Steven Knight is explaining how Peaky Blinders, the contemporary dance event is different to Peaky Blinders, the world-conquering television show. “This is very much Tommy and Grace,” he says. “It’s their love story.” The tragic romance at the heart of Knight’s Midlands gang drama powers Peaky Blinders: Rambert’s The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, the performance Knight has created alongside choreographer Benoit Swan Pouffer, artistic director of Rambert dance company.
The work, soundtracked in part by Nick Cave and narrated by Benjamin Zephaniah, premiered on Tommy Shelby’s home patch at Birmingham Hippodrome in 2022 and has now been filmed for television.
With the gang’s violent working-class grace, Tommy’s menacing beauty and the show’s seething soundtrack, Peaky Blinders was balletic from the beginning, and Knight considers this production a natural progression. “For me it’s always been a little bit about the swagger of the Peakies, how they walk and how they move,” he says of characters based on the gangs his own grandparents knew.
As ever for Knight, this story is a reclamation of family, class and city mythology. It begins in 1916 with the slaughter on the Somme; trench warfare expressed dramatically through sound and movement rather than special effects. “The First World War is when their characteristics were altered so dramatically,” says Knight. “If you want a full picture of who Tommy is, of who [older brother] Arthur is and why they are like that, this is a good explanation.”
Women, always well represented in the television series, are accorded even higher status, running things back in Birmingham while the men are at war. “There’s more about Polly and Ada,” Knight says, “about how they have been controlling things, how the gambling has been working perfectly well.”
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All this, and what follows – Tommy’s outward success and his inner turmoil, the rise of fascism – are expressed through dazzling solos (look out, in particular, for the one-legged South African dancer Musa Motha) and powerful ensemble pieces that physically conjure up the dark political forces at work in the Peaky Blinders’ world.
"There is a relationship between fascism and repetitive factory work" is how Knight describes the way ideas become dance. "Where people are all doing the same movement at the same time, for the same purpose, over and over again. Benoit said something to me: when you get a unification of movement and people suddenly all start doing the same thing, it’s very powerful."
The idea originated when the BBC introduced Knight to Pouffer, their meeting leading to a 12-minute piece for a Peaky Blinders festival in Birmingham. “I’m not a dance person,” says Knight, “but when I saw it, I just thought, ‘Wow, this is really good.’ So, I wrote a scene where Rambert comes to Tommy Shelby’s house.
"Basically, it’s what Rambert did in the 20s and 30s; they took ballet around the country to people who didn’t normally go and watch dance. And that’s what they still do. So it just felt like a really good idea to do something that people who don’t consider themselves to be fans of dance, who don’t go to dance shows, might come out and see."
“I have seen him being very emotional throughout the process,” Pouffer tells RT when we ask about his experience of working with Knight. “The way he writes, it comes from his reality. Seeing him this way really touched me because he cares. He cares a lot.”
“Part of the reason for wanting to do Peaky Blinders,” says Knight, “was dissatisfaction with the way British working-class people are characterised as either comedic or, ‘Isn’t it a shame? What poor people! What poor lives!’ But this is about the glamour and the glory of the characters and, absolutely, the joy of life as well.”
The show’s opening night at the Birmingham Hippodrome – where else could it be? – was a deeply moving occasion for Knight. “I’d seen the dress rehearsal but the first time it really meant something was when there was an audience,” he says. “That was incredible, to see people getting it and loving it. It was fantastic. And then to get a standing ovation at the end was brilliant.”
To talk to RT today, Knight has broken off from work on the Peaky Blinders film script. “I’m just working on the final bits of it at the moment,” he says. “I just sit down at the keyboard and start. It’s a bit like having a dream, for me. You sit there and all this stuff comes, and then you read it back and think, ‘That’s pretty good – but where did it come from?’ The plan is to start shooting that in the middle of next year.”
As with all his projects, Knight wants his home city and the Midlands to benefit. “There are so many elements to the city that I’m keen to get out there. There has always been an appreciation of the arts among – for want of a better expression – working-class people here, so this is continuing that tradition. I’m having meetings with the CBSO [City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra] as well.” Is Knight hinting that a Peaky Blinders symphony is on the way? “Wouldn’t that be great?” he says. “I don’t draw lines around anything. Everything is possible.”