The Peaky Blinders, Gentleman Jack and Bodyguard start talks about what’s ahead for Ada Shelby as the gang powers into politics
Sophie Rundle is no stranger to a rumble. With the fifth series of Peaky Blinders about to smash on to our screens with another slice of street fighting with swagger and a cool as a mortuary soundtrack, she’s back as Ada Shelby in the hit historical crime drama. It’s a role she’s been playing since 2013 as the show punched its way from cult word of mouth favourite on BBC2 to a prime time slot this time round on BBC1, swiping last year’s British Academy Television Award for Best Drama Series and this year’s National Television Award for Most Popular Drama along the way.
So what’s this, she’s curled up with a cup of tea and a floppy golden retriever puppy called Buddy sleeping across her feet, watching Homes Under the Hammer?
“It’s just my favourite programme,” she laughs.
Better not share that with Tommy, Arthur or Aunt Pol, they might slice her a new smile with a flat cap. Doesn’t she mean Peaky Blinders?
“Yes! And obviously all my own personal projects of course,” she laughs. Rundle is riding high with two other viewer-grabbing shows, playing Ann Walker, Suranne Jones’ love interest in Gentleman Jack, BBC1 and HBO’s steampunk historical drama. She was also Richard Madden’s neglected wife Vicky in last year’s Bodyguard (to be fair, he had a lot on with his PTSD and trying to stop the Home Secretary being assassinated), the most watched TV drama in a decade that carried off Best New Drama at this year’s National TV Awards.
“But I mainly watch Homes Under the Hammer. Everyone enjoys a property programme don’t they? There’s something really soothing about it.”
Soothing isn’t a word you can apply to Peaky Blinders, set in Birmingham’s gangland early last century. Violent, visceral, riotous, raw, attention grabbing, but it’s not a soothing watch.
“No! Very stressful in fact,” says Rundle. “But for me the most stressful thing is watching myself, so I steer well clear of that. I hate it because when I read a script I’ve got an idea of who this person is, I see the story like I’m watching the show myself. So I see who Ada Shelby is and then watch it back and it’s MY face. I’m like ‘oh! That’s not right, that’s not how I imagined it’.
“But when you get your head into the right place, it’s cool when you see it, especially Peaky where the whole point is to make you look as cool as possible. And when I see bits I’ve not been part of filming, I’m so blown away by it. It’s thrilling.”
So it’s not the violence that Rundle can’t handle?
“Oh no, we love that!” she laughs.
“I think the show’s success is partly because it’s so audacious and alluring and sexy and rock and roll, and people love that. Also the Peaky Blinders are the underdogs and even though they’re horrendous people, you feel like they’re your people because they’ve come from nothing and worked their way up. Somehow when you watch, you feel like you’re in the Peaky Blinders. I think part of that magic is because the writer Steven Knight based it on stories he was told as a kid. All the best stories are based on a nugget of truth.”
We’ve followed the Shelby clan literally fighting their way up from impoverished backstreet bookies to running a business empire that also spans pubs, restaurants, factories and distilleries, all with Tommy at the helm. The new season kicks off with the financial crash of 1929 and follows the rise of fascism in the UK and we see the Peakies’ patch expand from Small Heath, Birmingham, to the House of Commons, with Tommy taking up his seat as a Labour MP.
Ada is very much at the heart of the Shelby family, yet isn’t afraid to fight her own corner and cross them. After the death of her Communist agitator husband, she returned to the family fold, got involved in politics, did a stint in the US overseeing family operations then returned once more.
Rundle, who describes the new BBC1 slot as “sort of the main stage at Glastonbury”, is terrified of giving away any spoilers but gives us a sneaky peek of what’s to come for the Sneaky Peaks.
“It begins with the Great Depression and you’ve got Tommy going into politics at a time of incredible socio-economic political upheaval. For Ada it’s interesting because she confronted the fact that her ideals didn’t line up with the cynicism of real life politics and made a conscious choice to step away from it. She came back into the family just as her older brother is diving headfirst into all the things that she used to believe in, and maybe still does. This series for her focuses on the new life she’s chosen for herself, watching Tommy go into the life she nearly chose, and the difficulties that brings up.”
