Cillian Murphy as Tommy
Photo: Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd. – Photographer: Robert Viglasky
“For those who make the rules, there are no rules.”
So said Tommy Shelby in series five of Peaky Blinders. As the sixth and final series (don’t panic, movies and spinoffs WILL follow), comes to BBC One, it feels like an almost too on-the-nose premonition of the parties in Downing Street. Or perhaps a pre-emptive nod and wink to the lies and obfuscation that followed these parties, and the ways institutions that purport to be independent rallied around an embattled Prime Minister.
But writer Steven Knight plucked that phrase out of the air for his iconic protagonist before the pandemic even began. And it’s not the first time that life has imitated the art of the Peaky Blinders.
“This has happened all the way through,” says Knight, talking to The Big Issue on Zoom. “Things that are written years earlier seem to be topical when it comes to broadcast. It’s been lucky for the show, but unlucky for the world that things like fascism and nationalism have become topical.”
Final series this may be, but it is not the end of Peaky Blinders – Knight is keen to point that out. This world, these characters, will go on in some format or other. “It’s just the end of the beginning,” he says, explaining why he feels no sorrow as he prepares to launch the finale. “We’re doing the film and after that we’ll be continuing the world – so it’s just the end of this incarnation.”
We will have followed the Peaky Blinders through the entire interwar years period by the time the series concludes. It was a story that had been percolating in its creator’s brain for years, decades even, before it took form.
“These were stories told to me by my parents when I was a kid,” says Knight. “It’s things that happened to them when they were kids. Because my dad’s uncles were illegal bookmakers in Small Heath [in Birmingham] and were known as the Peaky Blinders. My mum was a bookie’s runner when she was nine years old.
“I always found the stories incredibly glamorous. And I always thought they would make a great drama. So, when I became a writer, that was one of the first things I thought of doing. But it was 20 years before the kernel of the idea became feasible and I went to the BBC. So, to me, these are personal stories. But the whole thing has developed beyond anything I ever thought it could be.”
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Peaky Blinders has become one of the great television series. Like the greats of the so-called golden age of television – The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad the obvious examples – its world expands series by series.
The lens has gradually drawn back and what began as the story of a single West Midlands family and its local skirmishes became one of global politics intertwining with international criminality. It has taken in the rise of fascism – Oswald Mosley still looms large in series six – and the illegal trade in liquor, weapons and drugs.
Reflecting on its impact and importance, Knight refers back to his original blueprint for the series.
“For me, fundamentally, it’s been a story of working-class people,” he says. “And it was from the beginning. We are taking a working-class story set in an unfashionable city and saying that the dramas and the tragedies and triumphs of these lives are as big as the triumphs and tragedies of lives anywhere. So it’s not that the working class in England play a role as the sort of demon reflection of the bigger picture. This IS the bigger picture. These ARE the real lives. These ARE the big lives.
“If Peaky Blinders achieves the liberation of working-class stories from the sort of ghetto that they were always in, then great.”
At its heart is the Shelby family. And at the heart of that family, from day one, has been a magnetic central performance from Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby – all piercing eyes, cheekbones sharper than razors, charisma, charm and intelligence – but with an ever-present danger, a lurking menace, a very real threat.
“He leads from the front. Cillian is such a great actor,” says Knight. “When you meet him, he is not Tommy, but he becomes Tommy so completely that there is no other possibility of anybody else who could ever have been Tommy. He does something with his body and with his soul that only great actors can do. And that’s why he’s the planet around which everything else orbits.”
Just as the series expanded, so its central character has grown. Wiser, stronger, more worldly, more cynical.
“Tommy begins his journey in series one thinking that he can break out of where he’s from and enter a different social class,” says Knight. “It’s not an American story, it’s a very English story, so it is about class. And in series three, he realises he is never going to be accepted – and decides he doesn’t care. He’s just going to keep going and keep making money and keep inventing a new way of being.”
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According to Knight, who knows them best, beneath the violence the Peaky Blinders are not bad people. Instead, they have devised a singular response to the structural inequality of their age.
