Knight to remember

Knight to remember

By Michael Pickard
June 27, 2019

The Writers Room

Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight looks back on his career and discusses how he became a screenwriter, working in Hollywood and why television is the place to be.

From author to one of the most in-demand film and television screenwriters, Steven Knight has been behind hits such as Peaky Blinders, Taboo, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises.

With season five of the BBC’s Birmingham-set period gangster series Peaky due to air this year, Knight is also working on Apple TV sci-fi drama See and a new series of Charles Dickens adaptations for the BBC, with his take of A Christmas Carol currently in production and set to air later in 2019.

As part of this year’s Canneseries event, Knight took part in a masterclass session where he discussed his entry into screenwriting, creating Peaky Blinders, his partnerships with actors including Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, and how he sees the differences between film and television.

Steven Knight

Knight was a novelist and one of the co-creators of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? when he decided to turn his fourth book, Dirty Pretty Things, into a screenplay…
Knight: I think I got about 60 pages in and, because I was writing scripts anyway, I thought, ‘This would be better as a film script.’ I submitted it to the BBC film unit and it found its way to [Dangerous Liaisons director] Stephen Frears. We had the first script meeting where I was lulled into a false sense of what the film industry would be like. I met Stephen in a bar and he said, ‘I really like this. Can you make the ending better?’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’

Dirty Pretty Things was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 for best original screenplay, which helped Knight break into Hollywood…
You hear stories about Hollywood. I’ve had bad experiences but mostly good experiences where people, even when they’re making something that’s mass market, they want to win the approval of their peers and try to do something good.
[When you have your own idea] like Eastern Promises, you want to make it and that’s your film and you feel really protective of it. You also get commissions from Hollywood where they’ll give you a book, a franchise or a magazine article and say adapt this as a film, like The Hundred-Foot Journey. That experience was fantastic because it went straight through.
Equally, you can do work that is sometimes credited, sometimes not, such as Wrath of the Titans, where you get brought on to a big Hollywood franchise, you do your bit and then the script is passed on to someone else who does their bit.
So it’s a bit of a factory but, in my opinion, that’s the two different sides of writing scripts in Hollywood. You do the commissioned stuff, usually for really good money, and you do the stuff you really love, and that’s when you want to try to keep control of the script and the content.

Peaky Blinders is based on a real gang and the stories Knight’s parents told him about Small Heath, Birmingham in the 1920s and 30s…
At the age of eight, my mum was a bookie’s runner. It was illegal then to bet on horses, so bookmakers would use children to walk down the street with a basket of washing, and people walking in the other direction would drop a coin in with the name of the horse and their codename. She’d take it to the bookie and he would take the bet.
My dad’s uncles were bookmakers and they were called the Sheridans. I changed the name to Shelby, but the stories he and my mum told me about these people made me want to tell a story for years.

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

Knight initially pitched Peaky Blinders many years ago, but it wasn’t picked up…
I first went to Channel 4 25 years ago and they were really interested, but it didn’t happen – and I’m so glad it didn’t happen then. In those days, people watched on little screens and there would be no point making it look beautiful. The CGI wouldn’t have been available, so you wouldn’t have been able to do some of the effects we do and we wouldn’t have had the actors.

The series stands out as a period drama rooted in the working class, rather than being another series about the British aristocracy…
Especially in Britain, there is a thing where any period drama is about aristocracy or wealthy people. It’s very popular, it sells well all over the world and there’s a certain ‘buttoned-up-ness’ about it; everything’s very pronounced. I just felt there was a more interesting story to be told about the same period involving people I’d heard stories about.
The tradition in Britain is, if you do anything about working-class people, either they’re scary or funny or we must feel sorry for them. The experiences I had of working-class life was of people enjoying it, having a laugh, having fun. I wanted to reflect that so you had a working-class environment where these people had an aristocracy in a way within their own community.
The seven seasons that will be written – and I’m writing season six at the moment – will tell a different story where Tommy Shelby [Cillian Murphy], who begins as this nihilistic person, looking out only for his family, will be redeemed and he will become good. I want to take him on that journey from the person we’ve seen to the person he will become in 1939.

