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Ending a nearly two-year wait, the BBC has set the UK launch date for Season 5 of period crime saga Peaky Blinders. Episode one of the gangster epic will air Sunday August 25 at 9PM on BBC One as the series moves from its previous home on BBC Two. The shift to BBC One comes after Peaky won its first BAFTA for Best Drama four years into the run in 2018. Netflix has yet to confirm a date for the U.S. start, although the show typically drops once the UK season has concluded.
Peaky creator, writer and executive producer Steven Knight has been known to call previous seasons the best of the bunch — and he’s not changing his tune this time around. The first thing he said to me when I sat down with him during filming of the current season was, “I can honestly say, it is the best yet.” Star Cillian Murphy agreed, telling me, “You know, I remember saying that to journalists (about Season 4) cause I really felt it, and it came to pass. I think the same is the case this year.”
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The stakes for Murphy’s Tommy Shelby are even higher this year, and the series itself is getting a broader window with the switch to BBC One, a sign of confidence from the network. Along with the BAFTA win, Season 4 was the highest-rated yet while the global fanbase continues to grow.
So what’s in store this time around?
Season 5 kicks off in 1929. Tommy is now an MP and has different sorts of enemies, even if his roots are still in working class Birmingham, says Knight. The first episode begins with the Wall Street crash and the Shelby family “seriously affected because they’ve invested their legitimate money and are going to have to fall back on the illegitimate money.” From then on “it’s partly a response to that, but to things, as ever, that are happening at the time.”
Those things happening at the time include “the rise of fascism, racism, nationalism, populism,” says Knight who recognizes the correlation to today. As a writer, he feels it’s “fortunate for me and unfortunate for the world” since each season “seems to have something happening at that time that has a resonance, never more so than in Season 5.”
New addition to the cast Sam Claflin plays firebrand and Tommy Shelby foil, Oswald Mosely, a real-life character who became leader of the British Union of Fascists. And yet, Tommy’s greatest enemy in Season 5 will be himself.
Says Knight. “Tommy blurs the line between the respect a godfather would have on his home turf with that of an MP, so he’s sort of doubly enfranchised and doubly powerful. In other seasons, he’s always faced a nemesis, and in this one he has some powerful enemies, but the biggest one is himself.”
Tommy will thrive in the world of politics because “it’s a gang war” where “unscrupulous people can rise to the top and that’s Tommy’s own environment,” per Knight.
What Knight intends to set up with S5, he says, is: “We’ve had the 20s, the hedonism, the cocaine and the booze. The Wall Street crash happened, and it was the beginning of the hangover through the 30s. What I’m planting in this to pick up in Seasons 6 and 7*, amongst many other things, is that fascism is afoot.”
Murphy marvels, “My God, it’s like the playbook for modern populism what (Mosely) was saying, and again, that’s genius of Steve to recognize that.” The actor separately notes of Tommy’s signature haircut taking a seat in the House of Commons: “He looks like Johnny Rotten or something and yet he’s walking around as an elected official, I sort of like that absurdity or incongruity.”
Speaking more seriously of the character he’s revisited over the past eight years, Murphy says, “There’s this line that divides the time in his life” before and after his experiences in World War I, “and I think we’re beginning to see a lot of the values and traits that formed him when he was a younger man. I think they’re being revealed a lot more emotionally and politically. And that’s quite exciting because you wouldn’t necessarily have attached those values or emotions to the political values or emotions of the leader of a kind of violent street gang.”
Referring to Season 4, Murphy says, “You know that scene when Tommy was in the bedroom and he got wasted and the kid walks in and you see that he lost control there? I think that this season we see him sort of really, really struggle to keep the reins on his fragile state of mind. I think it’s been there latent for a long time, or even quite explicit.” But it isn’t necessarily the external factors in Season 5 that will cause the delve into Tommy’s psyche. They “play a part,” says Murphy, who believes it could also be “a phenomenon of mid-age and ruminating on the brevity of life and mortality and all of that stuff that happens to everybody, not just gangsters.”
Says Knight of the overall arc of Tommy Shelby, “I wanted it to be that when he came back (from WWI) he was totally frozen, everything was frozen. But bit-by-bit, he’s starting to thaw out. And that’s when the pain comes. When the numbness goes, the pain comes and that’s what he’s starting to feel (now) even though it’s 10 years after the war… and he’s not sure he wants to.”
