Each series of Peaky Blinders brings on a new director to give their vision of the Shelby family. For series five, that director is Anthony Byrne (In Darkness, Ripper Street). He takes on a story that sees Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) embedded in the world of politics, where he comes into the sights of rising MP Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), who sees a fascist future for Britain. The two men’s different views of the world makes them dangerous enemies and gives Tommy a rival unlike any he’s faced before. Anthony Byrne tells us about finding new dark depths in Tommy’s soul and reveals what to expect in series six.
You’re coming on to a show that has already had four successful series. What did you do to make this your own?
We’re taking it in a different direction while also getting back to what was established in the first series. We’re getting back to Tommy Shelby's psyche, the darkness of his head, his soul and his heart. I think last series was a bit like a payoff for the audience: “We've had three series, so here's gangsters chasing and shooting at each other...” This series is about returning to the darkness of a man's soul and what he's lost in the time that it has taken him to achieve everything he values.
This series takes Tommy to Westminster, where he meets Oswald Mosley, who led the fascist movement in the UK. How does Tommy deal with a world that he can’t shoot his way out of?
I think there are two antagonists here: one is Tommy Shelby, who's his own worst enemy. We're pulling him apart over six episodes, dissecting him and taking him right to the edge of oblivion. Then there's the physical antagonist, which is Oswald Mosley. He's not a gangster. Tommy can easily outwit, outsmart, outgun a gangster. This guy represents an ideology that is utterly toxic. He's not someone that Tommy can beat with his hands or a gun or get Arthur to do it. He is the most dangerous kind of antagonist.
What does that bring out in Tommy that we haven’t seen before?
He has to play a long game. He has to show patience and calm, when other people want to react. He's battling his own instincts and behaviour. That is the most dangerous thing. He wants to just kill Mosley, but he knows he can't. He has to fight him in a different way. Mosley brings out the very worst in Tommy Shelby. I think that's where Steven Knight's writing is so sophisticated. In order to fight Mosley, Tommy winds up having to fight himself.
There have been real people in the Peaky Blinders world before, but not such a major figure as Mosley. Is this the real Mosley or a fictionalised version?
I knew who Mosley was, but only really the headlines. Sam Claflin [who plays Mosley] is a friend of mine and for some reason I just immediately thought of him. I worried that he wouldn't want to play this real guy. We did initially have a conversation about fictionalising him, calling him “Oscar Schmosely” or something. But Steven and I became more keen to use [the real Mosley] because of what he was and what he did. We thought it would be a challenge for everybody to make it work. He's a heightened version, but not by much.
Mosley represents the rise of fascism in the UK. There seems to be a lot in this series that reflects the rise of a hard right wing in the UK at the moment. How much were you conscious of this series reflecting the current world?
We were aware of it at the time we started making this series. It was happening, but we never thought it would become like [it is now]. Sixteen months later – that's how long I've been making this – it feels like we're reacting to something that's happening this week. When we were reading the scripts all those months ago we certainly discussed and acknowledged [parallels with current politics] but we've now come so far that [the series] almost mirrors it directly.
Anya Taylor-Joy is the other major addition to the cast. She’s playing Michael’s wife, Gina. What can you tell us about her?
She's from an influential family on the east coast of America. She's incredibly ambitious. She has great street smarts, but they haven't been honed. She's a fish out of water [in the UK]. She's followed Michael on a whim, but very quickly starts to exert her own control on him. There's a lot to be revealed about her next series. She's a player, she's a manipulator. She's part of a wider plan.
Shelby's spouses tend not to be popular with the family. How does she fare?
She only really interacts with Polly and those scenes are great because it's two great actresses really going at it. Polly is her main counterpoint.
You mention the next series. Are you going to be the first director to return for a second series of Peaky Blinders?
Why did you want to come back for series six?
It started when we were shooting. Steve sent me a really great email saying this was the best it's ever been and he couldn't believe the rushes he was seeing. Cillian Murphy started talking to me about it. We had a great relationship and he clearly liked what I was doing. Then Steve was on set and asked me officially... I really had to think about it because it's a massive commitment to make, but it felt like this series is part one of two. I think previous series had very definite endings, whereas I think this series doesn't end that way. So I felt more and more that I wanted to come back and finish this.
When will you start on series six?
I'm reading the scripts at the moment, which Steven is writing. I start properly on series six in early November. Then we start shooting early next year, is the plan.