Peaky Blinders: The music

1920s gangster epic Peaky Blinders is known for its dark and dramatic soundtrack, which features music from Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and Jack White. We talk to music supervisor Amelia Hartley about its distinctive sound and why we’re hearing more commercial music in TV drama

If you’ve ever watched an episode of Peaky Blinders, then you’ll be familiar with Amelia Hartley’s work. The BBC 2 drama is set in 1920s Birmingham and follows the exploits of the Shelbys – a crime family headed up by Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy). In five seasons, it has won two Best Drama awards at the BAFTAs, but its appeal lies as much in its unique look and sound as its plot twists.

The show’s costume design has inspired ‘get the look’ articles in the Guardian, GQ and Esquire and 1920s-themed high street collections, while Cillian Murphy’s undercut is now arguably the most famous male hairstyle on TV. Its soundtrack features dark and moody music from the likes of PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Jack White and the Arctic Monkeys – music which perfectly captures the show’s suspense and the tortured emotional state of its main characters. An unofficial playlist featuring songs from the show now has over 180,000 followers on Spotify.

Music is often used to heighten a sense of drama on TV but in Peaky Blinders, it has a slightly different function. The soundtrack is a window into the mind of Tommy – a tortured ex-soldier with a sensitive side who appears to be suffering from PTSD after fighting in the trenches during World War One.

With some shows, the music is used to drive editorial on, but we try not to do that

“We’re very much driven by the idea that the commercial music we use is what’s inside Tommy’s head. With some shows, the music is used to drive the editorial on, but we try not to do that [in Peaky Blinders],” explains Hartley.

Hartley is Head of Music at production company Endemol and has been music supervisor on Peaky Blinders since it first aired on BBC Two. For each series, she works with directors, producers and directors to curate its distinctive soundtrack. (She is also the music supervisor on Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian drama.)

The show’s opening sequence is set to Nick Cave’s track Red Right Hand – an eerie track about a sinister, shadowy figure in a “dusty black coat”. Hartley says the song was chosen by Otto Bathurst, who directed the show’s first few episodes, and set the musical tone for the series.

“We ended up using a lot of Nick Cave music in that first episode because we were just starting out and trying to find a musical direction for it – and it just sort of stuck. When you make the first series [of a show], you’ve got no idea how successful it’s going to be or whether it’s going to be recommissioned … but as the show has evolved, the musical identity has become clearer and clearer. In some ways that makes it easier because you know what your palette is, but in some respects it makes it harder because there are only so many artists [within that palette].”

Describing this musical identity, Hartley says: “We like things with heavy guitars, almost blues-y in a sort of Johnny Cash, Tom Waits kind of way…. I suppose it’s about trying to pick up on the fact that although Tommy comes across as a sort of successful, violent gangster, he has a very complicated story that involves the trauma he suffered in the war and a lot of internal conflict.”

“It’s the same for Polly (Tommy’s aunt, played by Helen McRory). She’s another character who’s had a lot of trauma – some awful things have happened to her and that’s made her the way she is – so we like to reflect that by using music that is slightly dark, that looks at the darker side of people’s characters and reflects the unease they have within themselves.”

“The artists that we use I think are very considered about the music that they’re making. It’s very complex, very good music and I think that’s why it appeals to us,” adds Hartley.

The music in Peaky Blinders is also informed by each director’s style. Some directors prefer long, panning shots while others will use quick cuts, which affects the choice of tracks and the overall effect of music in an episode.

“Long panning shots are much more difficult to put music to. [If a shot is] too long, then the music is rarely going to fit what you’ve shot, as much as you’d like it to, without sort of pulling the stems apart and mucking around with it,” explains Hartley.

“In series two, the script was very full and it was full of fast, dynamic cuts, so in that one, we used shorter musical extracts. [Director] Colm McCarthy was very good at using the music to make it almost look like a promo [in certain scenes] and using music to give it a sense of energy and a dynamic feel.”

The show’s setting in early 20th century Birmingham has also inspired the choice of music in each series. Much of the action takes place in slum houses and smoke-filled factories – “At that time, it was an incredibly industrial place with the whole infrastructure of the canals and the steelworks, which is another thing we try to bring through [in the music],” says Hartley. “If we have a scene of the characters walking through a factory with the furnaces going, then you want a heavy piece of music that will complement that.”