“I think of the Peaky Blinders as being good people doing bad things for a good reason,” he says. “Fundamentally, they’re not bad for the sake of being bad. They feel they have to do certain things to achieve a certain status in a world where, in their opinion, there are people doing worse and being rewarded for it.
“So, it’s sort of a working-class revolution within a family. It’s people saying ‘we’re going to do this anyway. We’re going to make it our way,’ and succeeding. But in success, there is of course, the tragedy and the struggle they have to go through.”
For actor Sophie Rundle, the show works by inviting you not just into this world but into this gang.
“When you’re the audience, you’re almost invited to be a Shelby, so you feel part of it,” she says. “Maybe that’s why people have taken on the style, taken the aesthetic of it into the outside world. Everybody who watches it feels like a Peaky Blinder.”
Rundle has been there since day one.
“I’m so pleased and proud to be a part of it from the very beginning until the very end,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to come back and finish it. I had my son and went back to film this series four weeks after he was born, which was crazy, intense, and probably not the best idea I’ve ever had. But I had to finish this story. I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
We have watched Ada Shelby grow from a young idealist fighting to be free from her family to the confident upholder of Shelby tradition.
“Ada was just a kid when we started. I just watched some old clips and was like, who was that baby? And I was that baby. I was fresh out of drama school and given this incredible character and we have evolved together,” says Rundle. “Normally you put yourself into the character, but in this instance, I’ve tried to take from Ada because she’s cooler and I’d like to be a bit more like her. Ada’s bullshit radar is so joyful. I love that about her.
“She tried to extricate herself from the Shelby family and from being a Peaky Blinder, but she never really can. Because she is one. In her heart of hearts, she is this mad gypsy kid from this scrappy family in Small Heath. Her journey has been from denying who she is to finally coming around to embracing it and realising it is an asset and a good thing to be from where she comes from.”
The final series was filmed after the death of Helen McCrory, who leaves a huge hole in the show, just as she does in the acting world. The role of Polly Gray was one of the greats of a heralded career.
“The tragedy of the loss of the human being of Helen is a million times greater than the loss of the character,” says Knight. “But in between those two is the loss of the actor. I can only talk about the actor and the character really.
“Helen was such a fantastic, powerful performer who took this role and changed it and made it something greater than the sum of its parts. And as in real life, when someone with that influence passes, they remain. Within the family, their influence remains. And they’re still part of the building structure. And that’s true of Helen and Polly.”
Both on and off screen, McCrory is irreplaceable. It falls in part on Rundle as Ada to step up, as peacemaker and ballbreaker, in Polly’s absence.
“It was a devastating loss,” says Rundle. “Helen was really remarkable. She was just so cool. I feel enormously privileged to have been able to work with her for 10 years. On screen, there is this huge void in the Shelby family. Ada knows she has to step up. She needs to pull everyone back together and has the skill set to do that, unlike her brothers.
“She doesn’t try to fill those shoes, no one could. But there’s a nod towards it while she is dealing with her own loss. Because family’s the most important thing, isn’t it? It’s interesting to see the culmination of Ada’s journey from trying to extricate herself from the Shelby family to trying to keep everyone together.”
As Peaky Blinders edges towards the end of the 1930s, what can we learn from this unique window on history?
“In the show, they are seeing the rise of fascism. And I think so are we in 2022 and that’s really alarming,” says Rundle. “But that’s how we learn isn’t it? By seeing what happened in history. The news can be a bit overwhelming but if you can explore it through the lens of art – maybe through Peaky Blinders – that’s a healthy, entertaining-but-very-informative way to explore mistakes people before us made, and ask whether we are remaking them now.”
Knight is also hoping for a very different ending. Hoping that his unhappy knack of foretelling real life will not continue as the series ends.
“If it follows the trajectory of the ’30s, we’re going in a very bad direction and it’s going to end badly,” he says.
“The best you can do when you’re writing something like this, with characters you are very familiar with, is to explore what human beings are capable of. And history tells us that human beings are capable of pretty terrible things.
“But they’re also capable of pretty wonderful things. And I hope that the Shelby family and Tommy are on the side of the angels, ultimately…”
Peaky Blinders returns to BBC One on February 27 @adey70
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