LONDON – Steven Knight knew something special was happening around “Peaky Blinders,” his TV crime drama, a few years ago, when the rapper Snoop Dogg asked to talk with him.
The pair met in a London hotel room, Knight said in a recent interview, and for three hours discussed the show, which is based on the real-life Shelby family that operated in Birmingham, in central England, in the shadow of World War I . “Peaky” reminded the rapper of how he got involved in gang culture in Los Angeles, Knight said.
“How the connection occurs between 1920s Birmingham and South Central, I don’t know,” Knight, 62, said. “I think you just get lucky with some projects and it resonates with people.”
Since premiering in Britain in 2013, the tumultuous fortunes of the Shelby family, headed by Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), and set against the backdrop of the political and social tumult of the interwar years, has resonated with many.
Now, after six seasons, the cultural hit is drawing to a close, its final outing dropping on Netflix on Friday. (The season aired in Britain earlier this year.) While Season 6 is the official conclusion of the show, Knight has trailed a spinoff movie and other projects, framing the final season as “the end of the beginning.”
In a recent video interview, he discussed the development of “Peaky,” and what he has planned for the future. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When did you first have the idea to dramatize the story of the Peaky Blinders?
These stories were told to me when I was a kid by my parents because they grew up in Small Heath in Birmingham, and so they sort of experienced that world. When they told me stories, I always thought it would make a great drama.
I first thought about doing it as a TV series probably 20 years ago, and I’m really thankful that it didn’t happen then because I don’t think there was the technology to have done it justice. Then I was off writing movies and, when television started to become what it is now, someone said, do you have any television ideas? It was an idea that I had sort of in the bottom drawer.
Why did those stories resonate with you as a child, did you see them as heroes?
Yes. My dad’s uncles were illegal bookmakers known as the Peaky Blinders, so he was in awe of them as a kid – whenever he saw them he was terrified and impressed, they were heroes to him. He would see them in immaculate clothes with razor blades in their hats and drinking whiskey out of jam jars.
And I know those streets, I know the pubs, I know the Garrison pub – the real one – and when I wanted to do “Peaky” I decided to keep the mythology rather than be like, what was it really like?
I wanted to keep it as if they were being viewed through the eyes of a kid. The horses are all beautiful. The clothes are all magnificent. I was a big fan of westerns; it’s like a western, and that’s how I wanted to keep it.
Do you think the show has changed how Birmingham is viewed? In Britain at least, the city and the accent have often been maligned.
Part of the challenge in the beginning was to try and make Birmingham – which was a blank canvas at best before – cool. To give it a story. Liverpool has the Beatles and Manchester has the nightclub scene, Birmingham never really had anything.
There was a suggestion in the early days of moving the story to London or another city, and I said no. I think the fact that Birmingham was a blank canvas helped because there were no preconceptions.
According to people I know from Birmingham, when they go abroad and they speak, instantly people mention “Peaky Blinders.” And it’s not a bad thing, it’s always good. I think it has given Birmingham an identity that perhaps it didn’t have, purely in the media.
The show could easily have been ahistoric, but you weave contemporary social movements and political goings-on throughout the seasons. Why was that important to you?
If you’re setting something in the 1920s, if you look at what was really going on historically, it gives you an enormous amount of material to use.
I didn’t look at history books because I think they, first of all, don’t really tell the history of the working class anyway, and also they tend to look at trends and patterns that eventually made everything that happened seem inevitable when it wasn’t.
If you look at newspapers and wherever you can get word-of-mouth testimony about the way life was, it’s so fascinating. And if you can bring that into the work, it just gives it – even though this is very heightened and mythological – a real base.
The show takes place in a similar time frame to “Downton Abbey.” As in that series, British period dramas usually show working-class characters as servants.
Servants or figures of fun or whatever. What I wanted to do was have these working-class characters where we’re not looking at them and saying, ‘Isn’t it a shame? Wasn’t it awful? Wasn’t their life so dreadful? ‘ Their lives are amazing and romantic and tragic.
An abiding critique of the show is its portrayal of violent masculinity. What do you think about claims that “Peaky” glorifies violence?
I think there’s lots of things going on. First of all, you’re depicting life in the ’20s and’ 30s and it was very different – to suggest that people behaved the way they behave now, would be the same as saying they didn’t smoke. But also, the way that I look at it, any act of violence in “Peaky” has a very big consequence. If they get scarred, they stay scarred.
There’s a scene in one of the early series where Arthur [a Shelby family member] is in a boxing ring and kills someone because he loses his temper. In the next season, that boy’s mother turns up at the Garrison with a gun and wants to get revenge for what happened. In other words, it’s not like this is parting violence. All violence has a consequence.
The show is coming to an end, but you have spoken of spinoffs, including a movie. Why do you want to keep returning to the show’s world?
It’s partly to do with the fact that it seems to be going up and not down in terms of audience. And I’m interested in concluding during the Second World War. So the film will be set during that war, and then the film itself will dictate what happens next.
But I’m quite interested in keeping that world going into the ’40s and’ 50s and just seeing where it goes because as long as there’s an appetite, then why not do it? I probably won’t be writing them all, but the world will be established.
Tommy Shelby is a deeply complicated character. How did you want his story to end?
I always imagine that before Episode 1 of Season 1, he put a gun to his and decided, ‘Well, I’m not going to kill myself, I’m just going to do whatever I want.’ There’s a great Francis Bacon quote about how, since life is so meaningless, we might as well be extraordinary. Tommy doesn’t think there’s a point, he doesn’t think there’s a goal, he doesn’t think there’s a destination, he just does these things.
Then over the six seasons, he, bit by bit, comes back to life. It’s like something that’s frozen is thawing out, but obviously that process is very painful. My take is that Season 6 is asking the question: Can Tommy Shelby be redeemed? And I think that question is answered in the last 10 minutes.