Steven Knight has Birmingham written through him like a stick of rock. Not only is his acclaimed family crime saga Peaky Blinders set in the city and based on the story of his dad’s uncles, it’s partly shot there, and is resplendent with bendy Brummie accents. One of the first voices we heard in episode one was that of local poet Benjamin Zephaniah as a manic street preacher. “The accent has been a barrier in the past for drama,” Knight explains in his own undiluted Brum from the back of a car to the airport. “Actors find it difficult to do, I don’t know why. In the second series, wherever possible we’ve populated it with genuine Birmingham actors.”
Great power and civic responsibility have come to this dauntingly prolific, talented screenwriter at a reasonably ripe age. He’s 55 now, with the twin worlds of cinema and TV at his feet, but he was already in his 40s when Stephen Frears directed his first screenplay Dirty Pretty Things, which earned him Oscar and Bafta nominations. Since then, he’s wasted no time, working with directors as illustrious and diverse as Michael Apted (Amazing Grace), David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises) and Lasse Hallstrõm (The Hundred-Foot Journey). He’s already directed twice: Hummingbird and the claustrophobic in-car thriller Locke. He’s off to the Toronto Film Festival for the premiere of Pawn Sacrifice, his dramatisation of the Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky chess match, due next year. Oh, and he’s just been announced for the sequel to zombie-fest World War Z (“the more diverse the commissions are, the better”).
Building up what he happily describes as “an odd CV”, Knight started out writing comedy, most expediently for Jasper Carrott when the folk-club stand-up and Funky Moped hitmaker was never off the TV. He and writing partner Mike Whitehill subsequently developed BBC1 sitcom The Detectives pairing Carrott with Robert Powell, which ran for five series in the 90s. But it was while the duo were writing 30-second commercials for Capital Radio with David Briggs that they devised the format for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? He downplays the development as “a series of happy accidents”, but it sold to 120 countries at its peak. “The success of it was great,” he admits. “It gives you a bit of time to do the things you wanna do. It was quite a good intro to the studios when I first started going around in Hollywood.” A buyout in 2006 of the consortium of companies behind Millionaire, which included Knight Whitehill Productions, netted Carrott £10.8m for his stake in production company Celador, so we may assume Knight did alright out if, too. He certainly hasn’t sat by the pool being fed peeled grapes ever since, as his insane work rate attests – although he likes to start very early and “knock off at around two o’clock.”
I’m pleased to hear that he still bumps into Jasper Carrott occasionally. “We’re both Birmingham City fans so I see him at the match.”
Peaky Blinders continues on Thursday on BBC2 at 9 pm