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October 10, 2019

Tip o’ the Cap

Peaky Blinders — the drama named for British gangsters who sewed razor blades into the peaks of their caps — is the little British show that’s gone big.

Benji Wilson
  • Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby

    Robert Viglasky
  • Creator–executive producer Steven Knight and Murphy

    Robert Viglasky
  • Helen McCrory McCrory Aunt Polly

    Robert Viglasky

It was the haircuts that people noticed first: shaved at the sides and long on top, with the hair concealed beneath a thick flat cap.

They turned up in hipster enclaves, and then they started to spread. This was the beginning of the Peaky Blinders effect.

"I started seeing it in Hoxton in London, in Williamsburg in New York," says Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, the matriarch of the Peakys, a Birmingham gangster clan. "You were just surrounded by guys with these haircuts."

Then came the themed parties, the bars, the weddings. A whole industry of Peaky-phernalia followed, including a clothing line full of sharp three-piece wool suits, tiepins and grandpa collars. Then it went further.

"People have full back tattoos of Tommy Shelby," Cillian Murphy says. The Irish actor, who plays the head of the Shelby family, has found his own face inscribed in ink on the backs of zealous fans. "Personally, I would just go out and buy the DVD box set, but each to their own."

Peaky Blinders is the little British show that's gone big. The story of a family of gangsters between the world wars has become if not the most watched, then certainly one of the most admired shows on the planet. Peaky's reach is broad: it is Snoop Dogg's favorite show, but it's also Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood's.

Adrien Brody liked it so much he signed up to appear in the fourth season as a New York hoodlum come to England to settle a vendetta. Tom Hardy, another Hollywood star, was delighted to take a recurring role in the second season of what was then a little-known production. He has now appeared in three seasons of the show.

Julia Roberts, another committed fan, says the show helped her to reconsider television, which led her to star in Amazon's Homecoming.

"I remember the first time I watched Peaky Blinders I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' It was so masterful," she recalls. "The costumes, the performances, the locations.… Not being an avid TV watcher, that was a huge turning point in my feelings about television and what it can do."

People who like Peaky really like it. What started out as a low-budget BBC show airing on Tuesday nights has, over four seasons become a top performer on Netflix, which will launch season five in September. But overall, the show has slipped in under the radar — and that's exactly how the cast likes it.

"I've always been heartened by the fact that it was so incremental," Murphy says of the show's growth. "It wasn't instantly a hit, and it was never forced down people's throats. It was because of people talking to each other and sharing and dressing up and having events and doing it all off their own bat that it became big. It's lovely when it happens that way, because it has been the fans that have made it."

There have been historical gangster epics on television before, but nothing quite like Peaky Blinders. It is unique for many reasons, from the title (it comes from the razor blades that gang members used to sew into the peaks of their caps), to the round-mouthed Brummie (Birmingham) accents, to the setting and the look of the production.

"I remember getting the first two scripts," Murphy says, speaking in London. "I looked at the cover page and thought, 'I don't understand the title, I don't know what that means.' Then I read them, and they were just astonishingly good — really original, really unpredictable, with an amazing protagonist."

Go back and watch those first few episodes, and what's most striking about Peaky Blinders is its confidence. From the opening notes of the title music (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' 1994 single "Red Right Hand") to Tommy Shelby's casual brutality, it simply swaggered onto the screen like a gunslinger coming to take over a town.

"It goes back to where this series came from," creator–executive producer Steven Knight says.

When he was a child growing up in Birmingham, his parents told him tales of the city streets between the wars. "They first heard these stories when they were kids, so they mythologized the Garrison Pub, the horses on the streets, the whole thing. Then when they told me, I was a kid and I double-mythologized it. When it came to making the show, I made the decision at the very beginning to keep that mythology."

He likens his depiction of interwar Birmingham to the classic westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone. "It's the same thing that the Americans do with the West — they don't feel any shame about it. So I've tried to do Birmingham in the '20s and '30s like a western. You can mythologize, and you can have the gunslingers, and the horses are beautiful — all of that mythology."

When Peaky Blinders was first presented to McCrory, she was told it was a period piece set on the streets of Birmingham, and that she would play a character called Aunt Polly.

"I said, 'No I'm not.' I thought I'd be standing there with a mangle [laundry wringer] and a fag [cigarette] hanging out of my mouth, wondering when the boys would come home. Little did I know." Polly is not only the family's matriarch, she's also Tommy's second-in-command and his most trusted confidante.

She recalls that Knight came to her house in North London and explained the tone he was looking for. "He wanted this epic quality that the Americans do so well. We just don't do it. But nobody knew what it was going to be until we saw it. We thought this was going to be period. Instead it was, 'What the hell? Jack White is doing the music?'"

"It was really confident in its identity from the beginning," Murphy says. "British television had often been more about the aristocracy, less so these types of men between the wars. They were spat out from the First War and just had to fucking make do. Steven basically took a part of history that hasn't been dramatized very much on television and said, 'Okay, I could do something with that.'"

One of the things Knight did was make the show sound like no other: the very modern soundtrack has become one of Peaky Blinders's calling cards.

Collectively it makes for a solid gold Spotify indie/alternative playlist, taking in everything from Nick Cave to the White Stripes, PJ Harvey, Arctic Monkeys, Leonard Cohen and, in season three, some of David Bowie's last music. A fan of the show, Bowie gave Knight early access to Blackstar, which was released just days before his death in January 2016.

"It was so beautiful and poignant and moving that we got the last Blackstar material and that he had asked for that to happen," says Murphy, an ardent music fan who hosts his own radio show in the UK. "That was really moving for somebody like me — just very overwhelming."

Peaky also looks different from other shows. McCrory recalls her first time on the Garrison Lane set, home turf for the gang in Birmingham's Small Heath area.

"When we first filmed on it, it had this strange glow about the bricks. I asked the production designer what he'd done with the walls. He said, 'Okay… we painted them brown and then purple and then black and then blue then purple again, and then I stained them with a wood varnish.' You go, 'Right. Where?'

"He said, 'The whole street. And the roof, and the cobbles. And the pavement.' That's why it looks amazing — it's the craftsmanship. This is a show made by artists, from top to bottom."

It's clear that the Peaky cast and crew enjoy being outsiders, part of a show that may lack the vast resources of a premium cable or streaming drama yet has nonetheless become the people's champ.

"The budget is far less than it should be," Murphy says. "Therefore, by necessity, you have to be clever in your design, because you can't spend a shitload of money on a massive set. You have to be very creative in the way you move the camera and the way you light and the way you design.

"You get to bring new talented people who go, 'Right, we don't have the budget of big American shows, but we're going to do it, just by being more imaginative.' And they have: it looks like it's got double its actual budget, which is a brilliant achievement for all the crew."

But away from the aesthetics and the soundtrack, it's storytelling that underpins the show's success. What Knight has done, over four seasons, is to take familiar gangster tropes — the Shelbys start small amid the fallout from the First World War, become powerful, take new territory, get rich and then are challenged by competing families — and knit in real characters and incidents from British history.

You get shootouts, explosions, violence and sex, but also a sophisticated, sometimes subtle reflection of the politics and history that defined the period.

"Each season," Knight says, "I'll pick the year it's starting, pick a significant date or event and say, 'Okay, that's what's happening to this family. How are they going to react?' I've been fortunate, in that history gives me these fantastic things and moments.

"Especially between the wars, there's all this stuff going on: this was the time when the very beginnings of fascism were coming out — but from a really odd direction: from the left. That's where Tommy is, that's his territory. So I want to explore how that is affecting him, and affecting the society around him as well."

Season five sees Tommy Shelby become a member of the British Parliament, where he meets a young Oswald Mosley, played by The Hunger Games's Sam Claflin. In real life, Mosley would go on to become the leader of the far-right British Union of Fascists.

Given that the season begins with the Wall Street crash of 1929 and goes on to show how a global financial crisis drove society and politics to dangerous extremes, the parallels between then and and now should be obvious.

"Weirdly, coincidentally, the '30s and now have a lot in common," Knight says. "But I think if you're going to write anything at all, you want to consider the resonances for the present day. In seasons one and two, when I was looking at Tommy's post-traumatic stress after the First World War, a lot of that came from research I was doing on a different project with Royal Marines who'd come back from Afghanistan, talking to them about how they were feeling."

Much of the show is shot outside of Birmingham, because significant areas of that city were lost to German bombs during the Second World War.

On set at the grand City Hall in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Claflin and Murphy are filming a scene in the splendid surrounds of Shelby's parliamentary office, which is dominated by a large portrait of the man himself. Murphy sits behind a mahogany desk in a plush leather chair, mulling over Mosley's suggestion that they join forces to control the whole country. Against all odds, the boy from the streets of Birmingham has made it to the very top.

And so has Peaky Blinders: last year the show won Best Drama at the BAFTA Awards in the UK. "It came to the point that BAFTA could no longer ignore us," McCrory says. "Usually you have to be put forward and have run a huge campaign. We've come at it the other way round. The people have taken this show to the profession."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2019

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