Behind The Scenes with… Peaky Blinders

Epic, cinematic and set in the criminal underworld of 1920s Birmingham, Peaky Blinders has taken the British period drama to a whole new place, as Will Strauss discovers

It may have early 20th-century costumes, but this is not your run-of-the-mill twee period piece. For starters, it’s set in Birmingham, a city that, despite its industrial heritage, is rarely the subject of period TV fiction. More importantly, no one is trussed up in a corset.

Once upon a time, writer Steven Knight co-created Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and bounced ideas around with Jasper Carrott. But after his screenwriting break on Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, he’s more at home on gritty dramas.

His latest, Peaky Blinders, BBC2’s six-part gangster drama set on the cusp of the 1920s, takes it stylistic lead from epic sci-fi and spaghetti western movies: a sort of Brummie Sopranos or Once Upon A Blade Runner In The West (Midlands).

It tells the story of Thomas Shelby (right) and his family, who run the powerful titular gang. Named after their practice of sewing razor blades into the peaks of their caps, they make their money from illegal betting,protection and the black market.

Set during an uncertain period in British history, when the country was still reeling from the impact of World War I, it couldn’t be further from the contemporaneous Downton Abbey.

Knight says it is based partly on real events and partly on family legend. “It’s fiction woven into a factual landscape,” he says. “My dad had tantalising memories of these people from when he was nine or 10. They were incredibly well-dressed and powerful and had a lot of money in an area where no one had money. They were gangsters.”

Intriguing Period Myth

Although semi-historical, the design, shooting style, soundtrack, scale and pace is a beautifully imagined pseudo-modern backdrop to an intriguing period myth.

“When this came along, I saw an opportunity to do something very different,” explains director Otto Bathurst, who is no fan of “standard” period dramas. “Just because a story was written 200 years ago, do we have to film it as if it was filmed 200 years ago? No. These writers are writing in contemporary times. I wanted to create a sort of big, epic, cinematic piece, helped by the fact that nobody had a clue who the Peaky Blinders are.”

The drama, then, is more ‘cool’ than many period pieces, with a mythology Bathurst hopes will create a viscous connection with its audience.

“It’s historically accurate but isn’t meticulously researched,” he adds. “With the clothes, I want people to think, ‘that’s a beautiful suit, I want that suit’. And the haircuts – I’m seeing Peaky Blinder haircuts on the streets now, because that’s the point, they were the kings of the street. Yes, they did shocking things and yes, they were brutes, but they were the best dressed, they had the best women, the best horses, the best haircuts and they had £50 in their pockets. Who doesn’t want to be in that gang?”

This vision permeates everything in the series including the cinematography.

“It’s shot to look like 1919 via 1974, when all the best movies were made,” says DoP George Steel who took his lead from The Godfather films. “It’s glossy and glamorous but also dirty. Like Gordon Willis [DoP on The Godfather] we used 40mm lenses a lot in order to get the camera close in, particularly to Thomas, to penetrate his mind and create a connection [with the audience].”

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