THE first series of Peaky Blinders was described as the ‘anti-Downton Abbey’. Both are set in the early 20th century, but Peaky Blinders’ gritty gangland setting, stylistic tone and slow-motion set pieces contrasted with Downton’s ‘big house’ elegance. And then there was the stomping soundtrack, which included Nick Cave and Jack White.
“I have to admit, initially I was like, ‘You’re putting contemporary music with a period drama?’” says Irish actor, Cillian Murphy, who plays Tommy Shelby, the head of Birmingham gang, Peaky Blinders. “But it worked, because a lot of the artists had an outlaw quality to them, and that seemed to suit the essence of the show.”
The Cork-born actor, who lives with his two sons and artist wife in London, says the show became popular by word-of-mouth.
“It was only on for six weeks, but people were telling people to watch it. That’s what you want, rather than things being shoved down your throat.”
Wearing Tommy’s sharp suit, Murphy’s androgynous features and huge blue eyes make a mesmerising combination, not least when topped-off with the Peaky Blinders’ distinctive haircut — shaved sides and longer on top. “I was alarmed by the haircut, I have to admit, but I’m contractually obliged to have it,” he laughs.
Series one began after the First World War, in 1918, and centred on the gang’s clash with Chief Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill). He’s as corrupt as the gang, and shot Tommy’s love interest.
“We met Tommy when he was emotionally quite distant, and a bit damaged and broken, understandably, after all his experiences in the First World War,” says Murphy, 38. “With that relationship, he did defrost a little and genuinely fell for her, so that’s set him back emotionally.”
Murphy finds the intense scenes with Neill a “great problem”. “He’s a good friend and I love him dearly, but we have this hatred in those scenes, so you go from hanging out and laughing to deep vitriol. He’s such a despicable character, but you can’t help but love him.”
In series two, it’s the early 1920s, and an edgier “cocaine feel” has replaced the dreamy, opium-infused ambiance of the first.
“Cocaine was widely available and popular among the upper classes, and, obviously, it was being distributed by the gangs, so I think that’s informed the tone of the series,” says Murphy. “Also, Tommy’s moved on from that crutch of opium, although I think he’s still boozing it up and has his issues.”
The writing has stepped up, Murphy says, because creator Steven Knight has written all six episodes, not just the first two.
The Peaky Blinders venture out of Birmingham to London. “It’s about Tommy’s ambition, and the expansion of family and their collective ambitions, which ultimately means moving south and taking on two gangs down there, the Jews and Italians. That’s his path in the show,” Murphy says.
The new series also sees the arrival of new faces, including Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley. “It feels like you’ve done something right when you get great actors like that on board. I knew both from before; it felt like working with people you know and trust, so it was a lovely atmosphere,” Murphy says.
Reuniting with the original cast, including Helen McCrory who plays Aunt Polly, was also a bonus for Murphy. “Helen puts in an astonishing performance this season. We see the conflict in her, being this woman and a gangster and trying to marry those two,” he says. Their relationship is complicated. “She’s obviously the matriarch, but she’s not his mother, she’s his auntie. And there’s not much of an age gap between them, and that causes tensions.” But she understands him as no-one else does. “So although she’s a thorn in his side, she’s the one person he trusts.”
Credit to Knight for creating strong female roles, and for achieving sympathy for characters we should detest. “None of these characters are perfect or infallible. Even though they operate in extreme environments and have moral codes we could never subscribe to, at the same time, we see their weaknesses, foibles and desires,” says Murphy.
“What I like about Tommy is that, even though he’s a power-hungry gangster, he’s really vulnerable and broken inside. He’s a man who left all beliefs behind in muddy France, any respect for authority, any faith, and came out a man who fundamentally isn’t afraid to die. And that’s a great thing to play, because it informs everything. It’s not nihilistic, it’s fearless.”
Murphy, who grew up in Cork, achieved mainstream success in Danny Boyle’s 2002 movie 28 Days Later, and has appeared in several blockbusters. He is currently treading the boards at the National Theatre in London, in the hugely successful Enda Walsh play, Ballyturk. “I’ve always been interested in playing characters that are, if not outsiders, at least ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,” he says. “That’s always been more appealing to me, and there’s a happy coincidence now, as that seems to be a lot of the characters in television.”
Cameos in the Batman franchise aside, Peaky Blinders marks the first time Murphy’s returned to a character, and he hopes a third series will be commissioned. “Steve has a plan up until the Second World War, and I love Tommy.”