Bradford City Hall is a grey, gothic palace with an outsized clock tower that looms over the city’s Centenary Square like a brasher, angrier Big Ben. Today it is doubling as the Palace of Westminster, which it mimics in style and grandeur, if not in size.
I’m on the set of ‘Peaky Blinders’, the BBC’s period gangster epic which returns this month for a fifth series. ‘Peaky’, as it’s known to its legion of fans, tells the story of Tommy Shelby, a man who comes home from the First World War having seen bad things and proceeds to do bad things himself. The show charts his rise and rise as the head of a Birmingham crime family, and a walk through the Bradford City Hall set shows just how far Tommy has come. The kingpin of Garrison Lane in Small Heath, Birmingham now has the grandest office in the “Houses of Parliament”.
“He takes to politics like a duck to water,” says Cillian Murphy, the 43-year-old Irish star who plays Tommy. One of the crew lights him a clove cigarette before he heads in to his office for a take. “I think he enjoys the corruption,” he says, grinning.
On the door is a sign reading “Thomas Shelby, MP.” Inside are all the accoutrements of status and power — crystal glasses, decanters of brandy, a silver cigar box and, on the wall, a full-sized oil painting of the office’s occupant, in his trademark three-piece suit with fob watch and tie-pin. You might have seen the portrait already — a few days after my visit, David Beckham, no less, tweeted a picture of himself standing next to it. Beckham looked elated to be in the company of someone he obviously considers a hero.
I ask Steven Knight, ‘Peaky Blinders’’ creator, if he feels proud of how far his lead character has come. “Not yet,” he replies. “I want to see him knighted before we’re done.”
Like Tommy Shelby becoming an MP, the rise and rise of ‘Peaky Blinders’ has been both unexpected and exhilarating to behold. The show first appeared on BBC Two on a Thursday night in September 2013 with little fanfare. It looked tailor-made for a cult, which is to say small, audience: violent, hyper-stylised, shot through with grandiose slow-motion sequences, in the niche setting of the backstreets of Birmingham just after the First World War.
But Peaky had the devil-may-care swagger of its protagonist imprinted on every frame. The indie soundtrack demanded its own Spotify playlist. The fashion, the newsboy caps that gave the show its name (the Peaky Blinders are based on a real gang who used to stow razor blades in their hats), the tweed suits, the heads shaved at the side, long on top, seemed like something out of a men’s fashion shoot. Not only was Peaky cool — it knew it was cool.
“It was really confident in its identity from the beginning,” says Murphy. “I think that the Americans have been incredibly good at mythologising the working class or the immigrant class I suppose, which is Italian-Americans in gangster shows or cowboys in Westerns. Whereas in British television, it’s been more about the aristocracy who’ve been represented on television. Steven [Knight] basically took a period of history that’s between the wars that hasn’t been dramatised very much on television, and wrote about these types of men who were spat out from the First World War and just had to make do.”
‘Peaky’s’ gunslinging swagger has only grown as the series has gone from cult favourite to mass-market phenomenon. Picked up by Netflix abroad, it has won celebrity fans as diverse as Snoop Dogg, Ronnie Wood and Julia Roberts. Adrien Brody liked it so much he signed up to appear in the fourth season as a New York gangster who’d come to England to settle a vendetta. Tom Hardy, another major Hollywood star, took a recurring role as early as the second series.
But ratings success (and a rare transfer in the UK from BBC Two to BBC One last year) is built on popular support, not celebrity shout-outs, and it’s in Britain that Peaky Blinders has made most impact. There are Peaky bars, Peaky parties, people have Peaky weddings, there’s a Peaky music festival next month, and you can dress like Shelby in the Peaky Blinders clothing line.
Some go even further: “People have full back tattoos of Tommy Shelby,” says Murphy. “I can’t quite fathom it. It’s really plugged in to something.”
Knight, who, as well as writing various films and TV series also co-created the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, remembers talking to Snoop Dogg about the global success of his creation. “I met him and we had this long and smoke-fuelled conversation. He said in South Central LA people love it — he said it reminded him of how he got involved in gang culture. In New York, in the black and Hispanic communities, people love it. South America, it’s huge...”
Knight’s theory is that, at heart, Peaky Blinders, like The Sopranos, is a show about family but it’s also, he says, a paean to working-class heroism. “It takes a look at a working-class family and doesn’t either pity or despise them. It actually looks up to them. It’s aspirational in that sense.”
There is, Murphy says, no formula for this kind of cultural contagion, but he is proud of the way Peaky’s popularity has evolved, rather than being fattened up synthetically by blanket marketing.
“It has been incremental,” he says. “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 is a sense among the Peaky cast and crew that they are part of a people’s show that took on the big-budget behemoths. The series won Best Drama at last year’s Baftas, with Knight using his acceptance speech to thank “the geniuses who take a tiny budget and make a huge programme”. He went on to question why Murphy, Helen McCrory (who plays Aunt Polly, the matriarch of the family) and Paul Anderson (who plays Tommy’s older brother, Arthur Shelby, Jr) had been repeatedly ignored in the acting categories.
This slight chippiness has served the show well. “The budget is far less than it should be,” says Murphy. “Therefore, by necessity, you have to be clever in your design because you can’t spend a s — load of money on a massive set.”
For its fifth iteration, set in 1929, ‘Peaky Blinders’ is moving into new territory. One scene I watch being filmed features a new big-name guest star, Sam Claflin (most famous for his part in ‘The Hunger Games’ films), coming to Tommy Shelby’s office to negotiate some kind of partnership. It quickly becomes apparent that Claflin is playing a Labour MP called Oswald Mosley.
“I was honestly not aware of him before being offered the role,” says the 33-year-old between takes. He chooses his words very carefully, aware that he is talking about the man who would go on to become the leader of the British Union of Fascists.
“But learning about politics at that time has really opened my eyes. He is very ambitious [Mosley was considered a potential Labour prime minister before resigning in 1931 and founding his New Party], but I think in his mind he is doing what he thinks is right for the good of the people, for everybody. He is power hungry to a point, but not to the point where he wants a dictatorship, I don’t think... it’s not for me to say really.”
Peaky Blinders does have a say, however, in its depiction of Shelby’s reaction to Mosley. The fifth series begins with the Wall Street Crash, and, while focusing on Tommy’s journey as a Labour MP charged with spying on burgeoning Communist elements, it interweaves moments and characters from history. The parallels with our own times are readily apparent.
“The 30s and now have a lot in common, I think,” says Knight. “The crash happened, the bubble burst, everybody was thrown into reality, and the bitterness started to creep in and that’s where the divisions started. So I’m starting this series at the very beginning of that, and in the next series and the next, I’ll take us through the Thirties and see how that unfurled.”
Knight has grand ideas for a series that has already exceeded expectations. He talks about a ‘Peaky’ movie, a ‘Peaky’ ballet, a ‘Peaky’ musical. He expects the TV show, meanwhile, to have two more series, and while he hasn’t mapped out what happens — “I think if you sit and map something out, it kills it. It becomes rational and real life isn’t rational” — he does know what Peaky Blinders’ final scene will be.
“The first air raid sirens of the Second World War will be the last thing,” he says. “I really want to tell the story of a family between the wars, but also tell the story of what happened in Britain via those characters, without ever losing sight of the fact that this is about emotions and the relationships of these people.
“I am plotting Tommy’s redemption over this whole thing. Look at him now — he’s an MP, seemingly accepted by the upper classes. But the question that I wanted to ask with the whole series is: ‘Can you get out? Can you change?’”
Don’t miss it
‘Peaky Blinders’ season 5 airs on Netflix from October 4.