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theartsdesk Q&A: Steven Knight and Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Steven Knight and Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders

theartsdesk Q&A: Steven Knight and Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders

As the fourth series approaches, its star and creator explain the process behind the hit drama

Playing a blinder: Steven Knight and Cillian Murphy

Like a lot of people, I came late to Peaky Blinders, bingeing on the first two brutal, but undeniably brilliant, series like the proverbial box-set sensation it quickly became.

With its focus on the turmoil and fortunes of a particularly unruly Birmingham criminal family, its cast, led by Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson and Helen McCrory, has explored the lives of the Shelby clan over three incendiary series so far – with the fourth starting on 15 November.

It’s also a show that’s not afraid to pull out the big guns for the odd, even-more-evil, nemesis. "I don't want to die!" said Sam Neill when he heard his character, police detective Chester Campbell. was going to be brutally murdered at the end of season two. It’s a feeling shared by much of the cast, both onscreen and off, as a show that’s set a new standard for a home-grown BBC production. Peaky Blinders also caught a genuinely noir-ish new mood in music and tone for BBC Two, with everyone from Thom Yorke to David Bowie a bona fide fan of the cinematic TV show. And of course the opening theme tune, "Red Right Hand", has also given a hefty boost to Nick Cave’s own career with the Bad Seeds.

image: Peaky BlindersFast-forward to November 2017 and Peaky Blinders is now one of the best (not to mention biggest) shows that the BBC has to offer. Somehow, Thomas Shelby’s family is still operating: it's just that Polly and Arthur have temporarily put aside their wicked ways while Thomas continues his nefarious ship-building ways.

In season four, he also faces a new female nemesis, played to perfection by a newcomer to the show, Charlie Murphy (no, no that one). Charlie plays Jessie Eden, the trade union activist who made history in the 1920s fighting for women’s equal pay, and as you’ll see in episode one, she’s not afraid of Thomas Shelby; she’s joined in the new series by Adrien Brody as Luca Changretta, who excels as a particularly vicious and vengeful Mafia boss. I sit down with Cillian Murphy and writer/creator Steven Knight after a sneak peek of the first episode. Both are in relaxed, jovial mood: they clearly enjoy each other’s company.

RALPH MOORE: When you start on a new series, is there a sense that you have to go further than you did in the previous run?

STEVEN KNIGHT: There are a couple of things going on, where you’ve hopefully left yourself with a problem to solve. At the end of season three, they’re all going to die and then in the gymnastics of finding the solution to that, sometimes something unexpected will come up and you can follow that as a way of continuing. For me, it’s about trying not to do what you imagine is expected to be done, not the opposite. So do the research into something odd that happened and if you use that bit of reality, it's so much better than making stuff up! If you use reality, you’ll see that it’s not normal or reasonable or rational… it’s insane! So go with that.

Cillian, is it the same for you? Is it important that it surprises?

CILLIAN MURPHY: Absolutely. Our job is to do justice to the scripts and the writing, and the scripts are always brilliant and unpredictable. And then it's our job during the shoot to just bring it to life as best we can. I think there’s always been an impulse to really push ourselves each time. The characters go through all sorts of stuff so I feel like it’s our duty when were making the thing to really push it. And it's hard in a long-form story, in a television show to keep pushing, especially when you’ve got such a big fan base. You always want to improve and challenge.

Was there always a plan when you started making the show that you’d be working on Series 4, 5 and even 6?

SK: You hope. When you start, you’re always in the hands of the people who commission, and who knows where it’s going to end? So I’ve always had the idea that it will end with the first air-raid siren of the Second World War.

Music is very important to the tone of show. Cillian, you’re a self-confessed “music geek”, how do you look at the quality of the contributors?

CM: It’s kind of been pinch-yourself stuff as it’s gone on. Initially, it was Nick Cave giving us his blessing to use music, and that song has now become so associated with the show. Then artists like PJ Harvey came through in Series 2, and in 3 it was Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, prior to his passing, gifting us that music. And Radiohead… all of these guys are absolute heroes and the fact they watch the show and want to be involved is so humbling really.Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders

Do you see Peaky Blinders as a morality tale?

SK: Eventually maybe it will be! I think moral is an interesting word to use because there is a road to redemption for Tommy which he may or may not follow. There's an honesty there but he’s very disillusioned and does have loyalties and he is ruthless… he functions more like an economy rather than a human being. He has a series of self-interested priorities and that’s what he is and that’s what he represents in a way. So if there is any morality, it’s the morality of capitalism.

CM: I don’t think it’s our job to do morals…

SK: We’ll leave that to the Americans!

CM: They’re so outside of our normal moral code: that’s why people find it so alluring, because they don’t operate inside that. So I don’t think there’s a lesson or a message or any of that stuff. That’s not what I get from it anyway!

The theme of estrangement is very important in episode one and I imagine beyond.

SK: Yes. What I wanted to do was to show the family like lawnmowers in old grass and they’re being overgrown by boredom and indifference and yet they could still function when they’re together. So it’s about finding the reason to get all these rusty bits of machinery back together! Fix them and get them going. But the only engine that was running was Tommy, and he was running so fast and so hot that he was going to destroy himself by being so active. Going and going... The idea of the family who don’t speak, God knows we’re all familiar with all of those elements. Elements of betrayal, of trust, all of those big things that happen to ordinary families.

