And now, the end is near.
This Sunday (3rd April), after nine years and six series, Peaky Blinders concludes with a feature-length episode. Even if we don’t know whether Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby will face his final curtain (although that terminal brain tumour isn’t helping), it seems fairly likely Steven Knight’s hit BBC drama will go out with a bang. That shipment of machine guns arriving at Liverpool docks, to be stashed by Stephen Graham’s union leader on the orders of Tommy, are clearly intended as a surprise for someone.
Meanwhile, young Michael (Finn Cole), is still hellbent on killing Tommy, who he blames for the death of his mum Polly (the late Helen McCrory). If he finds out Tommy’s also blackmailing his wife Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy), he’ll want to kill him twice.
One person who does know what the series finale holds is Conrad Khan. The Londoner, 21, joined the Peaky family late in the day, making his debut in this season’s fourth episode. He plays Duke, the long-lost son Tommy never knew he had, born after Tommy had sex with his mum under a hazel tree at Appleby Horse Fair. As you do.
Khan has come a long way since THE FACE profiled him in November 2020. He was still living with his folks at the time, and not long out of his Camden comprehensive. We were interviewing him for his first major role, in the film County Lines, a performance for which Khan was subsequently nominated for the EE BAFTA Rising Star Award 2021. Then, after Knight and Murphy saw him in the critically acclaimed British indie, he was cast in only the biggest UK drama series of the last decade – a commitment he had to juggle alongside his first year of a Film Studies course at London’s Queen Mary University.
In last weekend’s penultimate episode of Peaky Blinders, Khan had a couple of particularly heavy scenes: the garrotting of a football referee and a toe-to-toe with Tommy, in which he’s told by his dad that, of his two sons, he’s the one who’s going to have to represent the “dark” side of Shelby family business.
And now Khan’s here, Zooming in from his new flat in East London, uni books piled on the bed behind him, discussing the imminent, climactic Shelby showdown.
Nice to see you, Conrad. Don’t know about you but I’m still sweating after the garrotting scene. How was that to film?
That was very intense to start off with. It was one of the first scenes that I did in the whole shoot. I was there for six months, and this was probably in the first week or so. And you’ve got some top dogs in there, not just in terms of the hierarchy of the Shelby family, but in terms of British actors in general. They brought their A‑game. And the room was so small that the intensity couldn’t escape.
How many takes did it, er, take?
For the first couple of takes, they did the scene normally. Just acting, no blood, no special effects. Then after lunch, they got this guy to crouch in the corner of the room. He had this long tube that they stuffed up the actor playing the referee’s trousers, so that when they needed blood to come out of his neck, it was squirted from this little tube! It was kind of scary, but then you also had some tiny guy in the corner, pumping fake blood up his trousers, so it was kind of funny at the same time.
Has it been a scary experience overall, joining a beloved, long-running show, stuffed with, as you say, top dogs?
I think the [anticipation] of it was scary, because I’ve loved the show for so long. And I’m working with some of the best actors in the country. So before you go on set, before you start the project you’re like: right, this is a lot. But then once you’re there, they’re so welcoming and so kind, and you’re running around with machine guns. So it’s a bit of a laugh at the end of the day. So, no, it’s not scary.
You had another big scene in that episode, an intense two-hander with Cillian…
Yeah, that was incredible. I was so blessed to have had the opportunity to spend a whole day doing that scene. It was quite a relaxed day, because it was the last day of the week. People were just like, ‘Oh, yeah, fuck it, let’s have a cup of tea for 10 minutes, let’s just chat, let’s chill, we don’t need to do the next shot for a while…’ So it wasn’t as intense as some of the other ones because the schedule’s so quick.
But just working with Cillian is incredible. He’s so talented, and so dedicated to his craft. I think we bounced off each other. It’s a weird thing to say because he’s such an incredible guy. But I’ll remember that day for a long time.
For a scene like that, what kind of prep did you and Cillian do off-camera?
None. Because the schedule has such a quick-turnaround, you don’t really have time to do rehearsals and stuff. And also my character’s not one of the main four or five… But I think they must have rehearsed. For me, I just come in cold in the morning, then we’ll do a couple of takes without the camera. So, just the actors and the directors, maybe to get the lines right. And then you’re straight in.
You were on the job for six months, but we only met your character in episode four. Why did you have to be embedded within the Peaky Blinders world for all that time?
I don’t know why it was that long. They split up the shooting schedule, so it wasn’t chronological. I’d come in May and do some bits of episode five, then come back in June and do some bits of episode four. So I was travelling from London to Birmingham twice a week. And because it was Covid, they couldn’t put me on a train, so I had to take the car every week. So I spent a lot of time reading and watching films in the back of the car.
Most of the cast have been doing it for six series, since 2013. Did you feel like the new kid in school?
Yeah, a little bit. Well, I saw it that way, but I don’t think anybody else did. And this season, there are also a couple of other actors who are brand new, so I wasn’t the only new kid on the block. And those other people joining the series were incredible. Stephen Graham is one of my favourite actors ever, so to be in a show with him is incredible. Unfortunately, his scenes were all separate to me – I think he was shooting in Liverpool. But everything he’s done is incredible. I recently watched Boiling Point. Fantastic.
Cracking film. What presence did you feel Helen McCrory had on the Peaky Blinders set when you were there?
A really, really great presence. She was felt. Even watching the show now, you can kind of feel her presence. And there’s a big void. Not just on set, but in the show today. I remember watching episode one at the premiere and the way they dedicated it right at the beginning to her, you could feel everybody in the audience had that same emotion.
How was Duke described in the audition notes?
