A flat cap, a horse and a Nick Cave song were all it took to change Cillian Murphy’s life. Six years ago he clopped through the streets of Birmingham to the strains of Cave’s Red Right Hand. It was the first scene of the first episode of Peaky Blinders. After that nothing was quite the same for the Cork actor.
Even in this age of blockbuster television, Peaky Blinders is a phenomenon. It’s the highest-rating BBC series not to feature Jeremy Clarkson screaming at cyclists. In the United States, where it screens on Netflix, it’s the ultimate binge watch. And in Murphy’s charismatic gangster Tommy Shelby it has given us one of the great TV anti-heroes.
Murphy is that rare performer who can burn a hole in the screen simply by narrowing his eyes or tilting his chin. In Shelby he has created an irresistible bad guy, like Walter White and Tony Soprano
“Nothing is black and white any more,” Murphy says of the challenge of bringing to life the magnetically villainous Shelby. “Nothing is reductive. If you look at all the major protagonists in all the iconic TV shows, they’ve neither been the square-jawed hero nor the nefarious villain. They’re this wonderful mix of contradictions. That’s why people identify with them. We all have contradictions within us.”
The success of Peaky Blinders, which returns next weekend for a fifth season, flows partly from the heightened atmosphere it conjures with so deliciously. It is myth-making on a grand scale. The series recasts the Brum tenements of the 1920s as a gangster’s paradise in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, Chicago circa Al Capone or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
The show’s popularity is also a testament to Murphy’s quietly ferocious presence. He’s that rare performer who can burn a hole in the screen simply by narrowing his eyes or tilting his chin. In Shelby he has created an irresistible bad guy. Tommy is a fascinating monster in the tradition of Breaking Bad’s Walter White and The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano.
“With this new series he’s struggling psychologically a little bit,” Murphy says when I meet him in London. “He always has been, a little bit. But now he’s in a tough place emotionally. He’s quite fragile.”
Murphy has had to wrestle with a different side of Shelby going into season five. This rogue with the fashion-forward buzz cut is now the member of parliament for Birmingham South and, on the surface at least, a respected businessman. But the Wall Street crash is looming. And the far right is polishing its jackboots. (The Hunger Games star Sam Claflin has been cast as the English fascist leader Oswald Mosley.) That’s a lot for Tommy and his criminal family – which includes Helen McCrory’s ferocious Aunt Polly – to reckon with.
“For the first time Tommy is facing not a physical threat but a psychological threat,” Murphy says. “That was a bit development thematically for us. To realise what he’s battling more than the much more conventional threat of the Mafia [Tommy’s foes in season four]. As dangerous as that is, you can grasp it. It’s another criminal gang. This is fascism he is wrestling with. What tools do you employ to defeat that ideology?
Murphy didn’t quite know what to expect when he signed up to play Shelby. He’s the fictional leader of a real-life clan of career criminals who sewed razor blades into their hats – hence “peaky blinders” – and operated out of Birmingham’s rough-and-tumble Small Heath area. Nobody involved really had a sense of how big Peaky Blinders would become. That included the series’ creator, Steven Knight, who took inspiration from the stories his parents would tell of their hardscrabble upbringing in the Birmingham slums.
At no point did its creator expect Peaky Blinders to become the flat-cap-and-petticoat version of Game of Thrones. Nor that its fans would include Snoop Dogg and David Bowie
“My mum was a bookie’s runner when she was nine years old,” Knight said last year. “My dad’s uncles were illegal bookmakers. When they were kids, everything was big, glamorous and fantastic. Even though it was a desperately poor suburb of Birmingham. They mythologised it.
“And then I mythologised it a second time. What I wanted to do was make it almost as if it’s being seen through the eyes of a kid. To do what Americans do with their history and turn it into something other than what it probably was. They turn [their history] into Westerns and Chicago gangsters without embarrassment.”
This was 20 years ago. He wrote a pilot and pitched it to Channel 4. Those plans didn’t work out. The script languished in a drawer and Knight got on with more pressing matters, such as helping to create Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for ITV. Then, in 2012, the BBC got in touch and wondered if he’d like to have a try at drama again.
So Knight dusted down Peaky Blinders. He felt it might make for an interesting period piece. At no point did he expect it would become the flat-cap-and-petticoat version of Game of Thrones. Nor that its fans would include the rapper Snoop Dogg and David Bowie, who was such a devotee that he requested they use his music. (Murphy sent Bowie his original flat cap by way of thanks.)
“It’s astonishing,” Knight said last year. “The effect it’s had around the world is what surprises me the most. People really love it. I don’t know why. There is a swagger and glamour people respond to. It is heightened and removed from reality. I had a bizarre couple of hours with Snoop Dogg... He came to London. His agent said, ‘He’d like to meet you.’ We spent three hours talking about how Peaky Blinders reminded him of how he got into gang culture.”
The contemporary resonances of Tommy’s doing battle in season five with far-right zealots set on derailing British democracy hardly need explaining. Murphy has addressed the fact head-on, remarking that Ireland “can’t be held to ransom” over Brexit.
But today it’s Tommy’s more personal demons that are uppermost in his mind. “His goal [this season] could be classified as a noble one. His means to get there... perhaps not. Definitely not. That’s interesting. It’s hard to get your head around. He’s charismatic. You want to spend time with him. But obviously you can’t justify his actions.”
Murphy leans forward and narrows his brows. “I’m not here to justify him. We’re not playing naturalism here. This is stylised. It’s within the gangster genre. You’re not really using the same moral compass as you would with a regular human being.”
As Murphy says, Peaky Blinders is heavily stylised. Action scenes are invariably shot in Guy Ritchie-style slow motion. And there’s that astonishing score, which this year features the Irish-UK protest punks Idles. An early sequence in episode one sees Murphy, back on his nag, riding across a blasted heath to a telephone box. The camera frames him from below as Nick Cave croons. It’s just a guy on a horse. But it’s incredible.
Peaky Blinders is very violent. Helen McCrory has said some of the scenes in the new series are so savage that she can’t bear to watch. Murphy acknowledges the series often literally goes for the jugular.
“There is violence. But there are consequences,” he says. “When someone gets beaten up or cut... Tommy, in season two, was in hospital for months. I would hate to think anything is gratuitous about it. If people want to analyse it that way, that’s fine. People are entitled to their own opinions. If it makes you flinch or turn away, I think that is probably a good thing."
“There are two kinds of violence in Peaky,” adds Anthony Byrne, the Dublin director who oversees all of season five. “The slow-mo, stylised, music-led violence that is kind of cool. And then the graphic depiction of violence that has consequences. It’s a question of choosing when to use one or the other. These are conversations we spend a lot of time on and take quite seriously.”
Peaky Blinders is, along with all that, one of those British successes that owe a great deal to Ireland. Without Murphy’s charisma it wouldn’t work. Alongside Byrne’s direction, the Irish actor Aidan Gillen is a prominent cast member. His old Love/Hate costars Charlie Murphy and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor have featured in earlier seasons. How is it that the BBC’s biggest global hit has such an Irish flavour?
“The IRA were in the show right from series one,” Murphy says. “Inevitably, then, you have to get the best Irish actors. Foolishly we killed off Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. We should have kept him alive. Because the Irish question was a very big deal at that time historically, Steve is writing it in. It’s also a reflection of the talent in the Irish film and TV world. For such a small pool we’ve produced wonderful actors and writers and directors. My ambition is to have it exclusively Irish by the end.”
The fifth series of Peaky Blinders begins on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday, August 25th