Cillian, are there positives and negatives to playing what has become your most iconic part?

CM: There’s no negative element for me. It’s such a privilege to work with such good material. As an actor, you have a nose for good writing, that’s what’s been my thing anyway: the medium is secondary. So if it’s theatre, film or television, you go after the good shit. And we struck gold here. Well, I certainly did! And then to have that level of writing… to return to it over five years, every actor wants something like that.

We’ve thought a lot about the violence. Steve said early on, there is always a consequence for the violence. The characters fucking feel it

The trailer has had over seven million views: do you feel a sense of pressure?

SK: I try and think of it as fuel rather than pressure! All this enthusiasm, shovel it in the furnace! It gives you the authority. The word I always use is swagger, and it was just there. But you try not to let it affect your day-to-day life.

CM: I don’t really pay attention but I do know this show has become this thing totally by merit. Because it’s not advertised. And there are no posters. It's just people telling people they should watch it, that’s how it happened. And that’s the best thing and the best way you could wish for anything to take hold.

Charlie Murphy is the new leading lady in series four. Has Tommy met his match in Jessie Eden?

CM: I don’t want to give anything away, but I do think that first scene, that first encounter, Tommy thinks, "Oh right, OK, this is a different level", and I think you’ll see how that develops over the course of the series. Charlie Murphy has been wonderful in it.

In episode one, Tommy mutters “there’s blood on my hands” and he means that in more than one sense. In terms of violence, is there anything you can’t get away with

SK: The great thing about working for the BBC as opposed to a studio is they say, “Off you go and show it us when you’re done.” You don’t get endless meetings with executives saying you can't do this or you can’t show that. And where’s the arc? The joy of it is the freedom to do whatever you want. Apart from spaceships!

CM: We’ve thought a lot about the violence. And how Steve writes it. Steve said early on, there is always a consequence for the violence. The characters fucking feel it. Not always immediately. But when Tommy gets injured, he fucking gets injured. In series two, he’s in hospital for a prolonged period of time. These characters, for them, violence is a form of expression. That’s the way they’re made, that the way the First World War formed them and these men, that’s the way they express themselves. And that’s the way they are. You have to take it seriously… and not be flippant about it. It’s not like a movie where you’re shot and [then] you’re back.

SK: In the last series, Vicente Changretta [Kenneth Colley] is shot. And everything in this series is a consequence of that piece of violence. The point someone makes later in the series is that Tommy ordered Arthur and John to kill the wife so this is all a consequence of mercy.

Steven, you have talked about your actual family and superstition and the occasional sense that “there was a feeling something wasn’t right".

SK: If my Dad brought back an ornament, sometimes there would be a feeling that there was something supernatural: in other words, there was a perception of things being right or not right, in terms of superstition. Nowadays you might call it negative energy or positive energy. What I’m saying is, in amongst a very practical working-class group of people, there is also this element that is anything but practical. In the first series, Tommy believes a sapphire is cursed. And so he goes and asks someone if this is the reason something has happened. So the combination of superstition and pragmatism.

CM: It’s kind of like it’s bad luck not to be superstitious!image: Peaky BlindersCan you talk about another new character coming through, the Romany gypsy?

SK: He will arrive in episode two and will stay with us for a while. He plays a character called Aberama Gold who is a hit man. He shines a light on a different place.

Is there anywhere that you’re surprised the show has been a success?

SK: EVERYWHERE! Everywhere you would imagine a story about 1920s Birmingham would be. In the US it’s been huge, in Europe it’s been huge, Eastern Europe, it's huge. In Turkey, they’re going to remake it with Turkish actors, so in places where there is no logical connection to the environment, it’s still huge. Almost every actor I have worked with has watched it. Snoop Dogg. Writers, producers. I don’t know about you [looks at Murphy] but it’s always the first topic of conversation…

CM: It is kind of amazing how many people watch it. Again: it's just GREAT!

Steven, you have said that “Tommy is the ultimate capitalist.. but also isn’t.” Can you explain what you meant?

SK: Because he has that motivation switched on. Whether it’s the desire to make profit… any other consequence is secondary to that. He believes in sapphires and he believes in his family. He wants to prove himself to be better than people who consider themselves to be better than him. There’s a scene where the snooty auctioneers say: "What do you do for a living?", and he says, "I keep boats." And they say, "Yachts?" And he says: "No, canal boats. And I tell fortunes and sell clothes pegs." It’s really an American sensibility, that I can break out of this but he keeps banging up to the British sensibility. The question from the whole series is, Can people from this background escape?

Also, that rules are made to be broken.

CM: Absolutely. He has no respect for authority or polite society or any of that shit. There’s a line in this: “I AM MY OWN REVOLUTION!” It’s such a great line and that just sums him up.

Tommy is a rock star, isn’t he?

SK: Very much so.

CM: He doesn’t give a shit, that’s the thing. He really doesn’t. And that’s very attractive. There are very few people who genuinely don’t give a shit.

SK: And in his story, this is all a bonus: after all, he almost died once.

  • Season four of Peaky Blindersis on BBC Two at 9pm on 15 November

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