Steven Knight talks to Shelley Carter about bringing worldwide phenomenon Peaky Blinders home to Digbeth, his real-life gangster ancestry and his vision for studio space in the city
Steven Knight hasn’t exactly put Birmingham on the map, it was pretty cool already for those in the know, but Peaky Blinders has given it global appeal in spades. This month, Digbeth’s historic streets and alleys will be transformed into all things Peaky in the first Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival. Expect an influx of tweed, significant swagger, cast members, a Q&A with Steven himself and a top music line up across five stages. Primal Scream, Anna Calvi and Mike Skinner are along for the ride among others. There’s also a ‘very special secret guest’ due to appear who Steven refuses to reveal when we chat, but he assures us ‘it’s good’. We believe him. You see where Peaky Blinders is concerned, people just say yes.
Steven was approached about the event by festival director John Empson and thought it sounded like a winner. There was never any conversation about where in Birmingham it should be held. It was always Digbeth. He says: “I love Digbeth and nowhere on the planet would fit the bill more.” After all, it was one of the Peakys old stomping grounds.
The best people in each area of the festival are involved such as immersive theatre specialists Dank Parish as well as Rambert who’ve created a bespoke Peaky Blinders ballet for the event, so fans are in for a massive treat. But did Steven ever in a gazillion years expect this level of global fandom and critical acclaim – let’s not forget the 2018 BAFTA win for Best Drama against some top-notch competition among a plethora of other awards? He says: “No one could have predicted this success. I met a Peaky Blinders fan in Panama who told me he was working to save up to go to Birmingham!” Netflix has catapulted the drama across the globe.
A family connection to the real-life Peaky Blinders set the wheels in motion for the worldwide phenomenon. Steven explains: “When I was a kid in Small Heath I’d hear stories about these gangs. Dad’s uncle was a peaky blinder and he was terrified and in awe at the same time. Kids like to glamorise things and it sounded like the wild west to me.”
We’re up to series five and I wonder how the writing stays fresh? “I always had a destination in mind which helps. We start at the end of the first world war and take it to the beginning of the second world war,” explains Steven. So, series seven will be the last. He adds: “With TV there’s so much time to tell a story. There’s 30 hours of screen time with Peaky, so it’s almost like writing a novel.” The cinematic quality of Peaky is incredible and its dark, brooding styling is integral. “There is a house style for Peaky. It’s like heightened reality and the cinematic feel is partly down to the fact that TVs have changed. Fifteen years ago screens were crap. Now most people have big, flat screens that look great, so you can create more cinematic shows.”
Steven’s a proper Brummie with a strong connection to the city. As well as his Peaky ancestry, his mum was a bookies runner in Small Heath and remembers carrying a basket of washing down the street as a child into which hopeful punters would hide their bets which she’d then drop off at the book maker. He champions his home town not only through Peaky. “Part of the intention of Peaky was to push Birmingham. Historically it was the workshop of the world outperforming Chicago and Detroit in terms of output. Times have changed and I wanted to change the media perception. There’s no reason we can’t excel in terms of technology and media.”
Steven’s aiming to launch affordable studio space in Digbeth which he compares to Lower Manhatten’s Tribeca before its rise thanks to its creative vibe. “People are doing their thing in Digbeth and exciting things will follow.” He adds: “Studio space is like gold dust. What people in the industry need is good space, great infrastructure and a willingness to close the odd road for filming.” Birmingham’s got the lot. Steven reckons HS2 will be massive for the city. He says: “Forty-nine minutes from London puts Birmingham in the equivalent of zone 5 in the capital.”
AND ANOTHER THING…
Of course Steven is more than Peaky Blinders. After graduating in English Literature he did a bit of copywriting followed by comedy which he says teaches you to be disciplined. He created Who Wants to be a Millionaire now a worldwide franchise. Other work includes thriller Dirty Pretty Things, Locke starring Tom Hardy, Serenity with Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey and TV smash, Taboo among many other projects.
For now, Steven’s focused on his home town and is hugely excited about the festival. What makes Brum so beloved? He says: “The city is the people and the people here are great.” Amen.