Peaky Blinders music
Above: Helen McCrory (Polly) in series four of Peaky Blinders (a Caryn Mandabach and Tiger Aspect production). Lead image, shown topq: Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby. Photographs: Robert Viglasky © Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd 2017

With each series, Hartley begins researching music filming has begun, but tracks aren’t pinned down until footage has been shot and visuals are locked in. “It’s hard to know exactly what you want to do musically until we start locking in visuals because you have to see it to get a good feel for what would work,” she says.

“With Peaky, I’ll meet with the director [before filming] and we’ll start a conversation, and the first thing we’ll do is get a composer on board. They might have someone they’d like to work with or I’ll suggest someone. It’s quite a long process – it takes about a year from people coming on board to filming, editing and delivering [the final episodes] – so in the beginning, I’ll start sending things that might fit [for the team] just to listen to and think about. Then, as we get closer to going into post, we’ll send lots of music over for the edit team to use as a [temporary] score, and when we get closer to picture lock [the process of deciding exactly which scenes go in the episode], you start to get a sense of the key scenes that would really benefit from having a key piece of commercial music, and then we start discussions from there and try to narrow down what we think would work.”

Once the music has been decided, it’s Hartley’s job to get permission to use it. “I’ll contact the writer, the publisher and the record label and give them a brief outline of the project and what scene we want to use [their music] on,” she explains. “They’ll send me back a fee, we’ll haggle for a bit and when we’ve got to a place where we’re both happy, they’ll send it on and we’ll hopefully get approval for it. I run a budget for each episode, so those negotiations are ongoing throughout the project. It is quite a time-consuming process, because you’re having to deal with multiple rights holders on each piece of music.”

Commercial music from well-known artists is now a common feature in TV drama – but this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Traditionally, most broadcasters would commission scores, which allowed them to sell a show in different regions without encountering copyright issues. But the success of HBO shows like The Wire and Mad Men paved the way for a more ambitious use of commercial music in television.

Paul Anderson (Arthur Shelby) in series four of Peaky Blinders. Image: Robert Viglasky © Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd 2017

“I’ve only been involved heavily in making drama for the last eight or nine years … since then, there has been a massive increase in a very clever use of commercial music in drama – we’re probably using more commercial music than we’ve ever used [at Endemol],” says Hartley.

“It used to be fairly unheard of, putting a piece of third party music into your drama. You just didn’t do it. No one did. I don’t think it’s that people didn’t see the value in it, I think they just thought, ‘it’s incredibly expensive and I don’t need to do it’.

“But people are consuming an awful lot more content at home now and they like long form content – the market has become much more competitive, much more sophisticated, and people expect much more from what they’re watching,” she continues. “The industry has grown and as part of that, there has been a huge increase in [the budgets for] music. Before, you might have made a show for BBC One and sold it to Australia and that would be it, but productions are global now. Peaky Blinders is a BBC production, but it has a global audience on Netflix.”

As Hartley points out, scores still have a vital role to play in TV drama, but a clever use of commercial music can make for powerful and compelling TV.

Charlotte Riley (May Carleton) in series four of Peaky Blinders. Image: Robert Viglasky © Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd 2017

“You couldn’t live without [score]. It can relate to the viewer the emotion of a scene in a way that a piece of commercial music might not do so well because it wasn’t created specifically for that picture. But a piece of commercial music, when used really well, can give you a sort of epic moment,” she explains.

Film directors have long been using commercial music to give their productions a distinct sound. Wes Anderson’s films are known as much for their meticulously curated soundtracks as they are for their colour co-ordinated and ordered visuals, while Baz Luhrmann’s period dramas are remembered as much for their eclectic soundtracks as their lavish production and costume design. (Romeo + Juliet featured an unlikely mix of music from Desiree, Garbage, the Cardigans and Radiohead, while the Great Gatsby featured the XX and Jay-Z.) But in the past few years, some of the most talked about soundtracks in drama have come out of TV.

The arrival of on demand and streaming platforms has meant bigger budget for TV shows to spend on commercial music – and in turn, music has helped some shows achieve cult status. Series such as Mad Men, Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale have won over viewers not just through compelling writing, acting and storylines, but ambitious cinematography and production design coupled with an inspired use of commercial tracks. Peaky has been doing this for years – and it’s a trend that Hartley thinks will continue.

“[A great soundtrack] helps create a buzz around your show,” says Hartley. “Peaky Blinders is really well-known for its music – we’ve got a really big playlist following on Spotify and whenever the BBC do social media posts about the music in an episode, it’s really popular – so it’s another way to draw people in to a series.”

Peaky Blinders will return to BBC Two in 2019. The show is also available to watch on Netflix; Read all of CR’s music-themed content here