Rundle puts her finger on one of the strengths of the series, its portrayal of family dynamics, something everyone can relate to.
“How irritating is it when your brother or sister does the thing that you were doing before them?” she says. “I think it’s galling for her that these opportunities that were never open to her are open to Tommy because he’s a man. She’s having to watch from the sidelines and try and keep him from his natural inclinations because she’s one of the smarter ones.”
Ada may have a social conscience and intelligence, but she’s still a street-fighting Shelby, and it’s this complexity of character that makes her fun for Rundle to play.
“What a formidable woman, do you know what I mean? She’s incredibly smart – she and Tommy intellectually are on a very similar level – and incredibly fearless. She has taught herself to be well read and is still railing against the difficulties of being a woman at that time.
“There’s this restless energy inside Ada that’s she’s constantly trying to keep a lid on. Occasionally it breaks out and I love the scenes where you see a real flash of the Ada Shelby that grew up with all these mental brothers and is a gangster brat. I love that underneath all the fur and the red lipstick, the art collection, she’d still beat you in a fight hands down.”
Rundle regrets she’s not more like the incredibly cool, courageous Ada, and admits to spending her spare time in peaceful pursuits such as walking Buddy in the park with her boyfriend Matt Stokoe, also an actor. But where Rundle and Ada do have something in common is in the family dynamic. Rundle also has two brothers, James and Harry, a writer and another actor.
“I do really relate strongly to that little sister vibe, so there’s that,” she says. “And I try and channel her if I have to do something intimidating, or something I’m worried about. I try and think, ‘what would Ada do?’”. She laughs, “‘Cos she’d take no shit. Yeah, I’m constantly trying to be cool enough to play Ada Shelby, and failing. I’m relying on good camera angles and cool music.”
Speaking of music, this series’ score has been written by English musician and Mercury Prize nominee Anna Calvi and Rundle detects a sense of the pace, if anything, hotting up.
“I think that it does feel very punk this year. It’s always been rock’n’roll with an almost lackadaisical laidback cool, a kind of sexy Mick Jagger vibe, but this year it feels like it’s got this real punk, front-footed energy. It’s so anarchic and wild that the Peaky Blinders are in Westminster. It’s kind of gone up a gear and has a kind of feral energy. Anthony Byrne who directed this series has given it that punk element and it feels kind of roaring and visceral which is what you want from Peaky.”
If being based on a true story gives Peaky Blinders an authenticity that audiences respond to, the same can be said of Gentleman Jack. Created by Sally Wainwright from the diaries of 1830s Yorkshire heiress and maverick Anne Lister, it sees Rundle as Suranne Jones’ love interest Ann Walker. Attracting almost six million viewers for the opening episode, and keeping up the figures, it has been commissioned for a second series.
“They have a similar tone and a confidence and brilliance that comes from two people, Steve and Sally, who know what they’re doing. Gentleman Jack is an extraordinary story and it all really happened. That’s important because it would be easy to try and write that story as a wishy-washy period drama, but Anne Lister was so punk and iconoclastic that it has that kind of urgency, a kind of steampunk momentum that makes it still wild today. Getting ‘married’ in 1834 was extraordinary and we almost lost the story because Ann Walker’s family made a strident attempt to strike her off the pages of history because they were mortified. Thank God we’ve got someone like Sally to bring the diaries alive again because these women deserve to be honoured and remembered.
“Ann Walker is a very vulnerable young woman but with a little glint of backbone that means she doesn’t allow herself to be steamrollered. She was written off as a hysterical woman but has a nugget of steel that grows throughout the series.”
There’s more of that backbone to come in the next series, which Rundle is about to start working on, and there are two more series of Peaky Blinders in the pipeline, according to Steven Knight, taking the story up to 1939.
“When you get to the human heart of something, which both these series do, audiences respond because they can relate,” says Rundle.