One thing they said to me in the audition – which I kind of took on and tried to remember when I was doing the show six months later – was that when he’s in a scene, when he’s in the room, you want the audience to not be able to know what he’s going to do next. He’s this kind of crazed, mad character. He could grab a gun from a table and shoot your head off. Or he could burst out of the room in tears.
Or steal your watch.
Yeah! You want that weird, sporadic energy where you don’t know what he’s going to do. Which is a hard thing to [achieve]. But when you’re in that intense environment, it breeds that mad energy.
You can feel that. He’s a young lad who’s lived on the road all his life. Never knew his dad, his mum’s dead. There’s almost a feral element to him.
It’s exciting, right? One thing I like doing, before I do something or before I take a pause, is just to stare at the other actor and just wait. So they don’t quite know what I’m gonna do. And then, OK, fine, I’ll take the cigarette off you, say my line or whatever. That’s to keep everyone on their toes. Because like you said, the nature of my character is that he’s a bit of a crazed guy, a bit feral. So he can do that. It was fun.
When did you finally finish filming?
Exactly a year ago. I remember being in Manchester… You know how your phone gives you memories from a year ago? I got something like that recently. Then, because [the show’s] so long – six and a half hours of footage – it’s taken this long to edit. I remember speaking to [director] Anthony [Byrne] at the premiere, and I said: “How’s it looking?” And he said: “It’s still not done. We’re still in the edit room every day.” That’s why it’s been such a long time.
And you were doing all this filming while you were studying at uni as well, right?
I was in my first year, but it was Covid, so 100 per cent of lessons were on the computer. It worked well for me, because it meant I had my laptop in the trailer or at the hotel. I could log on, do my seminars, do my lectures and then go on to set when they called me. I found time to do both. And I’m still there – they haven’t kicked me off the course yet.
You’re taking a course in Film Studies. Anything else?
I do a couple of literature modules. I’m a little bit surrounded by film. I do it for work, for studies, for fun. So I gave myself a bit of a break – I’m reading some Russian and German novels. The basics: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. The 800-page ones! I’ve got Anna Karenina on my bed just now – I’m supposed to be reading that for next week. I’m trying very hard not to watch the film and just go into the lectures and talk about it like I know the whole story. It’s much more rewarding sitting down for like, 60 hours, to read the whole thing.
So you managed to study while you were filming Peaky Blinders. Does that mean you’re good at compartmentalising?
I think so. My parents were the ones who encouraged me. They said: “Park the uni stuff, get an extension on your deadlines. Just put it out of your mind, so you can be in this character. You can embody Duke for that time that you need.” But, you know, third year is coming up, so everything might get a bit more complicated.
How have your classmates reacted to your appearing in the show?
It’s hard to tell who knows and who has watched it. You’re walking down the street and you’ll get like this 40-year-old bloke just staring, really intently, wondering: “Do I know him…?” But a lot of people don’t know, which I’m kind of grateful for. That’s why I enjoy going to uni because I can be a normal student for a couple of hours. But some of my lecturers know, and because they’re doing film, they’ve got certain questions about things. But everybody’s been really sweet about it.
Have you fit in any other filming jobs since you finished Peaky Blinders?
I did a film in the summer called Kindling, directed by Connor O’Hara. It was a short film, and then they turned it into a feature. It’s about these five boys, one of which gets terminal testicular cancer. All of his mates come back to his hometown in the countryside, and they’re celebrating the last moments of his life. I play one of the mates. It sounds kind of morbid, but actually there’s a lot of really fun bits in it. They just finished the editing a couple of days ago. I’m going to go and see a screening of that next week.
Do you know what you’re doing next?
There’s a few things, you know, vague possibilities. And just auditioning still. You never know until you’re on set on day one, because things always fall through.
Without giving any specifics, what can viewers expect from Sunday’s feature-length finale?
There’s a lot of action. A lot happens. A few things are resolved. But then some bits are still slightly open-ended, the way Steven set it up. And there’s a shot of me with this giant machine gun, letting all hell loose. I mean, that’s in the trailer, so I can’t be held responsible for talking about it!
You hope. Steven Knight has said that a Peaky Blinders film is happening, that it will go into the war years, and that Cillian and Paul Anderson (who plays Arthur Shelby) are signed up. Are you in?
I haven’t been asked yet…
Are you available?
I’ll have to check my diary! Yeah, that would be amazing. But who knows?
As well as the film, there’s a ballet (The Redemption of Thomas Shelby) coming, The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival, an imminent VR computer game The King’s Ransom, the official menswear line Garrison Tailors… Why are we so engaged with the entire cosmos of Peaky Blinders?
A lot of reasons. The entertainment value – it’s so fun to watch. Its uniqueness – there’s nothing else really like this. It’s the quintessential Britishness of the show as well. The style, the costumes, the sets, the accents are all just iconic.
And I think people really like Tommy. They see that he represents an idealised person. He has a lot on his plate. A lot of responsibility. But he carries that on his shoulders, and he supports his family. That’s a type of person that a lot of people can side with and can relate to. I think that’s why he’s so popular as a protagonist.
It must be a real privilege for a young actor to be in the final series of one of the most important British shows of the last decade. Does it feel that way to you?
Yeah, certainly. It feels slightly like I’ve cheated it, coming in right at the end. But to even have that last bit very special.
If the film does come knocking, are you prepared to get a Peaky Blinders haircut?
Of course! I mean, a few of my mates [do] already. They’re so popular! You’re walking down the street, or in the supermarket, and you’ll see someone with it. It does look quite harsh, but I’d be prepared to go for that.
Peaky Blinders ends on Sunday 3rd April. Who’s nervous?