fri 20/09/2019

Power, politics and Peaky Blinders - the Shelby family return for Series 5 | reviews, news & interviews

Power, politics and Peaky Blinders - the Shelby family return for Series 5

Power, politics and Peaky Blinders - the Shelby family return for Series 5

Steam-punk gangsters invade the corridors of Westminster

It's tough at the top: Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby

This is how Steven Knight pictured Peaky Blinders when he first set about creating it. “I was very keen not to do a traditional British period drama, especially where it comes to depictions of working class people. Where the impulse is to say ‘it’s a shame, it’s a pity, isn’t it awful, wasn’t everything terrible for women’.

“The Shelbys are a family that completely controlled their own destiny, and also coming from that background myself I wasn’t surrounded by people walking around saying ‘poor me, isn’t it terrible’. They were enjoying life and making the most of it, glamourising it, and that’s what I wanted the Peaky Blinders to be.”

Thanks to its ultra-violence, mordant humour, period detail and slow-motion "Peaky walk", Knight’s romping, stomping drama about the murderous Shelby clan from Small Heath, Birmingham is now a hit in 183 countries across the globe. Another keynote of the show has been the way it blends historical facts and characters into its lurid fictions. In the previous four seasons we’ve seen Winston Churchill, the rise of the IRA, the 1926 General Strike and real-life Communist and trade unionist Jessie Eden, although it seems the new series 5 (which begins on BBC One on Sunday) will not after all feature a rumoured appearance by Al Capone.However, keeping an eye on its historical agenda, the new season begins in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which has sent a sizeable Peakies investment in the American markets tumbling into a black hole. Peaky supremo Tommy (Cillian Murphy) isn’t best pleased by this, while he must also fend off a treacherous threat from Belfast and adjust to his new life as the Labour MP for Birmingham South. Tommy is enjoying making powerful new friends in high places, but he must watch his step after his Parliamentary oratory catches the attention of Oswald Mosley, the notorious British fascist (though in 1929 he was still a Labour MP), played with sinister sang-froid by Sam Claflin (pictured above).

At a pre-season press launch, Knight reflected on historical parallels between then and now. “It’s been fortunate for us and unfortunate for the world that the things that were happening in the time where we’re setting the series have an unbelievable resonance to what’s going on now,” he observed. “In the Thirties it was the rise of nationalism and populism, fascism... and you look at the world now. What I hope people might take from this is, what was the consequence when it happened last time? Nine years later there was a world war, so maybe it’s not such a great idea. Mosley was getting 100,000 people at his rallies and there were 100,000 trying to get in. They loved it!

“But it’s not because I planned it, it was just fortuitous that as we’ve done these leaps of years we’re hitting on this time when something that’s happening is so resonant. I think people will find it staggering or they’ll think I’ve made it up, that the language and the phrases that we use from that time are not just similar to now, they’re the same. It’s the same language completely. Which is quite chilling.”

Claflin, by contrast, came to the Mosley role with none of the background research that Knight had saturated himself in. “For me Mosley was a fictional character,” the actor reflected. “I didn’t know anything about him before stepping into his shoes, so I was fortunate in that I was approaching it from a non-judgmental angle. I didn’t have any feelings or thoughts towards him. I do now! The one thing I was always taught at drama school was you have to love your character before anything else – it was very, very difficult with this one. But I had to understand who Mosley was and why he was making certain decisions and why he thought the way he thought, and I think that’s always terrifying and challenging, but I enjoyed that.”

In terms of the drama, Claflin sees the introduction of Mosley as a challenge to Tommy, a high-wire dangerous liaison.

“Tommy is sort of out of his comfort zone, he’s playing a big boy’s game now. He’s playing chess, if you will, and Mosley is someone who grew up playing chess, so it’s the big fish in the small pond, going into the ocean all of a sudden. Mosley is still young and inexperienced in many respects, but at the same time a lot more experienced than Tommy. For Tommy especially this series is very different and takes a very different approach. It’s much more Tommy’s battle with Tommy. Tommy’s his own worst enemy.”

Elsewhere, the landscape is studded with familiar Peakies landmarks. Helen McCrory (pictured above) is on imperious form as Polly (“I think she’s quite Old Testament, I don’t think she’s really listened to many of the sermons on the mount, and I think she’s an eye for an eye,” as McCrory encapsulates her). Arthur (Paul Anderson) provides further evidence that he’d be wise to stick to threats and intimidation and steer clear of the strategic planning, while Murphy’s portrayal of the conflicted Tommy, tormented by the chaos inside his head, is agonising to behold. The music, a mix of metal, blues and steam-punk which boosts immeasurably the hyper-real aura of the show, has been masterminded by Anna Calvi. “Cillian said it,” notes Knight. “He said ‘you hear a piece of music and it's either Peaky or it’s not’. And somehow you sort of know.”

It’s Sophie Rundle, returning as Ada Shelby (pictured right), who smartly articulates what it is that gives Peaky Blinders its menacing but scintillating allure.

“It’s just so cool!” she enthuses. “How often do you see this kind of punk energy on the screen? What’s so beautiful about Peakies is that it’s mythologised British history in a way that we’re quite shy about doing. The Americans do it very well, they take their history and they make it fuckin’ rock’n’roll, and I feel that this show does that. It’s funny and it’s cool and it’s not ashamed to be a bit heightened. I really like using this word at the moment but it is punk, it is a bit anarchic, and it just keeps going and it just keeps gaining momentum each time, and people keep coming to it more and more and more. It keeps attracting all this amazing talent, and I think that’s what draws people in. It’s quite unlike anything else we have on TV at the moment.”

What’s so beautiful about Peakies is that it has mythologised British history in a way that we’re quite shy about doing

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