Behind the Peaky Blinders

peaky blinders

Last night saw the premiere of the highly anticipated BBC 2 gangster drama Peaky Blinders, a series set in early 1920s, post World War I Birmingham about a notorious criminal gang and the community that harbours them. In the first of two interviews, On The Box chats to the writer Steven Knight & director Otto Bathurst about the series and where it came from.}

How did Peaky Blinders come around for you both?
Steven Knight: It’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell for a long time, and a story that was in my extended family. It’s a story of gangsters in Birmingham in 1919, and a hidden history of England where the English failed to mythologize their own history. The idea was to try to fictionize a period of history and a true story that would be cinematic and appealing.

Otto Bathurst: Very simply: The script. Scripts like that don’t come along very often. I have a pathological hate for British TV, and turned away hundreds and hundreds of period offers because of the way period telly is made in this country. You have two versions: the upper class, posh, chocolate box way of filmmaking; or the downpit, grim, poor working class setting, none of which feels remotely interesting to a modern audience.

When this came along, we knew from the very beginning that this was a real opportunity to do something different. If you Googled Peaky Blinders 12 months ago, you’d get a few pages about them. It’s a joy as a filmmaker, because you have this blank canvas to really create this mythological world.

Did you do a lot of research before getting this project off the ground?
SK: There was a lot of research into how things looked and how things were back then. When Otto & I first spoke on the phone, we didn’t want to do a typical gritty, urban, its-so-grim-up-north type of British television, we wanted to find the glamour and the glitz and the romance of the story. The research was already there, and its accurate. But what we’ve tried to do is to glamorize those times, but still make it tough.

You’ve got a really star studded cast in this drama (Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, Helen McCroy,etc). How did you get these actors to do the show?
OT: Its really simple again: you have a good script. We had many well known names knocking on our door, wanting to be apart of this. A lot of the people that were involved were our first choices for the roles. There’s no longer a divide between film and TV. Cillian has never done TV before, and they recognise that these types of stories don’t get told in cinema today.

For an actor, to have six hours with that character, and develop it for that long, is terrific. What I’m more pleased is casting the secondary characters, because they can create the world purely with their faces. I don’t think there’s a weak link at all during this series.

SK: It was a group decision really. It we had problems; it would have gotten ugly very quickly. It was important that Cillian came onboard because he brings an authority and integrity to the role. I agree with Otto in the sense that television is different but not inferior. Its definitely not the younger brother of film anymore.

Did the BBC have any involvement in the developing process?
SK: It’s a bit of a non story. They liked the script and wanted to see more. They were a lot of meetings and no raised voices at all. There weren’t any real obstacles when developing this. We were all kind of singing the same song.

OT: Once the BBC say yes, they’re very good at letting you go and take control of the entire production.

You premiered Peaky Blinders at The Edinburgh Film Festival, which is very unusual. How did this come around?
SK: To be honest I have no idea (laughs).

OT: We wanted to make something really cinematic. We’ve had small industry screenings prior to Edinburgh, and the reaction was wonderful. So for us, it’s a really good marker to say that this premiered at a film festival, rather than TV. It shows what level we’re aiming at and squeezing the gap between film and TV. It’s a really nice confirmation for us both, that this is a special show.

SK: The quality of the way Otto’s directed it makes it great to see it on the big screen. The way people watch television and the quality that people look at was so different to how it was 5-10 years ago. Suddenly, people in their homes have this enormous quality. TV is really starting to catch up.

What would you like audiences to take away from this series overall?
SK: I would like them first and foremost to be entertained, and just watch it as a piece of great TV. It’s a family drama as well as a gangster drama. It would be a huge bonus if they learned something new about English history, as well as approaching their own history with a little more confidence that the Americans have done with Westerns.

Peaky Blinders is on BBC now