If Martin Scorsese had been born in a grimy English factory town instead of New York City, he might have made something like Peaky Blinders. Based on a real-life 1920s British gang, the BBC Two series, now on Netflix, stars Irish actor Cillian Murphy as World War I hero-turned criminal mastermind Tommy Shelby. He takes over the family business to run illegal gambling in Birmingham, England, with his psychotic brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) and nail-tough aunt Polly (Helen McCrory).
In Peaky Blinders' first six episodes, Tommy outsmarts IRA rebels, communists, gypsies, and beautiful barmaid/spy Grace (Annabelle Wallis). In season two, which launched last month, Tommy contends with North London mobster Sambini (Noah Taylor), Jewish bootlegger Alfie (Tom Hardy), and aristocratic horse trainer May (Charlotte Riley). As the corpses pile up, the sadistic Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) tortures or kills anyone who gets in the way of his life's mission: to crush Tommy Shelby.
"From the beginning we were looking to do a period piece that wasn't like any period piece that had been done before," says Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. "Americans have no fear of mythologizing their own history: 19th-century agricultural laborers become cowboys. In England, we're almost embarrassed by that kind of thing but I wanted Peaky Blinders to have the same kind of boldness you see in American westerns."
Speaking from his London home, Knight took a break from writing the series' third season to describe how he and his team use strange haircuts, brooding cinematography, dandy gangster fashion, and raggedy rock and roll music to construct the sound and fury of Peaky Blinders.
Peaky Blinders bears surface similarity to HBO's mobster melodrama Boardwalk Empire, also set in the 1920s. The show's brutal street brawls recalls Scorsese's Gangs of New York, while Tommy Shelby's quiet intensity brings to mind Michael Corleone in The Godfather. But the stories Knight heard as a child lit up his imagination more vividly than any fictional crime saga. "The idea came about because my mother and father were kids in the 1920s and when my mum was nine years old, she worked as a runner for an illegal bookie."
There's more. "My great uncle was actually in the Peaky Blinders," Knight says. "When my dad was eight years old, so poor he had no shoes, somebody gave him a message and said, 'Take this to your uncle.'" At Peaky Blinders headquarters, Knight says, "My dad got hit with a waft of cigarette smoke and saw a round table covered in money and these immaculately dressed men, their caps tilted at a jaunty angle, drinking beer out of jam jars. Growing up with these little snapshots of what life was like back then, it made me think, 'This is a helluva world.'"
The series' larger-than-life qualities draw directly from the source material, Knight says. "I wanted Peaky Blinders to have a heightened reality because the stories came to me from people who were kids when they witnessed these events. And when kids remember things, the horses are bigger, the men are better dressed, the pubs are bigger, everything is bigger and more glamorous."
Working with costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan, Knight re-created a dapper dress code for members of the Peaky Blinders gang based on mug shots and local lore. "We used pictures the police had taken of genuine Peaky Blinders and saw that they had this very particular way of dressing: their hats were very big and sloppy so they could hide their identity, rather the way a hoodie would be now."
Gang members concealed razor blades in the brims of their so-called "peaky" caps so they could surprise enemies with a quick slash across the face, giving rise to their "Peaky Blinders" nickname. "They had more effective weapons like guns and knives, but just the fact that they had razor blades as part of these crowns that they wore—it was like a uniform to scare people," says Knight.
Knight notes that the stiff collars, striped shirts, and polished shoes reflect the importance of a good suit to working class Brits. "Men were incredibly careful about their appearance because they had nothing else," he says. "Your suit was a very precious thing. And a lot of the Peaky Blinders had military training for World War I so the idea of order, neatness, and polished shoes had been drilled into them. I really wanted to get that across."
Members of the Peaky Blinders gang stood out from the crowd by shaving their scalps short while leaving mop of long hair on top. "Cillian said he was scared to death the first time he saw himself with that haircut," laughs Knight. "It's based on First World War haircuts which had these very shaved sides and backs but hair that went under the helmet didn't matter. My grand-dad was a barber in the first World War and he used to give us those cuts when we were kids. I remember them well."
As shot by cinematographer Simon Dennis Peaky Blinders presents industrial age Birmingham as an urban inferno, with characters silhouetted against blasts of molten orange sparks, fires, and random explosions.
Knight says, "Cinematography was the area most affected by the idea that this world is being seen through the eyes of kids. My mom and dad remember a throbbing city filled with smoke, dust, fire—you'd see huge flashes coming from factories that operated 24 hours a day. The thumping and pounding and smoke never stopped."
Art rocker Nick Cave's doom-laden "Red Right Hand" sets the tone for each episode while White Stripes' screaming guitars underscore much of the first season mayhem. "For me it was never an option to use music from the period because if you do that, you're putting another barrier between the audience and the characters," explains Knight. "Nick Cave and the White Stripes establish in a subliminal way that these are contemporary emotions. We kept the music to a very limited number of artists because otherwise your soundtrack starts to sound like a juke box."
For season two, PJ Harvey performed her own primal rock and picked the show's other music cues. "When PJ curated the songs, she tried to treat the soundtrack as a unit," says Knight. "The idea with PJ and our other collaborators was to find people who really got what the series was about, and then leave them alone so they can do their own thing with it."
Knight avoids generic crime story cliches by allowing his characters to go big with their rhetoric. "The rule in film and television is to be 'naturalistic,' but I believe we have to defend the poetry within dialogue and not throw it away just so you can have your characters mumble, as if that proves how real they are," Knight says. "I try to write dialogue in a way that's closer to how people really talk, which I think is a mixture of gibberish and poetry,"
Neill's Inspector for example, describes Tommy Shelby to his lieutenant in florid terms: "Shelby is a worm that feeds off the rotten parts of your mind. He gets in through your ear. With a whisper. He crawls in over your tongue when you lie to the judge and the pastor."
Knight says, "Campbell comes from this Protestant northern Irish tradition of fire-brand ministers that go completely over the top to terrify people. It's legitimate for him to talk this way because he would have access to this whole vocabulary of corruption and rot and sin and vice."
Knight sketched out his treatment for Peaky Blinders 15 years ago, then put it in a drawer to focus on novels and movies. "When I came back to the idea and wrote the first Peaky Blinders episode, I didn't have anyone particular in mind to play Tommy Shelby," Knight says."I'd just made a film called Redemption where I'd met Cillian for the lead. I thought he was brilliant but I made the mistake of wondering if he'd be physically big enough to play this big scary person."
Cillian lobbied for the role and convinced Knight he could pull it off.
"On the screen, Cillian's so intimidating, especially the way his eyes are dead. He was really keen about playing this shut-down, closed off quality that you see in people coming back from the war after they've seen their best friends blown up into 10 different pieces."
The first actor cast for Peaky Blinders, Murphy attracted an ensemble of relatively unknown but brilliant British character actors. For the second season, movie star Hardy—Bane in The Dark Knight Rises—joined the fray to play the alternately hilarious and terrifying gangster Alfie Solomons. "Getting Cillian early on helped us get the rest of the cast because so many actors admire him. Suddenly Sam Neill's in, Tom's in, and the whole thing starts to snowball."