Cork actor Cillian Murphy talks to Alan Corr about his lead role in Peaky Blinders, a new BBC drama that some people are calling the British Boardwalk Empire.
A solitary figure on horseback makes his way through the smoke-choked night. Foundries boom around him and great flames bloom and flare as men stripped to the waist toil in unimaginable heat. Long satanic shadows are cast across the soot-blackened streets and buildings. The air is acrid and pungent and Nick Cave’s phantasmagoria Red Right Hand blasts away in the background.
It sounds like a Bosch-like vision of hell but it is Birmingham in 1919 and this is the opening scene of Peaky Blinders, a new six-part drama starring Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, the ambitious head of a criminal gang with a mean grip on the industrial heartland - the Peaky Blinders. They've earned their name from their custom of sewing razor blades into their flat caps and they make their money from illegal betting, protection and the black market.
Written by Steven Knight, the brilliant screenwriter of Eastern Promises, the cast includes the great Helen McCrory as matriarch Aunt Polly and the equally great Sam Neill as the ruthless Chief Inspector Campbell, an RIC man who arrives from Belfast breathing fire and brimstone under orders from Churchill to clean Brum up.
In the aftermath of the Great War, a damaged generation is reeling from the trenches and Brum is stirring with communism, Fenians and industrial upheaval while the underworld becomes a cesspit of crime gangs and corrupt cops.
It’s certainly fertile ground for great drama and Peaky Blinders certainly packs a lot into its first episode.
Alan Corr: Cillian, this is your first major TV role. When you looked at the calibre of the people involved, it was obviously something you were keen to be part of...
Cillian Murphy: “It was the quality of the writing that drew me to it. Steven Knight is such a brilliant writer and I’ve loved his films. I read the script for Peaky Blinders and it was unlike anything I had read before and the idea of exploring that character for six hours was very appealing.”
You play Thomas Shelby, a taciturn and rather cool customer who can expedite “tricky” matters when he needs to but he is also a principled and honourable man who was awarded for gallantry in the trenches...
“What’s wonderful about the character is the historical context. These guys have just been spat out from the army after the First World War and thrown into society without any counselling or pharmaceuticals and they deal with the realisation that they were all traumatised heavily by what they’d been through in the First World War. Many of them brought back their weapons with them. It was an explosive society in Birmingham at the time so when we meet Tommy he is emotionally a bit crippled and it would be interesting to see what he was like before the war. He may have been a very different and carefree individual but when we meet him something is broken inside him. I think he’s lost all respect for authority and the establishment and he’s lost his faith as well so it’s a very interesting, complex character to explore. These fellas that came back from the trenches rejected everything. It’s like they were betrayed, everyone had let them down. Tommy smokes opium too.”
It’s a drama full of compelling characters not least Chief Inspector Campbell, an Orangeman who arrives from Belfast to put manners on Brum’s underworld. He’s played with great bible-thumping gusto by Sam Neill. It must have been fun to pit Tommy’s nihilism against Campbell’s iron-willed authoritarianism...
“Yeah, he’s brilliant. Sam is just a brilliant man and a brilliant actor and I’ve admired his work for years. He’s such a bastard in Peaky Blinders that you can’t help but loathe and love him. I loved the Irish connection there – Sam was born in Belfast [Omagh] originally and now he’s playing someone from Belfast. That whole IRA aspect becomes more involved as the series develops and I’ve done research on that period for a different project so I know all about that stuff. The series is historically accurate – Churchill was involved and at the time, people like Campbell were trying to clear out Belfast. When you’re working with actors of that calibre you always have to raise your game.”
The great Sam Neill plays evangelical Unionist Campbell like a potent mix of Carson and Paisley
What about the Brum accent Cillian - do you think you got it right?
Wait and see! The people of Birmingham will be the judge of that. I felt confident enough in that Steven Knight is from Birmingham himself so I would pester him constantly, leave messages on his phone in the Birmingham accent asking him 'How is this Steve? How are we doing?’ He’s confident in it but yeah, it has to be authentic but yet accessible. People need to understand what the characters are saying so I hope I did it some justice. I spent a lot of time on it . . . I get a bit obsessed with things like that so hopefully it’s close enough.”
Did you feel territorial over how the Irish dimension was handled in the series?
“We discussed it obviously and Steve has done a lot of research on it and I have the knowledge I’ve amassed over the years. You will see more of the Irish involvement in the second half of the series. Steve is very astute and very erudite so I had confidence in him completely. It’s gas because some of the lads that were in The Wind That Shakes The Barley are in this and I feel like a total turncoat. I have confidence in Steve and also I know my place as an actor, which is to turn up and do the best job I can and not cause trouble.”
The Shelby clan
One of the nicest touches in Peaky Blinders is the use of modern music by the likes of Nick Cave, Jack White and The Black Keys. Were you pleased with that?
“I have to say I was a little bit nervous of having period stuff with modern music but given that it’s Nick Cave and Jack White and The Black Keys and Tom Waits, it adds a sense of lawlessness. Those guys feel like outlaws to me and that sort of delta blues vibe Jack White had got going on and Nick Cave, it seems to work and it propels the show forward and the fact that those guys had to watch it and sign off on it was a huge compliment. Nick Cave told us we could use whatever we wanted and that was a big deal for me.”
Are you ready for the inevitable comparisons with Boardwalk Empire?
“Funny, I haven’t seen Boardwalk Empire and Steven apparently hasn’t seen it either so it certainly didn’t influence him and I, but inevitably people will want to use the reference. For me, if you make something in the gangster genre you can’t help but rub shoulders or be inspired by or reference Scorsese but I think Peaky Blinders is uniquely British. There is something about this world and Birmingham at the time - I mean it was one of the biggest industrial centres in the world at the time. All day there was noise pollution and we see that in the opening shot. We wanted to make Birmingham a character in the series.”
Were you a fan of the way Neil Jordan turned his Michael Collins movie into a kind of Chicago gangster flick set in Dublin?
“It’s interesting. Me and Steven were talking about this – the way we haven’t really mythologised gangsters on this side of the pond the way they have done in America and made heroes of immigrants. In Britain period television tends to be about the upper middle classes or the aristocracy and not about the working class people. You never see sophisticated glamorous working class people and that’s what we’re doing with Peaky Blinders and that’s quite refreshing.”
Peaky Blinders starts on BBC Two at 9.00pm on Thursday, September 12