peaky blinders

Paul Anderson

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Paul Anderson, who plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders, spoke to Gustav Temple during the filming of Season 4, about fictional moustaches, starched collars, violence and clothes and sibling relationships.

peaky blinders

Your moustache is the only moustache in the entire cast of Peaky Blinders. We’re very interested in moustache growing at the Chap. Presumably you have to grow a new moustache for each round of filming. Do you grow it from scratch, or do you grow a full beard then shave off everything except the moustache?

Generally I have a full beard anyway, but I’ll tell you this: the first two seasons, that wasn’t my moustache. It was a stick-on moustache (laughs mischievously). What happened was that the character Stephen Knight originally created looked completely different to how Arthur Shelby ended up. He wrote that Arthur had long hair and was covered in jewellery. But I wasn’t too keen on that. I toyed with the idea of a moustache and the director almost insisted on it. So we stuck one on and it just felt right.

So that explains why in Season 3 the moustache looks tidier and more well groomed – because it’s the real thing. Did you enjoy putting all the 1920s clothes on, or was it inconvenient to fiddle about with collars and watch chains?

Yes, it’s all unfamiliar at first, but I always questioned the dress of the 20s. Did all men in the twenties have someone helping them get dressed? And obviously no, that wasn’t the case. Certainly the Peaky Blinders wouldn’t have had a valet. But you do need assistance with the collar, and I wear bow ties – that was my choice, and I sort of learned to tie one, but couldn’t get it the same each time, so I had to get someone to tie it for me. But I love clothes, personally, I love dressing up, so when it comes to the suits of the twenties, the cut, it’s great to wear that stuff.

Have you learned how to put the separate collar on, because that’s quite fiddly, isn’t it?

Well I’ve learned how to take them off on my own, but when it comes to the single stud at the back, that’s difficult.

Much better to have someone do that for you. Is it hard to believe that people got up to all sorts of physical activities and violence, dressed in a three-piece suit with a bow tie and an overcoat?

It just makes the violence look more stylistic. I mean it’s one thing doing football fighting in a Skyline jacket, but if you were wearing a three-piece suit, bow tie and a pocket watch, it looks so much better.

You realise it’s started a whole fashion trend, people out and about dressed like Peaky Blinders.

Yes, I went to a Halloween party once, dressed as the Invisible Man – the classic Invisible Man from the 30s, covered in bandages and wearing a hat. I walked past a whole line of men all dressed as Peaky Blinders, but luckily I was completely in disguise so they didn’t know it was me!

The outfits seem to have changed since the first season. Gone are the shirts with the collar stud showing, now they’re in sharper suits, with ties and bow ties. Is this purely to indicate that the Shelby’s have gone up in the world and are making more money?

At the beginning, there was very little that was real about the Peaky Blinders costume. The true original Peaky Blinders wore bell-bottomed trousers and hobnailed boots. They didn’t wear suits in the way that we do. Stephen Knight didn’t want to subscribe to an accurate recreation of their look; we had a licence to play and do what we wanted. We decided to wear the smart suits and not conform to a certain period. You’re right, they have changed the style over the seasons and the costume designers come along each time with strong visual ideas. But I’m very insistent on how I want Arthur to look. I want him to have a tighter cut of trouser and more fitted suits, and the introduction to ties and bow ties. There was one stage where they wanted us to wear Homburgs and trilbies, but we didn’t really like the idea of that. I suppose they wanted to show the family becoming more respectable through wearing smarter clothes.

Do you find that once you’re wearing all the 1920s clothing, your character’s mannerisms are helped by stiffness of the clothes? I’ve noticed that Arthur has quite a distinctive gait; he holds his arms rather stiffly at his sides. Is that you just bringing that to the character, or do the clothes bring that about themselves?

Yes, I think we’re influenced by what we wear. It’s sort of half and half, really. But those were my decisions about the way Arthur stands and walks. But the clothes do have a say; I wouldn’t stand like him in my normal clothes.

The collar shape has changed since the early episodes, hasn’t it? I remember a more rounded stiff collar at the beginning, whereas now it’s a sharper, more pointy collar? Weirdly enough, I’m talking to you from downstairs from the place that supplies all your collars!

No Way!

The boots are much harder to find. Do you know who supplies the boots you wear in the series?

The costume designers have a small supply of those boots. They’re almost like an Oxford boot but with those fishhook laces. They’re really hard to find; I know because I’ve looked myself. You can get a similar boot in John Lobb, but they’re not the same. Too pointed, too slender. The great thing about the ones that we wear is they’re quite heavy; they’re not so dainty.

There’s a hell of a lot of smoking in the show. How many cigarettes does the cast get through each episode?

When we started filming, I was a smoker. So I decided I didn’t want to smoke as Arthur. Otherwise you smoke during filming, then you smoke when you’re not, so all of a sudden you’re smoking 50 a day. But now I don’t smoke and I’ve started introducing Arthur to the odd cigar… But Cillian gets through a lot of those cigarettes; I don’t know how he does it. They’re not real, they’re herbal things, but they’re still really strong and harsh on your throat.

So what’s it like playing the nutter in the family, if I can put it that way?

It’s a challenging role but I do enjoy it. The good thing about Arthur is that he’s not just written as a completely violent character. He does have a conscience, and he’s very affected by the war, with post traumatic stress disorder, which wasn’t diagnosed then. Also he’s got that built-in loyalty to Tommy. I am essentially Tommy’s Mad Dog. Being the most violent member of the family, it just comes naturally, because violence was something these men witnessed while growing up during the War.

Looking at the background behind the story, shouldn’t Arthur really be the head of the family, as the eldest son and the last one to see the father alive? What’s the age gap supposed to be between Arthur and Tommy?

In real life, Cillian and I are only a year apart. We’ve asked that question about the age gap and I think it’s fictionally a couple of years. Tommy’s the one with big ideas and ambition, and Arthur is the one who’s happy running things the way they are. Birmingham is under Tommy’s control; whereas Arthur is happy running a few pubs on a much smaller scale, content as his father was before him. Then Tommy comes along and wants a lot more for the family, and so he takes over.

How deeply do you go into the backstory and the psychology of the characters, when you receive each new script? Do you let the writer make all those decisions and then just go with what he’s laid out on the page?

I’ve never played a character for this long, and neither has Cillian, so the back story is already there for all of us. We’ve been doing Peaky Blinders for five years now, so we know the characters so well. If there are any blanks that need filling in, we do have discussions. Helen and I were discussing the other day the relationship between our father and her – but Stephen’s always on hand anyway. We can call him night or day and chat to him about our characters.

Helen McCrory’s character of Aunt Polly is obviously very important. In American gangster movies there’s usually a strong mother figure, alongside a powerful father. But in your case there is no mother and no father, so Aunt Polly really does hold the whole thing together.

Yes, she’s a very powerful woman and has a strong influence, especially on Tommy, but on Arthur too. A lot of things have to go through Polly, that’s for sure.

In real life, do you have any brothers or sisters?

Yeah, I have an older brother.

I wondered whether you ever bring the real sibling relationships into the dynamics of the role you’re playing?

Absolutely, you can’t help it. My brother and I are very close, so there are parallels and similarities. Sometimes I’m sitting there with Cillian, while we’re playing brothers, it brings up the real emotional feelings I have for my own brother bond I have in real life.

The Chap was founded in 1999 and is the longest-serving British magazine dedicated to the gentlemanly way of life, with its own quirky, satirical take on a style that has recently entered the mainstream.

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