I worry that I could be killed next... No one is safe in Peaky Blinders, says Helen McCrory, as the cast and crew of the brilliant but brutal gangland drama tell Event why the new series is the best yet
The first thing Sophie Rundle had to do when she returned to the set of Peaky Blinders was to film a scene in which the entire reprobate Shelby family walks purposefully through a grim, forbidding factory. Set to a thumping rock soundtrack, lit by sparks leaping from the machinery and shot in slow-motion, it is seen early in the first episode of the new series this autumn – and sets the scene for what is to come. The Shelby clan, with their shoulders rolling, their gait full of swagger, their purpose transparently mean, look like they are engaged in a Twenties reshoot of Reservoir Dogs.
‘It’s the Peaky walk,’ says Rundle, who plays Ada, the only female sibling of the fearsome Birmingham gangster family. ‘It takes a while to get back into it. Once you’ve got it, though, then you’re back in character. When I’ve got the walk, I’m Ada again.’
The clothes, the music and the style that have helped make Peaky Blinders a global phenomenon are all still in place.
The Peaky Blinders are back all right, walk and all. The fifth series of Steven Knight’s magisterial tale of a bunch of Brummie ne’er-do-wells is reckoned by all those involved to be the best yet. Picking up a couple of years after the previous one ended, it is now 1929 and Tommy (played by the brilliant Cillian Murphy) has been elected to Parliament. Becoming a representative of the people does not mean Tommy feels obliged to rein in his sadistic working practices, however, as his encounter with a journalist in the first episode makes all too alarmingly plain. And it is not just Tommy’s fondness for weapons that remains unchanged. The clothes, the music and the style that have helped make Peaky Blinders a global phenomenon are all still in place. This is a drama that looks like no other.
Take the haircuts. According to Harry Kirton, who has played Finn, the youngest Shelby sibling, since the first series in 2013, the hair matters. The style, shaved at the sides, with a mop of hair on top, adopted by all the Peaky men is magnificently odd. And, Kirton says, it has swelled in popularity since he starting acting in the show aged 15.
‘I remember when I first had the cut I got a load of grief. It’s gone from kids giving it “Ha ha look at your pudding cut” to “I want that haircut”. Now you see it everywhere.’
In the new series, the gangsters may have become richer, their influence wider and their enemies more ruthless, but the hair is the same as ever: cropped to the scalp. It is a look, Kirton adds, that needs plenty of care and attention. ‘If you’re on set, you get your hair shaved by the hairdresser every two days,’ he says. ‘It helps with the character. It is severe. Like the Shelbys.’
With his severe hair and baggy cap with its wide peak (into which a hidden razor blade can be stitched), Tommy might stand out in Parliament. But he soon discovers a ferocious insistence on getting his own way is not confined to the back streets of Birmingham. Alongside him on the Labour benches is a young MP named Oswald Mosley (played by Sam Claflin), who notes after Tommy’s rousing maiden speech to the House of Commons, that he is someone he might do business with.
‘Tommy gets associated with Mosley,’ reveals Knight. ‘It’s an encounter that makes him confront how far he is prepared to go in pursuing his own interests. He has to make a decision about whose side he is on.’
Helen McRory as Aunt Polly. Despite its Hollywood styling, the show is delivered on a BBC TV budget
In the new series, the gangsters may have become richer, their influence wider and their enemies more ruthless, but the hair is the same as ever: cropped to the scalp
For Knight, the political undercurrent of 1929, as represented by the fascist Mosley’s rise, has alarming similarities to today.
‘The populism, nationalism and racism strikes a chord with what is happening in politics right now,’ he says. ‘I’d like to say I saw it coming but it’s a coincidence.’
Finn Cole, who plays Michael, Tommy’s nephew (seen early in the first episode being confronted by the realities of the 1929 stock market crash as he tries to expand the Shelby empire in America), explains: ‘There’s an old movie saying that if you want bad guys on screen, get nice people to play them. It’s true. Take Cillian. You’re watching him play that nasty, nasty man, and in between takes he’s having a chat with you about football.’
For Kirton, much of the shoot made him nostalgic for his school days. ‘A lot of it was filmed in the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley,’ he says. ‘I remember going there as a kid on school trips and getting roasted chestnuts. The whole place smelled of them.’
Not that the aroma on set was always quite as palatable. According to Helen McCrory, who plays Shelby family matriarch Aunt Polly, the whiff would have been rather disconcerting to anyone visiting. ‘It smells like an opium den,’ she says. ‘Honestly, the set honks.’
The reason? Cigarettes. Every character smokes like a chimney stack. Except, luckily for the actors’ lungs, there is an element of trickery involved. ‘They’re not real cigarettes,’ explains McCrory. ‘If they were, I think the producers would be paying out a fair bit in compensation for the damage done to our health. No, they’re herbal. And they are absolutely revolting.’
Natasha O’Keefe, who plays Lizzie, an ex-prostitute who has a daughter with Tommy, says the smoking is easily the toughest part of the job. ‘They’re bloody horrible,’ she says of the herbal fags. ‘Once you inhale, there are consequences: blow your nose and it’s black. I always get a sore throat and it takes skill not to get the smoke in your eyes.’
