Oscar and BAFTA-nominated writer Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”) is a busy man these days. Production on the sixth season of his hit series “Peaky Blinders” is underway, to be followed by a film; his take on the Lady Diana story, “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart and directed by Pablo Larrain, is due to roll soon; and he’s on board to adapt the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “All The Light We Cannot See.”
Knight had a freewheeling chat with Variety about wrapping up “Peaky Blinders” with season 6 — a revelation that grabbed international headlines earlier this week — and the film projects he’s cooking up, as well as the likelihood of a Netflix deal in the future.
What can you tell us about the “Peaky Blinders” movie?
We are in development. It’s a fully formed idea and it has a beginning, middle and end. And I think it’s going to be a fitting conclusion to the story told so far, but from it, there will be things I don’t really call spinoffs, but there will be other TV shows that I hope will come out of [it], that will continue to tell the story of this part of society and this family.
What made you decide against a seventh season?
COVID came along, and we lost a year of production. So we put our heads together and thought that it would be a good idea to do a movie instead of doing series seven.
In season five, there’s a fascist politician character and that storyline will carry over into season six. How is the fascism depicted in the series relevant to modern times?
Throughout shooting and writing “Peaky,” I have been been fortunate that the things that were happening in the period that I’m writing about seem to have resonance today. I mean, it’s not a good thing for the world, but what it’s meant is that as I looked at 1934 and looked at the political situation, there were so many links to the way things are now with the rise of populism, nationalism, racism, and fascism — they were all bubbling under, ready for that explosion that happened in 1939 and World War II.
So what I found astonishing was when I looked at the character of [Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists], he was talking about Britain First [a massive 1939 political rally]; the press [being] aligned to you; and the British being the superior race. And it was so relevant to today that I didn’t have to force it because it was all there. It’s there in mostly speeches; it’s there in what was happening — the sort of civil disturbance far-right groups who were vandalizing interiors and marching through Jewish areas. It was so relevant. So all I had to do was just shine the light on.
How will contemporary audiences relate to the final season and will they learn anything new from the period that is depicted?
I hope so because I always try to discover the forgotten history or the unwritten history of a particular period, if I can. That normally involves working class history, which doesn’t get documented in any sort of detail usually.
What I’m doing with series six is continuing that struggle Tommy Shelby [the “Peaky Blinders” protagonist played by Cillian Murphy] has in his opposition to fascism. What I wanted to do is that when Tommy Shelby came back from WWI, he was emotionally dead. He was switched off because of his experiences and he was a nihilist, amoral and would do anything. He had one goal which was to accumulate money, but when he encounters fascism, something is brought back to life and he decides there is good and bad. And so that’s why he devotes his time to opposing it. And that continues in series six and many, many other things are gonna happen to Tommy that audiences will not be expecting.
I think that the task of writing is more focused with each series. I’ve said this before, but I’ve always believed it’s true each time. And I believe it’s true this time: this is the best yet.
“Peaky Blinders” is a show that has always been conscious of representation, with Romani characters in particular. Given the Black Lives Matter movement and the wider racial reckoning, is this something that you’re especially conscious of, going into season six?
What we try to do is — first of all — if a character is written of a certain ethnicity, then obviously that is woven into the casting system. Otherwise we try and cast the best actor. So there will be representation because there are great actors who are gonna represent certain characters and the truth is there was more diversity in the thirties than I think is normally acknowledged and particularly in London. A little bit in Birmingham, but particularly London and Liverpool. Therefore, that is part of what we’re doing. And I think one of the reasons that Tommy Shelby is so opposed to the rise of fascism is because his people are on the list. Romanis were persecuted terribly in Germany and across Europe. And he’s aware that that’s what’s coming. The Romanis have been among the most persecuted races in Britain for a long, long time, for hundreds of years.
Do Netflix and the BBC provide any notes at all?
They do not provide notes, which is a wonderful thing, and the BBC barely offer notes, which is great in that they let us get on with it.
A lot of British writing talent is getting snapped up by Netflix in plum overall deals. Do you have any sort of a deal in place with the streaming giant beyond “Peaky Blinders” or…?
I really genuinely can’t talk about the deal beyond series six.
Where are you at with “Spencer,” your Lady Diana project with Pablo Larrain?
We are good to go. We are about to start filming. I can’t remember the exact date, but we’re very close to filming. We’re COVID ready. We’ve got a cast all in place and we’re ready to go, and Pablo’s brilliant. Working on the script has been a pleasure. I think it’s a different perspective on a story that we don’t all know well, but we all feel we now are a part of it. And I just found the whole thing fascinating. To talk to people who knew her and to try and get a view of this person — who this person really was — who was an ordinary person in extraordinary situations, is the way I think of her.
Has “The Crown” influenced your writing on “Spencer” in any way?
Well, for a start, I’ve never watched an episode of “The Crown.” Not because I don’t think that it’s fantastic. I’m sure that it’s wonderful, but I do try to avoid watching other TV shows and films that may be similar. And originally I didn’t because I was writing “Peaky” and I don’t want to, I think even subconsciously, if you immerse yourself in lots of other stuff, it starts to rub off on you. I hear it’s fantastic from people whose opinion I can completely trust, but I haven’t watched it because I don’t want to be influenced by it. And so what I’ve written is purely my take on who this person was.
How about your series on the British army special forces unit, “SAS: Rogue Heroes”?
We start shooting the end of February in Morocco. It’s going to tell the story of the founding of the SAS in 1941 in North Africa. And the first season will take place wholly in North Africa, and it will tell the true story of a group of men and women who fought the war against fascism, and against the Germans and the Italians in the desert in North Africa. The true story is so extraordinary and so incredible that if anything, I’ve had to occasionally not include things cause nobody would believe them, but the people involved were remarkable. I had the honor of meeting the only surviving member of that original SAS squad, Mike Saddler. It is like talking to someone from a completely different culture, from a different country, because they have a really different perspective and speak in such a different way — of understatement and suppression of emotion and no exaggeration. For example, he was talking about some combat he was involved in and he said, ‘We were moving forward and we were under fire from six machine guns and three mortars, and there were hand grenades, and that wasn’t ideal.’ [laughs].
They have this sort of way of speaking. So what I’ve tried to capture is these young men who went into war and suffered the trauma of war, but dealt with it in a totally different way than the way we deal with it and discuss it now.
What else are you working on right now?
I’m just finishing the adaptation of a novel called ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ [by Anthony Doerr] and I am working on an adaptation of ‘Great Expectations.’ This is for BBC and FX, which is a follow-up to ‘A Christmas Carol’ that we did last year. And I’m coming to do four more Dickens novels after this as well.