Elsewhere, are there love interests in Small Heath and beyond this year? “Lots and lots,” winks Knight. “Lots of broken hearts, proposals, births, deaths.” Is he killing anyone off? “Pass.”
What about the rest of the family? Knight says cryptically that Helen McCrory’s Aunt Polly “continues to be tormented, but is indomitable and pulls through. She’s offered the possibility of peace and happiness, dot, dot, dot.”
He does allow that both she and Paul Anderson’s Arthur are “in their own way trying to escape this life because they know it’s killing them. Both of them almost escape, but not quite. And the question is: Are you not escaping because you don’t want to or because this is who you are and there is no choice?”
Polly has found romance with Aidan Gillen’s Aberama Gold and is “looking slightly more respectable on the outside,” McCrory told me. She’s “happy in the 20s as an alley cat and becomes completely alive again.” But within this is that “the family is suffering because of how much money is being lost and who’s pointing the finger, who is going to take responsibility, whose side will Polly choose as the person who keeps the family together.” Ultimately, it is her relationship with Tommy “that will be most tested in Season 5,” she said.
Meanwhile, Finn Cole’s Michael Gray, sent to exile in Detroit by Tommy at the end of Season 4, returns after the market crash, and with American wife Jean (Anya Taylor-Joy) in tow. Says Cole, “He’s back to assert his place in the family and do things right, but with the American way. It’s a new strategy, a new approach, a new world kicking in. And it probably will rub up against the family in a dodgy way.”
To complicate matters with regard to Michael’s new wife, “The family do not like outsiders, so that’s a contentious subject.” Knight adds that “the simmering tension that’s always been there between Michael and Tommy continues to simmer, but up to a boil.”
Producer Jamie Glazebrook feels each season has been a different genre, from western to Hitchcockian to classic mafia. Season 5 is a conspiracy thriller, he says. “The conspiracy is out there, but the problem is in here as well. One of the things I find very upsetting is to see this guy (Tommy) who’s really been the man who had everything together, and we’re now watching a character who is kind of losing it. And then we’re seeing people on the wider scale lose it because of the chaos of the financial crash. All opportunities are there for the taking, for the good guys and bad guys, so it’s a very unsteady context that we’re in and that unsteady lead character that we’re watching.”
The series switches directors for every season while maintaining the esthetic created by Otto Bathurst in Season 1. Anthony Byrne took over directing duties this year, bringing a particular edge. Says Glazebrook, “One of the joys has been finding a director and thinking what their take will be. Anthony brings this amazing complexity and intensity to everything so you feel you’re being enveloped in quite an unsettling way. Something’s out there and you can’t quite put your finger on it.”
When I met Byrne on set, he expressed it thusly: “It’s f***ing great!” He later elaborated, “It’s rare that you get scripts that are so fantastic, and then to have a cast that already exists and bring in a guest cast is pretty phenomenal.”
Claflin, who Knight calls “mesmerizing,” was on set that day, shooting a scene with Murphy where the two meet in the latter’s office. In between takes he said his character and Tommy are “sussing each other out, feel like they can use the benefits of each other, trying to work out the power levels and how far they can push each other.”
As for the move to BBC One, producer Caryn Mandabach calls it a “great endorsement of the show” and says the BBC has been “such a brilliant home for us since the beginning.” Meanwhile, Mandabach adds, “The Peaky universe is giantly impacting society. Soon there will be merchandise, festivals, all kinds of things that celebrate what Steve’s talking about. You know how Disney, for example, brands their content and you feel like even though it was done in the 50s it’s still with you? This is when something has entered brand consciousness, then you know you’ve done a good job and it’s not just a one-off.”
The busy Knight calls Peaky his “home” and echoes there are many other things coming that will touch the Peaky orbit. Among them are the previously touted ballet and stage musical while he’s “increasingly keen” on a movie. He’s also got “a plan” for cutting-room floor elements to surface.
(*While Knight is currently writing Season 6 – which he has ominously said, “will go West, but in a different way” — it has not been officially ordered. We understand there have been discussions, and it is expected to happen, but is not yet confirmed.)