[This interview contains SPOILERS for Peaky Blinders season 5.]
Steven Knight talks with Screen Rant about his hit series Peaky Blinders, and how season 5 confronts fascim and puts Tommy Shelby in a place he's never been before. Since it launched in 2013, the early 20th century crime saga has been a stylish and captivating series that capitalized not only on its distinct look and sound - often incorporating modern music and guitar riffs into its soundtrack to amplify the action - but also on its terrific cast, headed up by a beguilingly chilly Cillian Murphy as crime boss Tommy Shelby.
Season 5 has recently been made available on Netflix, following its UK run, and the new season brings more trouble to the Shelby clan in the form of the financial crash of 1929 and, more ominously, the rise of fascism, spurred on by the nationalistic rhetoric of racist politicians like newcomer Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin). The growing movement is enough to make Tommy believe in something larger than himself, and, according to Knight, just might lead to the character finding some sort of redemption.
Knight spoke with Screen Rant ahead of the new season's arrival on Netflix, and he spoke about his writing process as one of the most prolific writers in film and television today. He also touched on the series' future plans and the thinking behind bringing Tom Hardy's Alfie Solomon back from the (presumed) dead. Read Knight's full interview below:
I wanted discuss just how prolific a writer and director you are. What is your process like and how do you juggle so many different projects?
Yeah, it's... I don't know. I have a process of working where what I tend to do is to sit at the keyboard and just let it go, let it happen, rather than planning something out and then writing it up. And it's a process I think that, what it means is that I can just embark on, for example, writing the next set of Peaky, just get done with it and then let it go. And that tends to mean that over an intense period you come out with something that is a unit, it essentially comes out in one piece. And so maybe that means that it's possible to produce quite a lot of stuff without having to resort to reason and rationality. So I try to access whatever the source of this stuff is directly and just let it go.
Season 5 is certainly quite politically charged this time around. What was your approach to that and why did you feel it was important to tell that kind of politically minded story right now?
Well, it's strange. Peaky is sort of... it's lucky for Peaky and lucky for the world, but often when I sort of jump over two years or three years to the next series, there always seems to be some resonance with what's going on in the contemporary world. And in season 4, Tommy became a politician. And so, just looking at the landscape, the real landscape of the time, even as a labor party politician he would inevitably have rubbed shoulders with a character like Oswald Mosley, who was the labor MP for the constituency next door to that constituency that Tommy has taken. So it didn't need to be forced to have Tommy confront this nascent political ideology that characterize the '30s, which was fascism. So basically we're throwing the Shelby's and Tommy into the world with the '30s, where nationalism, racism, fascism were all coming to the floor. And you know, it doesn't take a lot for one to see parallels with those days and these days. So it means the Tommy's struggles in this series feel quite timeless.
When did you know you wanted the series to run headlong into the stock market crash and the rise of fascism?
I very rarely have a plan that goes up. What I've been doing is just charting a course between starting in 1902 and going forward a full two or three years and finding a place to land, and it's always useful for me to start on a specific date. This time, something important happened and obviously the Wall Street crash happened at the end of the '20s, and that led to the depression in the '30s which led fascism and to all of those things that inevitably led to the second World War. So I wanted to throw Tommy into the heart of that situation.
Oswald Mosley is a fascinating character this season, and he has a frightening speech near the end of the season, that sounds terribly familiar. Were you drawing from both history and present day politics in crafting that speech?
Well, the interesting thing is that all of the phrases that you would find from contemporary politicians were in the real speeches. So it's not a case that I've taken things like false news or Britain first and inserted them into the speeches. They were there. So that's the language that he was using at the time and he would start every speech with false news as his focus . So that's there, that's just a historical record and people can draw from that what they do.
Speaking more directly about Mosley, he's a fascinating adversary for Tommy. What were your intentions with regard to their power dynamic and the idea that Tommy was up against a foe who was at least as smart as he is?
