Peaky Blinders Interview
Exclusive Visit Birmingham interview with Peaky Blinders' creator Steven Knight
Steven, tell us a bit more about what viewers can expect to see over the course of the next few Thursday evenings?
It’s a story of gangsters that operated in Birmingham in the 1920s. It’s a family saga – the story of one man who returns from the trenches quite traumatised along with his brothers. He decides that he wants to turn a criminal family enterprise respectable. But first of all he has to do the dirty work to get himself into a position where he can go straight.
It’s a drama with so much significance to your own family. Can you tell us a bit more about that and some of the research that you had to do for the story?
My mum and dad grew up in Small Heath in Birmingham and both told me stories about this world that I’d never read about because it didn’t seem to be depicted anywhere.
My mum was a bookies’ runner when she was nine years old. My dad told me about his uncles who ran illegal betting shops. There was, from their stories, these little snapshots about the glamorous world of gangsters, betting and evading the police that didn’t ever seem to make it into the history books. It felt a bit like a ‘secret history’.
When I started to do the research, I found it was even more remarkable than the stories I’d been told!
You mentioned a ‘secret history’ – how passionate are you about getting Birmingham’s history into the national spotlight? Birmingham of course is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution...
First of all, it’s a personal thing – these are the stories I heard about. It strikes me that often Birmingham is a blank canvas – which is fantastic for me because it means I can start a fresh page.
The truth is that Birmingham’s history is remarkable – it was the workshop of the world, of manufacturing and amazing amounts of weapons and cars and metal goods that were exported all over the world. But that meant that people living in the city were in this really intense environment – there was a lot of hard work. A lot of hard men. A lot of hard drinking. It was a pretty wild town. And it was also a melting pot as it drew lots of people in from all over Britain to come and work here.
So, inevitably there were these amazing stories.
Why was it important for you to tell the Birmingham story?
Everyone must tell their own story. To get that story out there is opening a book that hasn’t been opened before. It’s revealing a secret history that people don’t know about.
You used the Black Country Living Museum as a backdrop for the series – it’s like a ready-made film set, isn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s one of the few parts of the West Midlands where the infrastructure of that era still exists. Because of the Second World War and town planning, a lot of Birmingham was torn down.
It was a perfect environment to shoot. It’s got the canal running through, and a lot of the action took place on there, so it’s perfect.
Do you think this series will prompt viewers to explore a bit more of Birmingham’s history? We’ve got the Back to Back Houses, Soho House, Aston Hall....
Absolutely. You mentioned Soho House – that is another fascinating story that has not been told, where effectively the modern world was invented in a house in Handsworth by a group of scientists.
Even more important is that people explore their own family history. There’s nothing particularly unusual about my family history – if everyone researches their family history, they will find all of these amazing characters living in historical times. If you look at the individual you’ll see explanations for what was going on politically and globally.
You’ve got a background in Birmingham with your family. Do you like to visit Birmingham’s present-day attractions? Are there any hidden gems in the city that you enjoy exploring?
St Andrew’s, Birmingham City’s ground! I still like Small Heath because it reminds me of when I was a kid and my parents used to take me to the matches.
The pub nearby is called The Garrison, which is an acquired taste. But it’s incredible because it’s got a lot of history – my grandad used to drink there. And I’ve used that as the centre of the Peaky Blinders story as their headquarters.
And is it true you took Cillian (Murphy) to The Garrison to do some research...?
I did! I took Cillian and invited a few of my friends who I grew up with. He was interested in getting the accent right, so we spent a long day there. He tape recorded everything that was said and we just talked about Birmingham and their experiences in The Garrison.... and it was a fantastic day!
It’s a real chance to give the Birmingham accent a bit of profile. Was it hard to drill it into Cillian and the rest of the cast?
It was more that Cillian wanted to get it right and I was very anxious that it wasn’t that caricature accent that people do. I don’t know why that’s developed. I think what’s happened is that, in the past, actors have got it wrong and then other actors have imitated the actors who have got it wrong rather than go to the real thing.
The point I was making to Cillian was that it’s a fast, hard accent – it’s not slow. When he listened to people talking, he immediately got that and then spent weeks and weeks walking around his own house talking with this accent. And I think he’s nailed it – he’s done a really good job.
Do you think there’s still work that Birmingham needs to do to get that profile out there, nationally and internationally?
All it needs to do is tell its own story. And not be afraid to tell its own story.
Birmingham people stay in Birmingham. In London, you’ll meet a lot of people from Manchester and Liverpool because they want to get out. Whereas in Birmingham, people tend to stay, so that pollen doesn’t get distributed.
Like any other major industrial city, it’s got so many incredible stories... and why not tell them? If there are writers or film makers in Birmingham, look at home first.
We’ve seen the new Library of Birmingham open this month, New Street station’s popping up and will be open in a couple of years – there’s lots going on here, it’s a great place to be...
Yeah, I think it’s an interesting place. There is always change. More so than any other city – I go away and I come back and everything’s changed. Everything’s been knocked down. It’s a shame because you lose the heritage, but there’s something about Birmingham that’s actually quite different and interesting.
I think of it as the only city where the bypass goes straight through the centre of town – the big roads are all there in the middle. They were probably mistakes made by ’60s developers, but it’s given it this different feel now. This different character. So, embrace it!
I gather you’re keen to come back and use the city as a backdrop for series two and three...
I’m very keen to use real locations in Birmingham, wherever possible.
It’s difficult because if you want a street of terraced houses then you’re going to be taking it over for a number of weeks and people have to live their lives. We found a place in Liverpool that’s about to be demolished.
But, yeah, I’d love to find locations here.
Can you see the city lending itself as a good filming backdrop?
Just now, we were in Small Heath, in The Garrison, and it’s one of those islands where that world has survived. The Back to Backs are still there, the terraces are still there. It’s a question of the practicalities of using those locations – if we can get it organised, it’d be great to say that this is actually where it happened.
Finally, how excited are you about the coverage that Birmingham has had, looking ahead to the series?
I’m astonished – it’s fantastic! It’s evidence that this is new territory. This is not the third series about Birmingham, it’s not the second, it’s the first – so suddenly you get all this attention. Long may it last!
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