Peaky Blinders: Meet the production designer

How would you go about making a location look like Birmingham in the 1920s? What research is required, and how much effort goes into creating sets for the Shelby family's criminal underworld? Series three production designer Richard Bullock shares insights.

What do you first look for when you receive the Peaky Blinders scripts?
The first thing I do is read through them, enjoy it and try and get an overall sense of the series. I then go back through them and think about it in terms of what we're going to have to do design-wise.

The essential thing is to look at locations and sets and work out the best way to approach them. I also look for the big locations and set pieces.

“The opening of series three is a massive thing to get right: to create something that is unexpected but also a striking return to the world of Peaky Blinders” – Richard Bullock

The series three house appears the whole way through the show so that is obviously something they focused on from the beginning. Whether it is a new set build or a location that we are returning to from a previous series, we need to be mindful about any changes that may have occurred. 

What challenges come from recreating the 1920s? 
Some locations we could quite easily tweak into the 1920s, whereas others take a lot of work. It's not just recreating the 1920s; it is recreating the Peaky Blinders 1920s. So everything, every detail, needs to have a nudge in that direction.

It is very unusual to find a place where you can just walk in and not have to do anything to it. Unusually we will change the colour or heavily dress it in some way to bring it into the Peaky Blinders world.

The main thing is to find locations that fit the look and feel of the scene and series as much as possible. 

Were there any key points or themes given to you for reference for the look of series three?
We looked at a number of films such as Citizen Kane (1941) and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). They were all about men that get isolated by power, so they were really interesting references.

They included big-scale sets and scenes that work against the individual. We also watched The Godfather: Part II (1974) and Once Upon A Time in America (1984), which has probably been a reference for the whole drama.

We also looked at a lot of photography from the period, as well as contemporary photography. In particular, a photographer called Saul Leiter whose work is heavily referenced for this period despite working in the 1950s. 

What creative discussions were had about the look of the new Shelby home?
The first set we looked at when we started this series was the new Shelby home. We went to see just about every stately home and large country house that is within striking distance of Liverpool.

We kept the brief reasonably open to start off with and just went to see what was out there. We ended up with a composite of three separate locations, which I think has worked out really well. The main exterior and ground floor interiors are at Arley Hall, the kitchens are at Tatton Park and the upstairs is at Croxteth Hall. 

Series three opens on Tommy Shelby's wedding day. What key elements of Steven Knight's script did you have to translate to the location you settled on? 
The opening of series three is a massive thing to get right: to create something that is unexpected but also a striking return to the world of Peaky Blinders.  

We start off with a carriage on the way to a wedding, but we don't know who is in it. This in itself presents a few challenges. It has to be the right carriage and it has to be the right location.

We looked at Béla Tarr's film The Turin Horse (2011) for inspiration for the journey to the church, which was a very interesting reference from Tim (the director). In fact Tim had some fantastic and interesting European references which we otherwise may not have thought of.

We then find ourselves at the chapel, which had to have a very specific look. We found a chapel whose seats faced each other, much like the Houses of Parliament, rather than in rows and facing the altar. This creates a confrontational set up to start the series off with, which is great.

“We've got an enigmatic opening, in an environment we aren't used to seeing the Shelby clan in, and hopefully it works well” – Richard Bullock

How much transformation did the chapel require?
The basic chapel that we started off with was great: it had incredible dark wood and an interior like I've never seen before, yet still felt very English. But the paint was an off-white colour, which was too contrasting to the dark wood, therefore wouldn't have worked with the dark, moody interior we were trying to create.

So we painted it a deep teal colour then added a dirty glaze on top of that to make it feel like it had been that way for years. In discussions with Laurie Rose, the director of photography, we filled in the lower bank of windows to create a moody set, with all the light coming in from above and not behind everybody.

It helped create that dark and slightly mysterious world that we wanted to have for this opening scene. 

Have any additions made to the betting shop or the Shelby Co. offices? 
The studio build of the betting shop is a huge set, which had already been extended for series two. In this series the shop hasn't moved on that much. The Shelbys have moved on to other ventures but their base and the betting shop hasn't developed.

What has changed is that they've built this huge vault to stack all the money they're making, so that was the significant change we had to make.

Tommy Shelby and Alfie Solomons have a crucial scene in a warehouse setting - what was that like to set-dress?
That was an interesting scene to work on as it all happened quite last minute. It's a location we saw at the beginning of the scouting process and loved but didn't know what to film there. The original idea for the scene between Tommy and Alife was a pine forest in the middle of summer. 

We also needed it to have a 360-degree view so Laurie could move the camera around the action without having to re-light too much. On top of that, in an ideal world, it was written as if it was happening on a crossroads.

We looked and looked and just couldn't find the right location. Eventually we were getting close to filming and had to make a decision, so we went back to the docks and it really worked. The only problem was it was so huge we couldn't fill it, so we just dressed the areas that were going to be lit.

It was also great because we had a certain amount of privacy that we wouldn't have had in a public location. It felt like it had proper scale and looked really epic. 

What was the process in having the family portraits painted? 
The portraits of members of the family are massively important to the script and I was really conscious about doing something that looked right, as they can really stand out if they are done badly.

Our art director Julie Ann Horan really focused on getting the look right. She has a fine art background, so rather than going to someone who does standard film work we went to an artist who is a portrait painter, and I think he's come up with something that feels real.


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