TV & RADIO
JONATHAN WRIGHT speaks to writer Steven Knight on location at the filming of his 1920s gangster epic
The pick of new history programmes
Peaky Blinders TV BBC Two Scheduled for November Somewhere off Manchester’s Piccadilly thoroughfare lies a fine old commercial building that has, miraculously, yet to be converted into luxury flats. It’s grand but gloomy and the paint is peeling. This, of course, makes it a perfect setting for filming writer Steven Knight’s saga of Brummie gangsters, Peaky Blinders – especially as there’s something of a back-to-basics vibe as we rejoin Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and co.
“The family are all separate, they’re not speaking to each other, but they face an existential threat from outside that means they all need to get back together on their home turf to survive,” says Knight. The Shelbys return to the grime of Small Heath in 1926, the year of the general strike, when the UK appeared primed for revolution.
For Knight, part of the dramatist’s art is to look beyond history’s “linear progression” and our knowledge that the overthrow of the British establishment didn’t occur. “The reality at the time is it’s chaos and things happen, but other things couldd happen,” he says. “In that chaos, you will find individual characters whose qualities and stories are such that you get a much more accurate picture of what was really going on at the time.”
One such character is Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy), based on a real-life shop steward and communist, a woman whose union activities bring her into contact with business owner Tommy. There’s also a new baddie, Luca Changretta, a violent “ghost of Christmas past” played by Oscar winner Adrien Brody, and the latest in a line of adversaries who stand in the way of Tommy gaining the respectability, money and prestige he sees as markers of success.
Here lies one of Peaky Blinders’ key themes: class. “The question of the whole series has been: if you are born in a certain environment and a certain class, can you escape?” says Knight. Is that especially difficult in Britain? “It was in the ‘20s. I’m not sure it’s that much easier now.”
Back on set, as we watch Cillian Murphy running through an action sequence, it’s clear Tommy isn’t going to get away clean. It’s this struggle that humanises a violent man who might otherwise seem irredeemable, and which has done much to win the show an international audience. “We hear Dylan is a fan – that’s enough for me, we can stop now,” says Knight.
“The series asks: if you are born in a certain environment and class, can you escape?”
Polly Gray (Helen McCrory) and Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody) in the new series of Peaky Blinders