When Peaky Blinders returns to UK TV screens via BBC Two on May 5, viewers will be plunged into Tommy Shelby’s wedding day, as creator Steven Knight has previously confirmed. While we won’t spoil any reveals here, I did sit down recently with Knight, star Cillian Murphy and executive producer Caryn Mandabach to discuss the epic crime saga’s past and where it is headed. We talked about comparisons to The Godfather and what sets the gangster dramas apart, as well as Tom Hardy’s return, how Murphy imagines Tommy’s pre-war persona, and why the character will never, ever be seen eating.
Ahead of our sit-down at a screening event in London, the trio along with co-star Helen McCrory (Aunt Polly) discussed the ambition for Season 3 which Knight said is to take the Shelby family “onto the next level. They’re richer and not necessarily happier. Tensions in the family are growing. The question of the whole series is, ‘Can people from this background escape, become respectable, get away?’ We’re trying to dramatize the things that pull them back… Cash you can get, the respectability could possibly take 500 years.” McCrory added, “However much you’re wearing white gloves, there’s still the grime of Birmingham under your nails.”
The third season sees Tommy pulled into the world of international intrigue — replete with Russian refugees and arms dealers — in 1920s Britain, where the risk to his organization and family will force him to question everything about his own ambitions and desires. Among the additions this year is a new stately home, and Paddy Considine as “the most evil character that Peaky Blinders has ever seen,” according to the Birmingham-born Knight. Tommy’s brother Arthur is attempting to come to terms with his demons, while Tom Hardy’s Alfie Solomons returns in the second half of the season, “with a bang,” says Knight. And, there’s new music to come from some very famous folk including Nick Cave and Radiohead while Mandabach says, “watch this space” on even more.
DEADLINE: The juxtaposition of contemporary music within the period setting has been such a big part of the series, do you play music on set?
MURPHY: We have a couple of times. At the beginning of some shots we play Red Right Hand to get in the vibe.
DEADLINE: That’s a haunting theme tune. Cillian, how do you see Tommy’s internal conflict?
MURPHY: That’s a big question… You have to have conflict to have drama and I think why people are attracted to him seems to be what I’m attracted to in characters: that contradiction and that struggle and tension and trying to do one thing and knowing that to achieve that you’re going to have to do something else really not honorable. He’s pretty tortured and I always think there’s a side of Tommy that we’ve never, ever met and we’ll never meet; the pre-war Tommy, and then there’s this other character we’ve only ever met, who exists now.
DEADLINE: Do you know who he was before?
MURPHY: There’s snippets, and Polly talks about him… I imagine this character with ambitions and hopes and that sort of stuff. But I mean, just to sort of imagine what it would take to change a man so fundamentally — to break a man so fundamentally — but also create this f*cking unquenchable drive, there has to be that horror of that war. And I think that to see the fact that life can just go that quickly (snaps fingers) that he knows that at any point he’ll go, he might just as well, f**king, you know, take it all.
DEADLINE: What do you think of comparisons that are made between Peaky and The Godfather?
MURPHY: Those films cast such a long shadow and always will do over this genre, and you can’t avoid the influence they’ve had on this; they’re masterful. I’ve watched them and I think you’re always going to pay tribute consciously or subconsciously. But what I think distinguishes our show is that it’s British, and (Godfather) is fundamentally Italian immigrants in an American story whereas our story is fundamentally British. Also, the access to guns in America is obviously different. Here you have to steal them or rob them or inherit them, whereas in America it’s just your right; all those distinctions differentiate it profoundly.
DEADLINE: Steven, do you have The Godfather in your head?
KNIGHT: Anybody who has ever watched The Godfather has it in their head, you can’t avoid it. But if ever anyone set out thinking I’m gonna do an English version of it, or an anything version of anything, it’s bound to fail. This is inspired by stories told to me by my parents. My dad’s uncle was in the Peaky Blinders. So the interesting thing is the reason The Godfather works is because it’s true and because it’s true, it’s also true in other places…
I think these gangsters in Birmingham are exactly the same as Italian gangsters in New York would impress the local people and assert their power and dominance by the way they dressed, the way they acted, what they didn’t do, the lack of empathy, all of those things. The same thing was true in the stories that I was told of these people… It’s almost like because The Godfather was so good, it gives you permission to deal with people like this knowing that an audience will respond.
And the other influence for me is Westerns which is why you see in the very first episode Tommy on a horse riding through the streets. The Western is a liberating genre in that it takes non-landed, agricultural workers in the 19th century and mythologizes them and makes it about honor and virtue and evil and all of those things. And what I wanted to do was take something from my background and mythologize it in a similar way.
DEADLINE: What do you guys think of today’s television, the so-called Golden Age?