There is even a member of the props team whose sole job is to be in charge of the smokes. ‘He has a Lizzie tin, just for me. It’s not just a case of handing you a cig, he has to match how far you smoked when there’s a cut, for continuity. It’s a full-time job.’
Not least when Tommy is in shot. The series’ central character is never seen without an unfiltered number in his mouth. ‘The props guy reckoned Cillian smoked more than a thousand of the things across the last series,’ says McCrory. ‘That’s some commitment.’
Oswald Mosley's Black Shirts form part of the cultural background of the new series which is set in 1929
As yet there is no spin-off line in Peaky Blinders herbal tobacco. Though that may be the exception: the industry sparked by this television drama is extraordinary.
‘There’s a Peaky Blinders ballet in rehearsal now, and we’re in discussions about a musical,’ says Knight. ‘My son rang me the other day from Lyon in France, saying he was in a Peaky Blinders bar. There’s one in Melbourne too – they’re all over the world. I didn’t worry about the spin-offs for a long time. I thought they were good publicity for us. But in the end we realised we have to try to do it properly, just to make sure it doesn’t compromise the brand. So we’re starting to do our own merchandise. The first line is being launched in September.’
And it is some project. The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival, in Digbeth, Birmingham, will offer what it calls ‘an immersive recreation of the Peaky world’, with live music from some of the artists who provide the soundtrack, appearances from the stars and boutiques with Peaky-style clothing.
Despite its Hollywood styling, the show is delivered on a BBC TV budget. ‘You always need more money,’ says Knight. ‘How they make it look the way they do for the money we have amazes me.’ And on the rare occasions when there is an expensive item on set, it is treated with reverence. Like the period Bentley Aunt Polly is seen in. Not that she drove it far. ‘No way would they let me drive one of those cars more than five yards,’ says McCrory. ‘Even then, it looks as though you’ve driven into shot, stopped the car, opened the door and got out. What actually happens is you try to start the engine 25 times, then you see the props guy running up, putting his hand in, starting it, then a load of people pushing it to get it going, but the brakes don’t work, so you stop about 20 feet past where you’re supposed to, then you can’t get out. So in the end you start the scene in the car, already arrived.’
For all the cars, the clothes and the coiffures, however, one regular fixture who is notably absent is Tom Hardy’s character, Alfie Solomons, who was killed by Tommy at the end of the fourth series. ‘He was not happy with being killed off,’ says McCrory of Hardy. ‘It makes you think: if they shoot Hardy in the face, no one is safe. That’s part of the fun of watching. Never mind how big the star is, the story is king. Though I do worry it could be my turn to be killed next.’
No one is giving anything away about what happens next. McCrory says she never even discusses plotlines at home with her husband, Damian Lewis. ‘If Damian told me a plot twist in Billions I wouldn’t have a clue what he was talking about. And vice versa with Peaky. We never, ever talk about work.’
So we will have to wait and see. Though the impatient might find some clues by rummaging through O’Keefe’s rubbish. ‘At the end of the shoot I just put the script in the bin,’ she says. ‘Now I’m thinking, no one told us to put this through the shredder, but maybe I’ve just given away a massive spoiler to my bin man.’
‘Peaky Blinders’ begins next Sunday on BBC1 at 9pm
‘The real Peaky Blinders were nastier than anything you see on TV’
Peaky Blinders is based on a gang who terrorised the Small Heath area of Birmingham for a generation around the First World War. According to writer Steven Knight, the historical Peakys were far more violent than anything seen across the drama’s five series. ‘My uncle, who is 98, is my direct link to the real Peaky Blinders,’ says Knight. ‘And he tells me they were horrible: the reality was much more wretched and nasty than anything you see on television. He told me about a fight he witnessed on a bridge in Small Heath, which was the most appalling thing he had ever seen. These men had been in the war, they didn’t care about each other’s eyes, ears, throats; it was like dogs fighting. It was brutal. Everything you see on television is massively toned down.
Original Peaky Blinders gang members’ police mugshots from 1904. From left: Harry Fowler, Ernest Bayles and Stephen McHickie
‘Here’s an example. There was a man in Small Heath in the Twenties, my uncle says, who used to go from pub to pub with a rat in a cage. He’d put his head in the cage and fight the rat with his teeth and kill it, hoping people would give him money. This was Saturday-night entertainment back then. Try putting that on the telly.’
One thing about the real Peakys, however, is that they were nothing like as successful as the fictional Shelbys. Nor were they fashionably dressed. The hats, which often did have razors secreted in the brim, were localised attire that did not spread into the mainstream. Emerging from the violent ‘slogger’ gangs of Birmingham in the late 19th century, named after their mass brawls, the real Peakys were more interested in engaging in local turf wars than world domination.
While Tommy Shelby expands his reach to London and America, the Peakys would be unlikely to move far from the streets around where they were born, largely out of fear of being attacked by rival gangs. Instead they made the lives of their law-abiding neighbours a misery. Raising cash through protection rackets and prostitution, their reign of brutality was, however, short-lived. As rigorous policing put an end to the Peaky times, the relief among the working-class residents of Small Heath was enormous. Life was hard enough without the terror of brutal thugs in baggy caps.