PJ Harvey, The White Stripes and Nick Cave have all provided music for the show’s soundtrack, with artists now approaching Knight for the privilege of appearing in the series…
The most astonishing one for me was in season three. Cillian had been in New York and had met David Bowie. He’d said what a big fan he was of Peaky, so Cillian gave him the cap he wore in season one, and Bowie sent back a picture of himself with razor blades sewn into this cap.
We got contacted asking if we wanted to use some of his new album – of course we did. But there seemed to be quite an urgency about it, which I didn’t understand. In the week between Christmas and New Year, his European manager came to my house because it was the new song, Lazarus, and they couldn’t send it electronically because of security, so they came to my house and played it to me on the laptop. It was fantastic. I foolishly said if he wants to come to the set, it’s fine. Then on the Tuesday following, I heard on the radio he’d died. It was unbelievable. But obviously we used the music.

Tom Hardy in Taboo

Knight first met Murphy during casting for his movie Hummingbird, whose lead role eventually went to Jason Statham. But the Inception star was the only actor considered for Peaky Blinders lead Tommy Shelby…
He’s just got that thing. The character is closed down emotionally, especially at the beginning. When he comes back from the war, it’s got to be someone who’s seen so many dreadful things and seen so many people blown up into their component parts. The way I imagined it, is after the war, Tommy Shelby put a gun to his head and thought, ‘Shall I or shan’t I?’ But he thought he would carry on. Cillian’s got that face where you think you can get in there, get behind the eyes, but you never quite can, and that’s exactly what’s required of that actor.

During a meeting with Tom Hardy about Taboo, his series about an adventurer who returns from Africa to 1814 London, Knight did a deal where he agreed to write the show if the actor would star in his movie Locke…
Originally, the idea was about someone returning to London in the 1890s, a Jack the Ripper thing. Then when I was talking about it, I said I was interested in the era around 1812/13 in London, which is a really interesting time historically and socially, and suggested moving it to there.
The way I normally do it is to have the basic idea and then write two episodes and see what happens with them, because normally things change radically in the process of writing and stuff comes along as you’re at the keyboard, which I always think is better than anything you could plan for. So the first two episodes I wrote and then we used that to take it on.

Hardy then joined the cast of Peaky Blinders in season two…
Two things happened at the same time. I was writing Alfie Solomons [Hardy’s character] just as we had the first meeting and, as you’re writing, you start to think, ‘Who could play this?’ I thought, well, since we’re having a conversation anyway, maybe Tom could play this. As soon as you think it might be him, you can relax in that you can go quite far with a character and I knew he would throw everything into it. He loves Alfie.

Knight’s version of A Christmas Carol stars Guy Pearce

Knight also has high hopes for his Apple TV drama See, set in a world where humans have lost the sense of sight, until a set of twins with sight are born…
It’s set in the future and is quite odd. Jason Momoa [who stars] is amazing; we’ve got a fantastic cast. Francis Lawrence [The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Constantine] is directing. I’ve seen the first six and, in my opinion, it’s completely astonishing. I’ve got high hopes for it.

The boom in television is great for writers, who can have much more control over the final product than they can in film…
The real difference is, when you’re making television, you haven’t got to make the money back on the opening weekend. You’ve got years to make that happen. People are still finding Peaky now, saying they’ve just started watching it.
If Peaky had been a film, perhaps on that first weekend, because the reviews at first were mixed, people would maybe not have gone to see it. But because it’s out there, people can still go and see it. In that sense, it’s great for writers to experiment and do stuff audiences are able to find and come across.
When Apple launched their new platform, it was a statement that things have changed. Television now, money’s in it and it’s a more stable a business because you know it’s going to go out there. There’s a sea change in storytelling and television, if you’re a writer, it’s the way to go.

There is one basic rule about writing…
If you have a project, finish it. Then you’ve got a thing, an object. The thing is to write something that is well engineered, but is different and quite shocking, coming at something from a different angle. If I were a French writer, I would write the story of the Apache gangsters of Paris in the 1880/90s. It’s an amazing story. They were like Peaky Blinders in Paris – they dressed in a particular way and they had their own dance that they used to fight. It’s a really great story – somebody should write it.

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