I think that Tommy sees a reflection of himself sometimes in Moseley in his ability to, you know, enforce his own power. But what I'm interested in, in the long term story of Tommy Shelby is, here we have a bad man who's been doing lots of bad things and he suddenly confronted with something that is sort of more evil than anything that he's done before. And Tommy Shelby at last has to take a stand, you know, you have to - or maybe he doesn't - but he's in a position where he needs to make a decision about which way it's going to go, and that's what I think is interesting about how the story of Tommy Shelby connects to the story of European wars and how people have to make a choice.
What do you think keeps Tommy going at this point?
Well I think that's always been a really interesting question. It's possibly the most important question you could ask about him. Why does he continue? And I always imagined that just before start of the series, episode 1, season 1, he put a gun to his head and nearly killed himself. 'Should I carry on or not?' I always refer to the Francis Bacon quote: 'Since it's all so meaningless, we might as well be extraordinary.'
And I think that for Tom, it must've been something along those lines, he doesn't have a lot to claim to in terms of reasons for continuing, but just decides to be extraordinary anyway. And I think that's what keeps him going. But what I'm hoping is that, as the series continues, we see hime find reasons, genuine reasons, to carry on and that he'll even find redemption.
I wanted to talk a little bit about Anthony Byrne who directed this season. Can you tell me about your impressions of what he was able to accomplish and how the two of you worked to bring this, this vision to life?
He's brilliant, and it's no secret that we've asked him to return for the next series as well. And he's going to, because he did such a great job and the cast has such great chemistry with him.
He's got a fantastic eye and it's like that with every director comes on board. There's sort of a house style, the Peaky has, there are certain things that we do and every director brings to it a different kind of nuance. [Anthony's] done a fantastic job and we should bear in mind that all of the directors I worked with had incredibly limited budgets even though it looks like an expensive show. We're working on a fraction of the budget that a lot of the big shows from the States and also from Britain have. And it's the job of the directors to make it look big. And luckily we get heads of departments and lots of the crew who return every season, and they worked for half what they normally would get just because they want to work on the show. So we have a great deal of goodwill that we have to acknowledge.
The show is a rare breed in television today. It seems like the response to it gets bigger and bigger every year, and now it feels like a true international hit that everybody wants to watch at the same time. What has your experience with the series' growth and its reception worldwide been like?
I find it quite astonishing. I mean, you know, anecdotally there are so many stories that recently someone comes back from Panama city and said the barman in the hotel, he's saving up to try and get flights burn cause he just wants to walk around the streets where the, where the piece of land is worth. And you know, it's the breadth of people who respond to it. And for example, last week declared a front cover of rolling stone South America is Tommy Shell from color and it's, the international, the SABIC that I, I have no explanation for, but it's certainly growing every, you know, snoop dog was just leave video, red, white hat using people's lines with clips as long as you.
Let's discuss the decision to bring Tom Hardy back as Alfie Solomon. What was the thinking behind that and how did you actually manage to pull that off? I know that you've worked with Hardy quite a bit. Is that just something where you can call on him when you need to?
Yeah, it's great. You know, that it's almost like I tried to kill him and I couldn't. He's indestructible. Also, Tom really didn't want to die, and so I had to factor his value when I write a character that, one that has such an influence and is so popular. I was talking to a journalist earlier who said that while watching episode six - he was watching with his wife - and his wife cheered as if a goal had been scored in a soccer game, when she heard Alfie's voice. So I think he's earned his place as a miraculous character.
This season concludes in a way that's maybe more open-ended than seasons past. How did you come to settle on that idea and why did you think it was right for this season to end the way it did?
Yeah, I mean I've always tried to end it on a situation where people are left guessing what's going to happen next. I never want to conveniently tie things off, so that what everybody is expecting to happen, happens, so hen it's like, 'Well that's over, what should we do next?' I think it has to be true to history where things happened that appear quite random and they don't seem to be part of a larger pattern. And then when you look back, you realize they are part of the pattern. So I think when people find out the reasons for the things that happened at the end of season 5, they will understand the seeds were planted a long time ago.
Peaky Blinders season 5 is currently available to stream on Netflix.