After a little under a decade, Peaky Blinders is coming to an end. Across six season, Steven Knight’s period TV series has followed Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and his dysfunctional family from the late 1910s, into the 1930s.
In the final season, we’ll find out what kind of man Tommy has become. Broken from the First World War, he’s since turned into a fierce political opponent whose got one goal in mind: secure his family’s future. Nothing is easy, least not for the Shelby siblings, but Tommy is ready for the challenge.
In anticipation of season 6, Knight gave us some of his time to discuss the tone and shape of what he calls “the beginning of the end”. We learn about the incidental parallels between the landscape of Peaky Blinders, and our current struggles, both locally and on a global scale. Knight explains why this longform project could have only ever come from a broadcasting body like the BBC, and what he hopes prospective creators get from the legacy of Peaky Blinders, as it all starts to tie itself up.
The Digital Fix: The opening of season 6 is very dark, with this big, fiery elegy. What kind of tone did you want to strike for this season?
Steven Knight: It’s always quite dark, but I just felt that things are coming to a head now. I know Kilian has described it as gothic, and I think that’s quite a good description. But yeah, it’s the end of a certain part of the story, and so it needs to feel like it.
Tommy’s trauma is still catching up with him. Can you tell me about his emotional arc at this point in the story?
Yeah, the plan from the very beginning was to take a character who’s completely switched off as a consequence of war, who is dead inside, and bring him back to life bit by bit, but not to do it in an unrealistic way. People who’d suffered trauma like that, suffered it for the rest of their lives. So it’s not like season 1 is the trauma season, and season 2 is something else. This is with him and Arthur for the rest of their lives, so I wanted to reflect that.
Cillian Murphy has been with the show since the beginning. How do you collaborate with him on Tommy? Do you have conversations with him, or do you write everything and hand it over?
It’s a bit of both. I mean, I write everything and give it to him, and he does it. But along the way, we have conversations, usually with a few beers, to talk about where he’s going, who he is, and just unpacking Tommy’s character. Hopefully, there’s enough depth there that you don’t get to the bottom of the well – ever. We still don’t get to the bottom, really.
There’s a time-jump in episode 1, what made you want to move forward four years so quickly?
Due to Covid-19, we’d missed a season. So we jumped forward a bit more than we normally do. I felt that, with the loss of Polly, the story needed time to heal from that, so that it wasn’t still as raw as it would be after two years.
That brings us closer to World War 2, and I’m wondering, is that going to shape the narrative of season 6?
Yeah, in the ’30s, no-one knew it was going to go that way, but we know it went that way. So inevitably, you feel the portents of doom in the story, because that’s where everything’s heading. And it’s just been coincidence, but it’s been no-one’s intention that the fact that Peaky Blinders story is taken to this period of history has so many resonances with what’s going on at the moment.
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There’s no way of avoiding that, and it would be deliberate if you didn’t reflect that. So the rise of fascism and nationalism in the ’30s is not me imposing that on the story, that’s just the way it was.
As you’re writing Peaky Blinders, has there been anything that felt like a reflection of what’s happening now?
The most stark example was in the last series where, when I was researching Oswald Mosley and looking at his speeches, he’s saying things like, ‘Britain first, fake press, fake news.’ I thought if I put these in people will just think I’m superimposing the present on the past, but it’s not, that’s what was happening. If you want to achieve anything outside the screen, then you might think, ‘Well, maybe it’s a warning, what happened last time’.
I know you like to uncover aspects of history in your research – is there anything in this season that surprised you?
I suppose the prevalence of opium in working class communities isn’t really often remarked on. And the depths of how bad certain people were, who were part of the English aristocracy, or the Midlands, who were just so bad, and semi-redeemed as time went by. That’s what shocked me.
Besides Cillian Murphy, you’ve had actors like Tom Hardy and Anya-Taylor Joy join the show. Do you ever write towards getting a particular star?
Not really. We do attract these incredible actors, and not only that, we get great loyalty from them. They’re being offered much bigger things, and they do this for love, which is always quite humbling. I try to write the character, not the actor, if possible. However, you know, you look up from the screen sometimes and see the face of the actor and think, ‘OK, they can take us there’. So it’s a bit of both.
There’s been talk recently of dismantling, or otherwise changing how the BBC functions. Do you think Peaky Blinders could have happened without the BBC?
That’s a fantastic question, and thank you for asking me, because absolutely not. The BBC was the only home for this. The BBC nurtures and fosters brave and daring content. The BBC should be strutting across the world. In this age of American streamers, they are fine, but the BBC – name another broadcaster that had a good Second World War. It’s got roots, it’s got depth. The BBC is our Coca Cola.
You pivoted to a movie instead of doing another season. Did that change how you wanted to end season 6?
Yeah, I’d love to say that I’ve got control over what I’m going to write, but I don’t really have conscious control over how the thing is going to end, even though I tried to have a destination in mind. So I’ve always had the Second World War destination.
But then, for me, writing is quite a chaotic process, and you read it back and see where it’s going, and let that have the authority. So it turns out that there’s more to tell, and so I want to tell that in the form of the film. And then, subsequent to that, who knows where we’ll be?
Spencer has been nominated for a number of awards, including Kristen Stewart for Best Actress at the Oscars, congratulations!
Indeed – there’s been some talk of bias in the BAFTAs against stories that focus on the monarchy. Do you think that’s true?
Oh, God knows. I mean, I actually don’t know how the whole awards system works. It seems to change all the time. So I always think I should care more about it, because it involves other people as well, but I don’t really.
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Now that we’re in the final season, what is it you hope people take away from Peaky Blinders?
Well, I hope that English writers or British writers will look at their own history, their own grandparents, their own backyard, and see the mythology and the romance, and not be embarrassed. You know, the Americans can write songs about their towns, but we can’t write songs about Huddersfield in Birmingham.
But why not? You know, the dramas and the lives that people live in in your own backyard are just as big and dramatic. So I hope it spawns some sort of self-belief, if it’s needed, in working class British stories.
Peaky Blinder season 6 premieres February 27 on BBC One.