of a fan culture that has also spawned a video game, a beer and even a ballet.

This summer, Knight, who’s married with three children, will be flying another flag for his hometown by exec-producing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. “It’s our turn,” he says. “One of the characteristics of Brummies is that they don’t like to get too big for their boots. But I think it’s time for us to start banging the drum.”

He is also parlaying the success of Peaky Blinders into an ambitious new studio complex in Digbeth, in the heart of the city. “It’s really exciting. Hopefully it’s going to be a game changer – not just for the region, but for TV and film-making in Britain.”

It’s quite a journey – from blackmsith’s son to studio mogul (and a Commander of the British Empire, no less)… “It’s up to everyone to do what they can do,” he shrugs. “We’re going to be encouraging local people to tell their stories – you know, the immigrant story, the working-class story. Often the story of the cab driver is more interesting than the story of their passenger.”

Knight’s own backstory is far from conventional: the first of his family to go to university, on graduating he worked as an advertising copywriter then a producer at Capital Radio, before starting to write TV scripts for comedian Jasper Carrott. There can’t be many people whove written for both Jasper Carrott and Brad Pitt (who starred in Knight’s 2016 thriller Allied), suggests Weekend. “No, that’s probably unique,” he concedes. And, being from Birmingham, presumably it was Jasper he was the most in awe of? “Yeah, he’s a Brummie hero,” smiles Knight. “And a really nice bloke.”

He continued his circuitous career route by inventing a board game, PSI, which was turned into a short-lived game show hosted by Chris Tarrant. And after that he co-created another game show hosted by Chris Tarrant: this one was called Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, and proved to be somewhat more successful.

Sorry if this is a vulgar question, Steven, but did Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Make you a millionaire? “That is a vulgar question,” he smiles. We’ll take that as a yes.

Around the same time, he was also penning novels for Penguin and then, in 2002, his second film script, Dirty Pretty Things – a Stephen Frears-directed thriller set among London’s asylum seekers and illegal immigrants – earned him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. 

In the two decades since, he’s written (and occasionally directed) more than a dozen films, ranging from the psychological thriller Locke, with Tom Hardy, to last year’s Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales. His TV credits, meanwhile, include historical drama Taboo (again with Hardy), a radical reworking of A Christmas Carol for the BBC, and Apple’s big-budget sci-fi drama See, starring Jason Momoa. 

How has he found working inside the notoriously bruising Hollywood studio system? “Well it’s been very good to me,” he says. “And everything is relative – it’s not like digging ditches or laying bricks. There are good people in Hollywood, who want to do good work. I had a job in a brewery for a while, and the pub trade is much more cutthroat than Hollywood.”

But not, hopefully, more cutthroat than the Peaky Blinders. How does Knight feel, now he’s approaching the end of the Shelbys’ story? “Out of adversity has come, I think, our best series so far,” he says. “Tommy not only has enemies, he has demons – both real and imagined – to fight. I’ve always had in my head the journey of Tommy Shelby towards redemption. This time we’ll find out if he actually can be redeemed or not…”

Peaky Blinders, BBC One, Sundays at 9pm

BY ORDER OF THE PEAKY BLINDERS

“I’ve always wanted to end the story with a film,” says Knight, of his advanced plans to take Peaky Blinders onto the big screen, “and we now have the head of steam – times 10 – to get this financed.”

What did he make of Tory MP Nick Fletcher’s recent comments that men are turning to crime because the likes of “the Krays and Tommy Shelby” have replaced positive role models like Doctor Who? “I think I would look a bit closer to home,” he says. “That’s my version of no comment.”

Daft culture war arguments aside, does Knight have any misgivings about Peaky Blinders’ potentially glorifying violence and criminality? “I think the glamourisation of criminality goes back as far as Robin Hood, probably beyond,” he says. “So it has a fine lineage. In terms of violence, we always show the consequences – if someone gets a scar, they keep the scar. All of the people in Peaky Blinders are scarred by violence.”

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