Interview: the cast and crew of BBC period drama Peaky Blinders
Steven Knight, Otto Bathurst, Paul Anderson and Charlie Creed-Miles discuss the period crime drama
Peaky Blinders is a not what you'd expect from a BBC period drama. It's a dark and bloody tale of Irish immigrant gangs in Birmingham during 1919. It certainly doesn't pull any punches. Cillian Murphy takes the lead as Tommy Shelby, who returns from the first World War to take control of the organisation, and Sam Neill stars as CI Campbell the man charged with bringing order to Birmingham's streets. It made its public premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June where we caught up with writer/creator Steven Knight, director Otto Bathurst and actors Paul Anderson and Charlie Creed-Miles.
Can you explain what Peaky Blinders is about?
Steven Knight: It's an evocation of a true period and a true family drama. It's the story of my dad's uncles which I've wanted to tell for a long. For some reason Birmingham was where the most notorious gangs hung out. It's about a crime family and how a particular member of that gang, Tommy, took control and how his ultimate goal was to make that gang legitimate.
And where does the term 'peaky blinders' come from?
Paul Anderson: They had razorblades sewn into the peaks of their caps and they're trademark attack was a slash across the eyes. And as a result some people would get blinded, so it's lovely play on words.
It's a relatively untapped period in history. Where did you first learn of the Peaky Blinders?
SK: These stories were told to me by my dad and he knew these people when he was nine years old so the whole thing has been written and shot in a way that suggests being seen through the eyes of a child. As far as my dad was concerned these guys were wild west heroes, mythical, so there's a heightened reality.
Charlie Creed-Miles: It's an interesting time with the backdrop of all the men coming back from France. They'd been off for years fighting in the trenches, wading through mud, watching their mates getting blown to smithereens. These men came back different people. Having seen so much violence probably prepared them for that line of work.
Otto Bathurst: I got sent the scripts a long time ago and I fell in love with it almost immediately. I have an almost pathological hatred of English period telly the way it normally gets made, I don't understand why we go into reverential mode. I don't see why even though it's set in 1919 it should be any different to another gangster film being shot in 2013, so make it as big and epic and glamorous as you can make it. There are hundreds and hundreds of hidden pockets of British history and that's really fun for a filmmaker because you can start building a whole world.
It looks very cinematic – was that intentional?
OB: You want to create a mythology this a big story about big men, I don't want to hang around just one Hovis-esque street, it's a western/gangster movie. And I shot it in exactly that same way I would a western. The tried and tested method of making period telly in this country is you get one location, you dress it and you shoot the shit out of it. It gets re-written to be in that one location because that's how it's deemed to be financial viable. Myself and Katie Swinden, the producer, said "no we are going to be on the move, every scene as it's written will be in a new set." It's hard work but it gives it that visual energy.
Could you tell us more about the characters you play?
PA: I play Arthur Shelby he's a very dysfunctional unhappy man and yet at the same time quite content with the way his life is, his family's life is and running the Peaky Blinders, the business if you like. I always looked at it as if Arthur was happy with the way things were going: they were notorious, they had a reputation which was enough for him until Tommy, my younger brother, turns up and decides to take charge and demotes me to second in command simply because I don't have the drive, the ambition. They are feared and respected but he would never think the way his brother Tommy would. Arthur would never think of taking on Bill Kimber.
CCM: Billy Kimber is basically the Don Corleone of 1920s Birmingham. He was incredibly wealthy, he pretty much ran the major racecourses in the Midlands and some in London, he had his fingers in a lot of pies. He was an incredibly powerful guy, he had a massive gang who were well armed and well equipped and strutted around in bowler hats. Again those ranks were filled with guys coming back from the Somme, these were hard hard men who'd seen a lot of death and weren't sentimental in their approach.
Did you enjoy working with Murphy?
SK: Cillian was our first choice and he was the key to a lot of it. We wanted to aim very high and kept getting yeses from all our first choices.
OB: It's very easy when you have a great script. People no longer look down on telly. Actors want to get hold of a part like that, parts like that don't exist on film, six hours of slow burn drama. For an artist like Cillian that's gold. He'd never done telly before, he was nervous because he'd heard stories about the speed TV works at but he was incredible, I've never known any actor to be so on the money every day. He loved the show and enjoyed it more and more as the show went on. Sam Neill was the same – what's great is you have those two working at that level and everyone else comes in and raises the bar. He's an incredibly dedicated professional.
How do you think viewers will react to Peaky Blinders?
PA: I hope people are impressed and shocked like we are at some of those American shows, I hope they are blown away and see something they haven't seen before.
SK: The main ambition in making this was to give people something entertaining that even though it's set almost 100 years ago they can identify with. I want them to come away from this having another look at British history. I want the British to be able to mythologise their past in the way the Americans have always done.
Peaky Blinders, weekly Thu, BBC Two.