‘After first Peaky Blinders scene Cillian Murphy and I said it would never take off’

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Moments after filming the first ever Peaky Blinders scene, Benjamin Zephaniah and lead star Cillian Murphy agreed it would never take off.

Who would care about a gangster drama set in 1920s Birmingham, they asked each other.

Zephaniah, the first actor to be cast in the series, was skeptical, to say the least.

But fast forward six years and the show is essential viewing, with nearly four million tuning in for the fifth series finale.

It is a source of immense pride for the Brummie, who has played preacher Jeremiah Jesus since it first screened in 2013.

The latest series addressed the rise of toxic facist MP Oswald Mosley, who is shown being lured into an alliance by Murphy’s character Tommy Shelby.



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Writer, musician and actor Benjamin Zephaniah says racism is ‘back with a vengeance’



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The latest series depicts the rise of facist Oswald Mosley (centre in light overcoat)

 

Having experienced his first racist attack at the age of just eight – when a young thug smashed his head with a brick – Zephaniah said there are worrying parallels between then and now.

“When a country starts to have problems, there’s something about always blaming immigrant communities, the last people to come into the country,” he told Mirror Online.

“I thought that had been overcome, but now it’s back with a vengeance.

“It happens everywhere. Even South Africa has its own version of the EDL, they’ve seen attacks against migrant workers from Zimbabwe and Mosambique.



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The actor plays street preacher Jeremiah Jesus in the popular BBC series

“This is a country that is always held up for fighting racism.

“It’s the kind of politics an idiot can understand.”

Zephaniah’s character in the show is a street preacher who fought alongside members of the notorious Peaky Blinders gang during the First World War.

On his return to the city, criminals relied on him to be their eyes on the street.

The 61-year-old has personal experience of the city’s underworld, and as a youth served time in borstal and prison – before finding his salvation in poetry.

He admits he went off the rails as a teen, committing burglaries and breaking in to cars to make cash.

While many would shy away from talking about their criminal past, Zephaniah believes it is best tackled head-on in the hope of inspiring others.



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The actor alongside the other stars in series five of Peaky Blinders

“Not long ago I gave a talk from my old prison cell,” he said.

“People were looking at me and seeing what they could be. At the same time I was looking at them and seeing what I could have been.”

Zephaniah, who left school at 13, realised at a young age that he had a talent for poetry.

It was this that would take him away from a life of crime, and he moved to London at the age of 22 hoping to find fame as a poet.

“I was angry. But I realised can’t be a revolutionary by nicking stuff from the guy down the road,” he said.



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Zephaniah has spoken candidly about life behind bars in the hope of inspiring others to choose a different path

“I realised if you channel your energy into being heard it can make a difference. I was sitting in a prison cell and my voice wasn’t being heard.

“I needed a way of expressing myself and I followed that.”

In a diverse career, he has penned 14 poetry books, five novels, five children’s books and an autobiography, released last year.

Zephaniah also has seven music albums to his name.

His first acting role came in 1987, when he was cast in Channel 4 comedy show Didn’t You Kill My Brother.

But it is for his part in Peaky Blinders that he is best known as an actor.

The show’s success has come as a huge surprise, however.



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Zephaniah said he discovered as a young man that poetry was a powerful outlet

“I remember sitting down with Cillian and saying that a gangster show set in 1920s Birmingham, we didn’t think it was going to take off really,” he said.

“I knew of the Peaky Blinders because I was interested in history, in the football clubs and the factories.

“The Peaky Blinders actually ruled for quite a short time, there were a number of gangs in Birmingham at that time.”

In recent series his character’s screen time has been restricted, but there may be opportunities to develop it in the future.

“People have asked me if there’s more from me,” he said.

“I’m a street preacher, although I’m linked to the Peaky Blinders I’m doing my own thing.

“I was the eyes and ears for Tommy, and he would come to me to see what’s going on.

“But now the Peaky Blinders have got richer and they live in mansions they don’t see me as much, and that suits me.”

One barrier that the show has broken down is hosting a major drama in Birmingham – a place Zephaniah believes many writers have shied away from.

“People in the BBC have told me they’re really scared of depicting Birmingham because it’s really difficult to get the accents right,” he said.

“There aren’t a lot of Birmingham stories told.”

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Having seen Peaky Blinders go from strength-to-strength, the actor now hopes there will be more TV shows set in Britain’s second city.

“I’d like to see another show like Peaky Blinders, but set in the modern era,” he said.

Zephaniah is currently on tour promoting his autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, at venues across the UK.



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