How 'Peaky Blinders' Became a Binge-Worthy Hit

Pulpy drama about brutal 1920s gangsters started as British 'Boardwalk Empire' — and is now one of Netflix's most popular shows

Cillian Murphy, center, gives a toast in the Season 3 premiere of the British gangster series (and Netflix hit) 'Peaky Blinders.' Credit: Robert Viglasky/Netflix

Cillian Murphy has been having a bad hair day for the past three years. "My incentive to get rid of this particular hair style has never diminished," Murphy says of the "brutal" undercut he sports on the historical British mob drama Peaky Blinders, which just kicked off its third season on Netflix. Popular at the turn of the century, the particular 'do Murphy sports onscreen features a short back and sides, with a longer mop up top — a sort of turn-of-the-century proto-fade. Yet if you've been around London recently, you might see people copping that same vintage cut. "Now in the UK you see fellas voluntarily asking for that look. I can't understand why," he confesses.

Yet the curious chop is central to Murphy's leading role as Sir Thomas Shelby, the imposing patriarch of the racketeering Shelby clan in the stylized, grit-and-grime crime series. Inspired by the real-life Birmingham gangsters who ran England's racetracks in the early 1900s — the name comes from the flat caps they wore with razor blades sewn in the brim — the binge-worthy show follows Tommy and his crew as they wrestle for power among their low-life peers and acceptance from high society. Set from 1919-1922, the show's first two seasons incorporated WW I-era PTSD, opium habits, the IRA, a Javert-like inspector (Sam Neill), the world's most psychotic Jewish baker/bootlegger (a terrifying Tom Hardy) and an obsession with expanding and legitimizing the family business beyond their homebase of Birmingham.

Peaky Blinders' showrunner Steven Knight didn't just glean the scabrous tales of the Shelby family from textbooks, however. His parents both hail from Small Heath — the same lawless West Midlands place where the show is set. His father's uncles were, in fact, bona fide Blinders themselves; as a child, his mother worked as a runner for the gang's bookies. And as Knight dived into his research, he was surprised to find that his folks hadn't embellished their violent stories of Birmingham life at all — they'd actually eased back on them. Like, for example, the anecdote of a man who used to go around the pubs with a rat in a cage. "He would put his head in the cage and kill the rat with his teeth,” says Knight. "And people would throw coins at him afterwards! It was madness."

The showrunner says he'd been keen to immortalize these stories since childhood, and even sketched out a rough treatment about 1920s gangsters nearly two decades ago. After writing a number of feature films (notably the Russian-Mafia drama Eastern Promises), Knight eventually came back around to the idea years later. "What's great about the fact that we're doing it now instead of 10, or even 20 years ago,” he says, "is that we've got the film technology to finally execute it properly. And people are watching television on better screens now. So it's worthwhile making it look good" Knight says he originally conceptualized Peaky Blinders as something like a Western, from its visuals (there's plenty of gunslinging and getaways on horseback) to the way it probes what he calls an “impossible masculinity. [But] what I wanted to do was mythologize the rest of us. You know: the working class."

Cillian Murphy was the first person to be cast, thought Knight didn't write the part of Tommy with the Irish actor in mind. The two met while Knight was casting the lead for his feature directorial debut Redemption (2013); the role eventually went to Jason Statham, but the young man had left an impression. A self-professed fan of Knight's writing, the even-keeled Murphy had to persuade him that he was capable of playing the tormented, terse and totally volatile Tommy. (It helped that when the pair went up to Birmingham for a day, Murphy swiftly picked up on the distinctive Brummie accent). "Because [Tommy's] so different from me, it's such a distance to travel to get to him emotionally and physically," Murphy says. "I'm not interested in stories that make you come out of the cinema going 'meh.' I want you to leave a cinema going, 'fucking hell, I need a drink.'"

Once Knight assembled his cast (including big- and small-screen veterans such as Paul Anderson, Helen McCory and Annabelle Wallis), shot the show's inaugural six episodes and aired the first season in the U.K., the result was not exactly love at first sight. The Guardian called the show's pilot a "steampunk beer commercial" that "doesn't so much sidestep gangster cliches as fling its arms round them." When Netflix started streaming episodes across the pond, the New York Times lamented that "for a sprawling soap opera that packs in Roma curses, shell shock, hash pipes, Chinatown prostitutes and gang members sporting the 1919 version of a half-shaved boy-band haircut, it doesn't have quite enough juice."

Then Season Two rolled around, the stakes got higher, and the show finally began to find its audience. A sizable Tumblr community — gushing about the show through GIFs of Tommy smoking cigarettes — grew steadily. Soon, its combo of Boardwalk Empire-style dapperness and Sons of Anarchy-esque pulp had folks such Snoop Dogg and the late David Bowie professing their fandom; the latter even gave the green light for the series to use cuts from his final album, Blackstar, for its new season before his passing. (The show has made good use of its anachronistic soundtrack — everyone from Tom Waits to Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and Radiohead have had their tunes put to brilliant use.)

Murphy has a theory about how the show eventually became a hit. "It didn't happen because of a mass marketing campaign," he says. "It just happened because people liked the show and told their friends about it. That word 'organic' is overused, but in this case it's appropriate." A bigger, much more rabid audience tuned in for the show's third season after it began airing on BBC 2 last month, which finds the recently nouveau riche Shelbys clamoring to scale a rickety social ladder. "The question I've wanted to ask throughout the whole of the series is: 'Can you escape where you're from?'" Knight says. "That's particularly true of the Shelbys — they're born absolutely on the wrong side of the tracks [and then] they find themselves in the company of high society." While he's mum on where Peaky Blinders might go after this latest batch of episodes (it's since been renewed for a fourth and fifth season), the showrunner hopes the series will end "when Sir Thomas Shelby hears the first air raid siren" of World War II.

"A lot of great characters we're seeing on television [now] … they're not tropes." Murphy says. "It's not the clean-cut hero or the nefarious villains; they demonstrate a lot of the frailties and foibles that we all demonstrate as human beings. That's Tommy." And what if he encountered his antihero on the street? "I'd probably cross the street," he declares with a laugh.