Steven Knight, creator of the BBC period gangster show Peaky Blinders, talks us through the third season.
Peaky Blinders has always been a passion project for Steven Knight, the British screenwriter who first came to attention with his gritty thrillers Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007).
The show is based on the stories told to him by his parents about their own fathers and uncles, who were bookmakers and gangsters in Birmingham in the 1920s, the setting for Peaky Blinders – named after the real-life gangs who sewed razorblades into the caps.
In the third season, gangster Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) is drawn into a web of political intrigue when he is forced by a shadowy organisation with strong ties to the Establishment to aid White Russian émigrés looking to bring down the new Communist regime.
Below, Knight talks about what to expect in season 3 and what he would like to do for season 4.
What are the main themes of series three?
The themes that are prevalent are power, the abuse of power, and the effect that power has on Tommy and the family. It is also about how everyone is trying to escape where they are. It’s a question of, are any of them able to escape? Can any of them get away from their past, the history, and in a sense their destiny? It’s about aspiration and if you look at it sociologically, it’s about people from the working classes in England and can they ever – no matter how much money or material wealth they have accumulated – ever escape where they are from.
What sort of man is Tommy at the start of series three?
Tommy’s trajectory is always upwards, but it’s never smooth and never simple. He has to do things at the request of some very powerful people and all of it illegal as ever. The consequence of his success will be huge. Already he has made a lot of money and his living standard is unrecognisable from when we first met him at the beginning of series one and that trajectory will continue. His is a cash business and he is converting that cash into objects.
You’ve said in the past that series one was opium, series two was cocaine, what is series three?
Opium was essentially used by people who were trying to alleviate acute pain and that seemed reflective of the tone of the first series. The second series was cocaine reflected by the wildness and the madness of the early 1920s. People were revving it up and getting into gear. In the third series I think it is power and the effect that has on people; how they respond to it and how intoxicated they can become as a result of it. Even though the other drugs are still around in series three, it is more of an existential thing for Tommy.
When you sat down to write the third series had you already mapped out the journey or do you approach each series individually?
I never map things out in advance. It would be better if I did and more economical in terms of time, but I’ve found that if you work out a plot line from beginning to end, at the beginning it becomes very rational. I prefer to just start writing because I find the process of writing offers all sorts of random possibilities that are much more like life – far-fetched and unbelievable.
Tell us about the character of Father John Hughes – is this Tommy’s toughest adversary yet?
I would describe him as the most evil character that has ever appeared in Peaky. He is part of a very powerful group. He represents various pressures of the time and a particular sort of self-justification and righteousness that the Shelbys have always fought against. He is more of a spiritual authority than a political authority therefore he is more of a difficult enemy for the Shelbys to take on.
What does Paddy Considine bring to the role?
To get Paddy to play this part was sensational because he is just so, so good. And one of the great pleasures of this series is that I know I can write Cillian and Paddy together, and just know that it is going to happen. It is brilliant.
How much of Alfie Solomons was on the page and how much did Tom Hardy bring to the character?
On the page is the ‘stuff’; the stuff he’s got to do and he has to make it from A to B and with Tom in particular, almost exclusively, there is a lot of improvisation that is very exciting. But the most important thing is that Tom arrives with the character and the character is so manufactured in the moment that it is fantastic to watch his performances unfold.
Are there things that you already have planned for the Shelby family further down the line?
I want the family trajectory to continue upwards and for them to become wealthier and more powerful. The only thing I want to do is for Tommy to become knighted – to become Sir Thomas Shelby for various nefarious reasons! But I just want to shine the light on the 1920s and hopefully the 1930s with this family. The only clear thought I have for series four, if there should be one, is to include the general strike of 1926.