Playing a Blinder!
As Peaky Blinders – TV’s coolest show – returns for series four, Irish star Cillian Murphy says the Shelby gang will meet their most dangerous enemies yet
California had cowboys. New York had the Mob. And Birmingham had the Peaky Blinders, who were of Irish descent. The BBC2 drama about 1920s gangsters has become a worldwide hit after its subsequent screening on Netflix, and for US viewers it’s the most talked-about British show since Downton Abbey. But fabulous costumes and period aside, the two shows couldn’t be more different.
Based on the lives of real gangsters, Peaky Blinders is not for the faint-hearted, recounting in graphic detail the dark underbelly of organised crime in England’s West Midlands. But it’s also achingly cool. ‘In fiction, Americans have always mythologised their outlaws in a way we haven’t,’ says the creator and writer Steven Knight. ‘Peaky Blinders has shown it’s possible to take what’s considered mundane – the experiences of the working-class – and make them even more suitable for mythologising than the upper classes.’ Brummie Steven grew up hearing legends of the Peaky Blinders – so-called because of the razor blades hidden in their distinctive peaked caps – and over three series the world he created for them has morphed into its own universe, using real events and people with a heavy dose of artistic licence.
Cork actor Cillian Murphy, who has the iciest blue eyes on TV, plays the enigmatic kingpin Tommy Shelby. We’ve seen him involved in several bloody turf wars and have run-ins with Winston Churchill and the Fenians, while using his ill-gotten fortune to build a business empire. His beloved wife Grace died when she took a bullet to the chest, and he’s bedded everyone from barmaids to aristocrats. A First World War hero, he drinks too much, smokes too much and gets straight back up when he’s knocked down. ‘He packs things away,’ says Cillian. ‘He doesn’t spend money on therapy so he drinks a lot of whiskey. He doesn’t emotionally process things, which makes him tricky to spend time with, but he’s fascinating to play as an actor. He can be so tender at times and so vulnerable, but then he’s so appalling at other times.’
The breathtaking finale of the last series looked like the end of the road for the gang, which includes Tommy’s fearsome Aunt Polly, played by Helen McCrory, his brothers Arthur (Paul Anderson) and John (Joe Cole), his sister Ada (Sophie Rundle) and his cousin Michael (Finn Cole). After handing them wads of cash for their hard work, Tommy informed them they were going to jail for a while to appease ‘people more powerful than our enemies’, while he ensconced himself in his country house. And series four couldn’t begin more dramatically. The imprisoned Shelbys are ordered to hang. They literally have their necks in nooses before Tommy brokers a deal to save them. And that’s just the start.
The New York Sicilian Mafia are in town for revenge after the Peakys assassinated a member of their family, Vincente Changretta, in the last series. Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar for his role in The Pianist, appears as Luca Changretta, who’s about to make things very tough for the Peakys. ‘They really are fighting for their lives this time,’ says Cillian. ‘This is the Mafia and it doesn’t really get bigger than that.’
The problem for Tommy is that none of his family are talking to him after their near-death experiences. Polly is communicating with the spirits of her dead daughter and parents, while John and Arthur have retired to the country. But the arrival of the Mafia means they have to return to Birmingham. ‘It’s very clever how Steven gets them back together,’ says Helen. ‘Polly hates Tommy. She’s changed into a different woman. She never fought in the trenches, she’s never had a near-death experience. But she believes she’s going to die when that noose is around her neck. Now she’s as dangerous as Arthur and Tommy because she doesn’t fear death any more.’ To help save his family, Tommy reaches out to some nefarious acquaintances. One returning character is Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy), the real-life mobster who ran 1920s north London and a cult figure among fans of the show. He’s betrayed Tommy twice, but somehow they remain friends. Then there’s gypsy Aberama Gold (Game Of Thrones star Aidan Gillen), a new character who arrives with his boxer son Bonnie (Jack Rowan). It’s a dream role for 20-yearold Jack, a teen boxing champ seen as a huge new talent after playing a teenage psychopath in Channel 4’s Born To Kill. ‘On my first day I was stood between Aidan Gillen, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. I couldn’t believe it was real,’ he recalls. ‘I had the last line in the scene and I had nightmares that after all their long speeches I’d forget my one line.’ Tommy’s gang’s problems are aired by glamorous new face Eden (played by Love/Hate star Charlie Murphy). Could she be a new love interest for Tommy? The show’s already been signed up for one more series, which may be its last says Steven, who always wanted it to be a five-series show. Meanwhile, he has several Peaky projects on the go. He’s ‘quite far down the line’ with a musical, and there are plans for a movie too. ‘Peaky Blinders has a life of its own and I’m not sure where it will end,’ he says. ‘New people constantly discover the show. We haven’t peaked yet.’ Peaky Blinders returns on BBC2 Wednesday at 9pm.
From left: Ada, Tommy and their Aunt Polly. Below: Adrien Brody as New York mobster Luca Changretta