While season four of Peaky Blinders showed the Birmingham gang getting up close and personal with the Mafia, season five brings events closer to home.
The new season introduces Sam Claflin as Oswald Mosley, the real-life politician and leader of the British Union of Fascists during the 1930s. As the decade saw the country still recovering from the aftermath of the First World War, it also witnessed the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism.
While Peaky Blinders is based on the real-life Birmingham gang which existed in the 1920s, the introduction of Oswald Mosley is the first time a historical figure has been introduced as a main character (save for a few brief appearances from Winston Churchill in seasons one and two). Coupled with the fact Sam Claflin’s Mosley will be taking on the role of Tommy Shelby’s adversary – previously held by actors such as Tom Hardy, Sam Neill and Oscar-winner Adrien Brody – it’s fair to say expectations are high for both the character and actor.
Speaking to UNILAD about how he prepared for the role, whether he was a fan of Peaky Blinders in the first place, and how the storyline of Mosley can parallel recent political events, Claflin explained how he got to grips with the character, and what we can expect from him in season five.
For me, coming on board as a politician, it’s been quite challenging in many ways. I think coming into anything [at] season five is quite challenging. But what has been really, really amazing is that, for my character, he’s a man that has been in politics for a fair few years up to this point, and so you kind of know that this is his domain, this is where he feels most comfortable.
And, actually, this is the first time the Shelbys have stepped foot in the House of Commons, it’s the first time they’re experiencing these power shifts, so actually it’s a new environment for everyone.
So, I don’t feel completely alone, and for me it’s interesting having the opportunity to play with that power shift, being a man who’s in control of those situations, even though he’s a man who’s younger and less world experienced [than Tommy Shelby].
Explaining what it was like taking on the role of real-life politician Mosley, Sam said:
I, of course, have done quite a lot research [on Oswald Mosley], and what I found quite difficult was kind of honouring a man that did have a big following and was so well respected in his field. It’s been very informative.
I was honestly not aware of him before being offered the role, and one thing I’ve always been taught as an actor is to never judge your character – you have to love them and embrace them for all their pros and cons. And so I just found it very eye-opening.
The politics of that time has really opened my eyes, and I’ve spent a bit of time in the First World War era in films like Journey’s End, but this is post that and just before the Second World War, and the melting pot of politics and voices that were heard at that time.
Oswald Mosley came to notoriety in the 1920s as a young MP. In 1918, aged just 21, he was the youngest member of the House of Commons when he entered as a Conservative MP. By 1922, however, he crossed the floor and became an Independent Member after falling out with the Tories over their policies toward Ireland at the time. In 1924, he joined the Labour party.
In 1932, after becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Labour and failing to be elected in the 1931 general election, Mosley took inspiration from Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and decided Fascism was the way forward for Britain. He created the British Union of Fascists (BUF) the same year.
Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight recently spoke to Esquire about the relevance of Mosley and the rise of Fascism in the 1930s, saying it is ‘quite chilling’ when compared with today’s political turmoil, and how the actions of the time have ‘an unbelievable relevance to what’s going on now: the rise of populism, fascism, racism.’
Of course, Peaky Blinders isn’t exactly documentary, and while both the gang and Mosley certainly existed, the politician’s time mingling with the ruthless leader of a Birmingham gang-turned MP has been more than dramatised for the show. Still, the plot keeps things relatively close to reality, and a number of parallels between the fictionalised politicians of Peaky Blinders and the politicians of today we wish were only fictional will inevitably be drawn.
As Sam said:
It’s a heightened reality. A lot of people are based on real people, and there are obviously real elements of real characters, real people that have crept through.
So I think it’s just a matter of finding the essence of [Mosley], just trying to be very honest and open. I think almost everything that is said by him is fact, and that’s been very important to all of us, we don’t want to tread on anybody’s toes, so everything’s based on truth, which is quite exciting but also quite challenging at times.
So how does this real-life politician fit in with the hyper-stylised, gangland drama of Peaky Blinders? We know it’ll be a different kind of battle between Mosley and Tommy Shelby, taking place within Westminster’s corridors of power rather than the mean streets of Birmingham, but will the two be fr-enemies, using each other to their own advantage, or will a war of words emerge while Tommy’s in London?
Speaking about Mosley’s relationship with Tommy, and how the power play will unfurl itself, Claflin explained:
They’re just sussing each other out. They’re two men who feel like they can use the benefits of each other, and therefore they’re trying to just work out the power levels and how far they can push each other, they’re just working out their boundaries.
What I can say is that the person I’m playing is very, very set on his way, and believes with the help of Tommy Shelby he can push his message across, and that is where we pick the story up. He’s a man that sees potential in Tommy Shelby as a politician.
You kind of get the impression that this is the beginning, [Tommy] has just found his voice in the House of Commons, he’s now just started talking aloud, he’s just started speaking on behalf of the people, and I think its this moment where I start taking note.
Its quite an important and poignant moment in my character’s vision, and therefore it’s now that I need to act and move in the right direction.
Of course, an actor can’t play a politician these days without echoing the contemporary, whether it’s intentional or not. The introduction of Oswald Mosley, however, is by no means an accident.
Speaking about the character, and the parallels he will inevitably draw, Sam continued:
I feel what is so wonderful about Steven [Knight]’s writing is that every character, no matter how big or small within this series, is somehow hugely complex and well rounded. Especially with a historical figure like Oswald Mosley.
I feel there’s so much material to draw from, and being the birth of Fascism it is so resonant in today’s society.
I feel it’s so reflective of where we are, in many ways… I haven’t looked into Tommy Robinson or anything like that, but I’m well aware of the movement that – for some f*cking reason – seems to be happening. I think that’s why Steven was desperate to include this aspect of that time.
Politicians are master manipulators, and it’s how they use that to their benefit to get what they want. I think [Mosley]’s a man who’s very ambitious, and I think in his mind he is doing what he thinks is right for the good of the people.
It may not be the Mafia, but it sounds like the Shelbys could be up against their most formidable foe yet.
Season five of Peaky Blinders will air on BBC One from Sunday, August 25, at 9pm.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
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.