MURPHY: I’m moving house, so for the last month I haven’t had a television and before that I was making this show so I didn’t have time. I’m well out of the loop. I haven’t watched anything in about a year.
MANDABACH: I don’t know that things are going to get better. I think we might have plateaued. As a community there’s like an inflationary cycle related to the available talent and particularly the writing talent in television and the notional thing of attempting to be all things to all people. One person’s truth is another person’s truth. At its heart, it’s about human beings rather than a Europudding approach or a stylistic approach. You know, it needs a masterful writer to get to that, so I don’t know that we have that many masterful writers on Earth… You do need a really big element of luck, but you also have to be like (Steven) is, like (Cillian) is, like I am: sort of pure of heart and a bit dumb.
KNIGHT: There’s a great Leonard Cohen quote which is to be a writer, “all you need is arrogance and inexperience.” I think it’s absolutely that: Don’t watch anything, don’t know anything. You don’t want to know what you can and can’t do.
DEADLINE: So, even if you’re not watching, you’re aware of Netflix’s role in bringing Peaky to U.S. audiences. What do you think of that sort of platform?
KNIGHT: Without the platform there’s nothing. What I’m finding really exciting even increasingly in the last two or three months is the amount of people who have now seen the first two series. A lot of people have only just seen them and the amount of response and amount of love for the show, the way it’s affecting how people are dressing and behaving differently, the way that in the States we’re hearing that Hispanic and Black audiences are responding; that’s fantastic. Without a platform they’re never going to get a hold of it and I think these are exciting times in television because we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. It’s all being stirred. People in America are willing to watch something set in Birmingham, whereas I don’t think that was necessarily true when we started.
DEADLINE: Speaking of starting, you’ve said you want to end the show with the first air raid siren of World War II. Are you still planning on working toward that in two-year jumps?
KNIGHT: I haven’t thought it through logically. The emotional destination is the Second World War because it’s the story of the family between the two wars. If we get there great. In order to get there, I suspect we would have to increase the gaps.
MANDABACH: And the make-up budget…
DEADLINE: Is part of the attraction to the series that there is a long wait between seasons airing?
MURPHY: I don’t know, I think the wait in between the last one was everyone was working. It wasn’t deliberate, the main thing is the will for all the actors. Everybody wants to be in it and wants to come back, everybody loves it, it’s just a question of working it out.
MANDABACH: In America, they’d be under seven-year contracts, locked. If there’s time, you can do a movie. In America, the joy and the love — by nature because you’re a prisoner — goes (Murphy and Knight echo the last word). You tend to build up a bit of a resentment, whereas the trouble here is that you can’t get an option on the actors; they have to love you. And the worst problem is that they are playing a family. Steve doesn’t like to kill a family member, I mean who does? It’s no good fun.
So I think it has to come from love and if it has to come from love then it comes from the scripts. And then he has to write six scripts and we can tell pretty much how long that’s going to be. Once we have the scripts, because we don’t have enough money, we have to cross-board them so they’re shooting six different episodes in the same day. It’s a logistical nightmare, so your hope is that you have enough time, eight months, for people to know what they’re going to do… Because it’s a family, there is a lot of pressure on letting people know as soon as possible. They’re so wonderful, but they have to protect themselves.
DEADLINE: Steven, you said earlier about the role of women in Peaky, if one doesn’t reflect the strength of them in a family, it’s “making a choice” and that “the idea that (one) would write non-powerful women would be bizarre.” What did you mean?
KNIGHT: It’s odd, maybe my experience of life is different, but women in a family are in charge. That’s just the way it is. This is a family.
DEADLINE: Cillian, we’ve learned that Tommy smokes about 3,000 (herbal) cigarettes across Season 3. You’ve said he is exhausting to play. What do you do when you wrap after four months of intense shooting?
MURPHY: I don’t want to come across like I’m moaning. It’s such a f*cking gift. I’m just being honest, it just destroys you. (Afterwards) I try not to do anything. It’s just the relentless nature of who he is and scheduling and everything that’s involved. I guess because he’s so fundamentally far away from me in every way, it’s such a massive journey to get to and I know when I’m in it, I’m just f**king in it and then it takes a while to just shake it off. He never sleeps, he never eats.
DEADLINE: So, is he ever going to eat?
KNIGHT: No. I’ll tell you something about Birmingham men. For my stag night, we went away for two days to somewhere in Spain with people I know now and my old friends from Birmingham. And on the first day, some of us had some olives. So that was noted. And then, day two at the end of, three of us sat down, one of them tore open a packet of potato chips, and one of the Brummies went, “Eating again, girls?” Olives and a packet of crisps! They won’t eat in public.
Netflix has not yet set a date for the U.S. launch. In the meantime, here’s the Season 3 trailer: