I was there when Steven Knight, the brilliant Brummie writer of Peaky Blinders, spoke about his craft at the Birmingham Literature Festival, in the wonderful Library of Birmingham. Yes that’s lots of gushing about Birmingham (ironically on the eve of my move to the South East!) but thanks to Steven Knight, I’m feeling lots of love for my home city. Maybe its about time, that like Steven, us Brummies begin to bang our drums a little louder….
Why not use the stories from the city you are in?
Steven began the evening by explaining that the idea for the Peaky Blinders came from the stories his parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents told him about the gangsters that ran betting rings in Birmingham after the Great War. He told of how his Mum used to be a bookie’s runner as child, collecting coded betting slips wrapped around coins in baskets of washing. Steven then went on to describe his Dad’s uncles, the Sheldons: men who drank from jam jars because their money was better spent on the sharp suits that told anyone who wanted to know that they were in charge round ‘ere.
Mythologising the past
With no historical record of the Peaky Blinders, Steven used the stories from his childhood as a starting point for his characters. He read back copies of the Birmingham Mail to get an insight into the political and social situation in Birmingham in the 1920s. His intention is to mythologise the past and present it, not how it was but how it might have been remembered by a child. In trying to recreate his parent’s childhood memories, Peaky Blinders is shot so that it looks like the scenes are being viewed through a child’s eyes. There are not just large but colossal shire horses and swollen pubs with exaggerated proportions and smoke and noise and so much to see, hear, smell, overwhelm and mesmerise…
Creating the fictional Shelby family allowed Steven to explore how the historical truths of the time impacted on ordinary people. With Polly he explores how women, who routinely had children taken away from them, might have lived with that. In Tommy and Arthur he delves into how men damaged by war coped (or didn’t cope) with a return to a society where no discussion was had, no emotion was shown, no acknowledgement was made. With Tommy in particular, he wanted to play with the dynamics of putting the younger brother in the position of power. Tommy is also an experiment in how to engage an audience with a character that is so seemingly unsympathetic and unavailable.
As a family unit, the Shelbys look after their own and carve their own empire, showing no political allegiance because Steven believes that after seeing people blown to pieces, quite simply maybe they just didn’t care to be subjects / citizens affiliated to anybody anymore.
Is it possible to escape Small Heath?
Ultimately what Steven said he is aiming for in Peaky Blinders is to discover whether characters like Thomas Shelby, once they’ve fought for and obtained wealth, fame and power, can ever escape their working class backgrounds to become ‘acceptable’? Is it ever enough? Is it possible to escape Small Heath?
Advice for writers
Good stories are found in the places where people aren’t looking……. People haven’t been looking in Birmingham for a while, but Peaky Blinders has turned the spotlight back our way and as Arthur Shelby might say “It’s about bloody time!”
Thank you Steven Knight. You are my new favourite writer and my new favourite Brummie!