Of all the dramas appearing on our TVs in recent years, from The Crown to Chernobyl, Line of Duty to Killing Eve, few have endured, increased its audience and influenced others as much as Peaky Blinders.
Since it first aired in 2013, Peaky Blinders fandom has spread far and wide, increasing exponentially with every new season. From fashion to video games, festivals to films, the Blinders have made their way into a lot of different spaces. And with the fifth season just around the corner, they show no signs of slowing down.
The new season will see Sam Claflin being introduced to the fray, going someway to fill the void left by previous love to hate/hate to love characters like Tom Hardy’s Alfie Solomons or Adrien Brody’s Luca Changretta.
But while Claflin’s turn as real-life fascist leader Oswald Mosley is sure to turn heads as Tommy Shelby’s new fr-enemy, and rightfully so given the current political climate, most eyes will – once again – be firmly set on Cillian Murphy’s Tommy, the unwavering, magnetic protagonist of the whole series.
Ahead of Tommy and the rest of the Shelby gang returning to our screens, I sat down with the man behind the iconic flat cap for a chat about the character, the new episodes, the series as a whole and the secret ingredient that has made Peaky Blinders such a success.
While Murphy has appeared in beloved indie films like 28 Days Later, huge blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and a string of critically acclaimed theatre productions such as the recent Grief is the Thing with Feathers, it’s his time as Tommy Shelby for which he is arguably most recognised.
Explaining how he gets into the mindset of Tommy, Murphy told UNILAD:
I’ve said this before but I’m so unlike [Tommy], and I’m so in awe of him, of his relentlessness and his energy and his intellect and his physical capability, and all these things, that I have no… it’s so far away from me.
So you need time to kind of get into that mindset, and when you’re in it you’re really in it, and he does kind of consume me a little bit, and I need to take time before and afterwards to bookend it, before to get into it and after to kind of shake him off.
As fans of the show will know, Tommy and his brothers Arthur and John clearly suffer from the aftereffects of World War One. Though we would now call it post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it was an unrecognised condition back then known as shell-shock, with Tommy and his brothers self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to combat it.
And though Tommy is said to have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives during the war and received the medal of honour for it, the experience obviously left him disillusioned and torn – on one hand being loyal to his country, on the other being the leader of a lawless gang.
Speaking about how the character has developed since season one, Murphy continued:
I think it’s that duality that exists within Tommy the whole time. That has always existed, and I think it’s particularly explicit in this series in that he’s in Westminster and he’s standing up in Parliament and making speeches, but at the same he is who he is and he has to live with that – and it’s trying to reconcile one thing with the other, which makes for brilliant characterisation, brilliant writing. To some people he represents one thing and to some people he represents another thing.
I think his demons this year are himself and his political ideologies, and the world of politics, so it’s more internal what he’s wrestling with this time. Last year it was quite clear it was the mafia that was his foe and he had to deal with that, but this year it feels more internal for sure.
Season five sees Tommy take up his role as an MP in Westminster. Far from his home in Birmingham, his power and influence is now greater than ever, though so are the risks and the danger his past could catch up with him.
Speaking about how Tommy deals with this, and how it is playing this role as an actor, Cillian said:
The thing that strikes me every time I go back to play [Tommy], is he’s always burdened with this strategic intellect, he cannot but see opportunities and people for his own gain and his own strategy.
And I think he’s actually struggling this year, dealing with the fact of having real belief – because we dealt with it last year, I think Jessie [Eden] even spoke about ‘before you went away to war you were a communist and you supported this cause and you had these values, and where are they, are they dead or are they dormant or what?’ And I think we’re beginning to see him struggle with the fact that they are long held beliefs, and they are something that he does deep down believe in.
Yet he went on this path of extreme capitalism and violence and gang life, but, deep down, I think he does still have these values and he’s trying to reconcile himself to that fact – can you have them in a pure way or can you have them in a strategic way, or can they exist side by side?
Though we’ve seen Tommy struggle, but ultimately succeed, in leading his own empire to the top of the food chain in Birmingham, this season he’s utilising that ‘strategic intellect’ in Westminster’s corridors of power, butting heads with politicians while trying to establish himself in a much wider, much more public sphere.
Delving into Tommy’s attitude now he’s in Parliament, Murphy continued:
[It’s] what I touched on earlier, that duality, that someone can espouse these political views – he’s a socialist MP, and a labour MP, but at the same time we know what he’s gotten up to in the past, and we know that he has to sleep with those actions.
So trying to reconcile these two is fantastic for an actor, and it’s sort of a perennial question – the private lives of our representatives, and their deeds and their achievements are set against how they carry on privately. But this is such a stylised, fictionalised, heightened fashion, it’s all magnified, which is very, very interesting.
As well as the development of the character, the development of the show and its success has increased with each season. It’s even inspired Peaky Blinders-themed bars, instantly recognisable fashion, and cinematic action on the small screen.
Of the show’s success, Cillian reflects that it always surprises, however he concedes he is hypercritical of the project and his own performance:
It amazes me every year. I’d be my own harshest critic and the show’s harshest critic, but I do believe it has succeeded in that thing of improving on itself every year, and I think the main reason for that – obviously it’s a massive collaboration – but I think the main reason is the writing, and I think that Steve Knight’s confidence in the characters and confidence in the story that he wants to tell is huge.
His ability to express that story has gotten stronger as each year has progressed and I think we’ve all been gifted with these characters that have developed and grown as we have grown older, and it allows you to expand.
And [the show] has never really stayed the same. I think [Knight] very cleverly weaves a very fictionalised and quite stylised story into real life political events that happened at the time, so it grounds it in something. So [the characters] are not exiting in this alternate world, they are fictional but they are rubbing shoulders with real historical and political events. Which I think is brilliant.
Speaking about the difference between the new season and the last, Murphy added:
I think [the politics] is going to add to [the show’s] appeal. All it has grown in is its confidence. I say this every year, and I’m really thrilled when it happens, but I do believe this one will be the best in terms of thematically what it’s striving for – it’s the most ambitious so far.
Though Tommy may seem more concerned with politics these days, you can be sure the customary Peaky action will still be there. With Arthur and Finn leading the charge in Birmingham, Aunt Pol continuing her relationship with hitman-for-hire Aberama Gold, and Tommy taking to Westminster, the Peaky Blinders are expanding their empire the only way they know how.
Season five of Peaky Blinders will air on BBC One from Sunday, August 25, at 9pm.
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.