With Peaky, Gentleman Jack and Bodyguard, the RADA-trained Rundle seems to have the golden touch. Before this she starred as code-breaker Lucy in ITV’s The Bletchley Circle and joined Matt LeBlanc and Tamsin Grieg in the sitcom Episodes. Then in Sky 1 drama Jamestown, she played a 17th-century mail order bride, and also met her partner Matt (Misfits, The Musketeers, The Village and Black Mirror).
“I just think I’ve been really jammy,” she says. I’ve just been on board some lucky trains I think.
“Peaky was one of my first jobs so at the start I didn’t have a clue what I was doing or what it was gonna be. But I remember in the first series they showed us the teaser trailer and everybody was like, this is f***ing cool, and I didn’t know that that doesn’t happen all the time, that kind of energy and sense of we’ve made something a bit different. It’s grown from there. I don’t think anybody could have anticipated the trajectory of the show.
“Bodyguard was a real surprise too. We all thought it would be good ‘cos it’s Jed Mercurio, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be that big. It hit the ground running at the right time for it and everyone was talking about it. None of my friends and family cared while I was filming it, then when it was on they were like ‘oooh, what happens, you’ve gotta tell us’.”
Now 31 and based in London for the past ten years, Rundle was raised in Bournemouth, where her parents “saw drama clubs and the seaside as a good way to tire out three rowdy kids”. She can’t remember not wanting to be an actor and with a love of literature and drama, was an obvious choice for school plays.
“I was about 11 when I realised it was a plausible career, much to the dismay of my teachers,” she says and laughs. “Because I was not an attractive child. I had frizzy hair and was pale, freckly and a bit plump. I was like ‘well, I’m going to be an actress, I’ll do that because it sounds easy’ and I think they were thinking ‘oh god’. They said ‘why don’t you go to university, maybe do a sensible job’, and I was like, ‘no, I’m off, I’ll figure out a way to do it.’”
With her business consultant father and online librarian mother “baffled” by her career choice, that’s exactly what she did, writing to an agent for representation and applying to RADA “until eventually they let me in, thank God, because I would just have kept going back. I think my parents thought it was a phase, but now my younger brother’s an actor too and my older one is a writer, so we’re all creative. If you come for dinner at our family home, everyone’s telling stories so it is in there somewhere.”
As well as more Peaky Blinders and Gentleman Jack on her to-do list, she’s just started shooting a film in and around Glasgow with Glenda Jackson for the BBC. Called Elizabeth is Missing, it’s an adaptation of Emma Healey’s 2018 Costa first novel award winner and follows Maud’s search for her best friend, while struggling with dementia.
“Glenda Jackson is in a different league isn’t she?” says Rundle. “I have such a girl crush on her, I think she’s a total badass and she’s going to be brilliant in this. But I can’t say anything about it at the moment or I’ll get told off.”
What she can say is how much she loves Scotland, having a Scottish grandma and great-grandparents – “When you see our family all lined up we all look like total Celts” – which make her feel quite at home in Glasgow, “apart from my accent.”
Rundle is also making a feature film with Stokoe, with whom she has set up a production company, and she’s as tight-lipped as a Peaky under pressure about this one, too, until it’s further down the line.
Ditto sharing details of her relationship with him, not that she minds talking about herself, “but it’s his choice to be more private so I respect that. I compulsively overshare, especially on Instagram, but most of it’s Buddy now, he’s taken over. Most actresses get little lap dogs, handbag dogs they can take to work, but I got a giant golden retriever. He’s technically a puppy but he’s the size of a small horse, a big gallumphing, smelly, giant thing. I’m furiously proud of him and I’ve tried to shoehorn him into scenes at work, but no-one’s having it yet.”
We can’t really see a giddy golden retriever working in Peaky Blinders...
“No, he’s the smiliest, silliest dog, not a very intimidating gangsta dog,” she says.
More of a Homes Under the Hammer hound…
“Yeah, but I’ll just keep training him, then maybe…” says Rundle.
Well, she does have the golden touch, and that nugget of steel.
Sophie Rundle stars in the new series of Peaky Blinders, launching on BBC1 tomorrow at 9pm