“Working-class characters can have agency and ambition”: Steven Knight on Peaky Blinders

The screenwriter discusses his childhood in Birmingham and the class problem in British period dramas. 

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Growing up in Small Heath, Birmingham in the Sixties and Seventies, Steven Knight’s ambitions stretched as far as “working indoors”. The son of a blacksmith and raised with six siblings, he jokes that the decision to pursue writing for a living was as much to do with wanting to “avoid the cold” as “any idea that I was particularly good at it”.

But Knight’s critical and commercial success – from an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Dirty Pretty Things (2002) to the enormous popularity of his TV show Peaky Blinders (2013-present), which is about to start filming its sixth season – suggests he is being too modest.

Over breakfast at Electric House, a private member’s club near his home in Notting Hill that he visits most days, Knight tells me his time studying English Literature at University College London introduced him to a “world full of very different people to me”.  UCL, Knight says, “taught me that there are many layers to class. In the United States, class is largely defined by income. But in Britain there’s a lot more to it. You can carry your class on your tongue.”

Knight says that most British period dramas tend to focus on the upper classes: they have been written “through a certain lens and about a certain kind of people”. He names no names but The Crown and Downton Abbey spring to mind.

The politics of class features prominently in Knight’s work, especially in Peaky Blinders, a period drama about the organised crime scene of interwar Birmingham. The series centres around Tommy Shelby, a First World War veteran turned gangster, and his cohort – who carry razor blades in the peaks of their caps.

“What I tried to do with Peaky,” Knight explains, “was tell the stories of people that didn’t seem to get their stories told. It’s based on a real gang that did exist. Many other historical portrayals of working-class people have tended to hinge on pity.” Knight affects a posh accent. “Oh, isn’t it a terrible shame?” He reverts to Brummie. “With Peaky, I wanted to show that working-class characters could have agency and ambition, that they weren’t just underlings. And now what you’ve got is an aspirational show about aspirational people. Tommy Shelby is a powerful character and he is working-class.”

Does Knight still consider himself to be working-class? “Yes, I’d say so. I’m very grateful for what I’ve been able to do, but that won’t ever change where I started. I wouldn’t want it to.”

After UCL, Knight took on a series of “odd jobs”, including writing descriptions of houses for estate agents, before joining Capital FM, where he wrote adverts and helped to create a number of promotional games used for Chris Tarrant’s morning talk show in the late Eighties. It was at Capital that Knight met producers David Briggs and Mike Whitehill, with whom he would later collaborate to make Who wants to Be a Millionaire?, which was picked up by ITV in 1998. Millionaire has since run for 33 seasons, with the 34th due to be released next month.

The long-lasting appeal of the show, Knight suggests, lies in its simplicity. “The concept is easy to follow – you answer questions and get a cash reward. Even accounting for inflation, people aren’t going to scoff at a million quid. And from the audience’s perspective, people still want to watch other people win a million quid. There is something uplifting about watching someone have their life changed in a single moment.”

Do people also like to watch people lose? Knight pauses, cracks one of his two boiled eggs, and shakes his head. “I genuinely don’t think so. I know there are corners of the internet that can be quite cruel, but I think more often than not, people get a kick out of watching others succeed.”

Knight says he has always been a trivia enthusiast. “No knowledge is wasted in my view.” But after stepping away from the production team of Who wants to Be a Millionaire? to pursue screenwriting, he confesses that he hasn’t watched the show since Jeremy Clarkson took over from Tarrant as its presenter last year. “It’s nothing personal,” he insists.

Peaky Blinders, a passion project inspired by the stories he was told by his parents, has reached heights Knight “never expected”. Although it follows an original plot of Knight’s own making, he says it is “rooted in history”, as it ties in various real-life events, including the general strike of 1926 and The Wall Street Crash.

Peaky Blinders was first broadcast on BBC Two in 2013, but with the help of Netflix, has reached an international audience. As of its fifth season, which finished just a few weeks before our meeting, the show has been broadcast in 183 different countries, and can count Snoop Dogg and Brad Pitt among its high-profile fans, with Pitt even expressing an interest in joining the cast. Knight chuckles. “I know, it’s mad, isn’t it?”

While Knight “won’t rule out” casting in the show’s latter seasons that is “perhaps a bit more Hollywood”, he makes a point that he won’t include “celebrity cameos for the sake of it”. He is happy that Peaky Blinders is now very much part of the mainstream, but won’t compromise on the show’s status as a “fundamentally British and fundamentally Brummie” product. He says: “If I think someone is right for a role and that person happens to be a big Hollywood star, then great. But I would never shoehorn them in. I need to be convinced they’re right for the character that I have written.” Knight says that speculation that Pitt, who played an Irish Gypsy boxer in Guy Ritchie’s film Snatch (2000), could be in line for a similar role in Peaky Blinders, is “just that”.

Of course, Peaky Blinders is hardly lacking in star quality. Cilian Murphy, who plays Tommy Shelby, is an actor of incredible range and who has successfully made a Brummie accent sound sexy. Tom Hardy, with whom Knight worked on the film Locke (2013) and the series Taboo (2017), plays Alfie Solomons, and is an A-lister by most people’s definitions. “They are both outstanding talents,” says Knight, who will link up with Hardy again for an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol later this month.

Hardy’s turn as Solomons, an eccentric Jewish gangster and an ally to the Shelby family, is widely viewed as one of Peaky Blinders’ breakout performances. He was ostensibly written out in the show’s fourth season, but made a shock return in its fifth. Did popular demand win out? “I think it was Tom’s demand if anything,” Knight says. “He absolutely loves that character and he throws himself into it. He is so committed. The biggest compliment I can give Tom Hardy is that I’ve sat next to the guy and I still don’t know what he looks like. He’s that good.”

When it comes to his writing process, Knight says he starts with “conversations” and weaves a plot around them. “I try to get as close to dreaming as possible. I imagine people talking. I imagine their accents, their mannerisms, how they would react to each other. I think of characters first, let them talk to each other, and then the plot follows when I know the scenarios I can envisage them being in together.”

Though he admits that writing for a living involves plenty of pressure, Knight insists he is “very, very lucky” to be paid to do something he enjoys. “I’ll always remind myself of that.”

Knight has come a long way from his beginnings in Small Heath, (even if Birmingham City Football Club remains a “calling” that he has “no choice” but to answer). But he still displays his roots with pride. “You can change your clothes or your job, but where you’re from, your background, that’s an enduring part of who you are.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman