How Liam Neeson Helped Sam Neill Prepare For Peaky Blinders

The lush, visually stunning world of "Peaky Blinders" is set to come to an end in 2022 after six seasons. The show follows the Irish gang known as the Peaky Blinders, led by Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) as they rise and make waves through the underworld of early 20th century Birmingham. For the first two seasons, Sam Neill ("Jurassic Park") played the show's main antagonist, Inspector Campbell, a ruthless detective sent by Winston Churchill himself to clean up the city. 

It was a complicated role to take on, and Neill reached out to none other than Liam Neeson for help to help him get one very important aspect of the character right. 

Its All in the Accent

Sam Neill has a unique accent background. Born in Northern Ireland, his mother was English and his father was an army officer from New Zealand. His family would move later to his father's home country in 1954. As "Peaky Blinders" follows the lives and crimes of gangs in Northern Ireland in the early 20th century, Neill would needed a bit of help to find his voice for the role. He couldn't just rely on being born in the country to produce the right affectation, having spent most of his life in New Zealand. "I probably had one, but it was well beaten out of me in the playground in New Zealand, there's not a trace of it now," he explained in an interview with BBC in 2012.

Sam Neill looked to Liam Neeson for accent support, along with actor James Nesbitt. Both actors were born in Northern Ireland. That didn't necessarily make things easier, however. He had a session of practice with each of them, but it may have confused Neill more. 

He told Graham Norton, "I got a couple of lessons from them, which was great but they were brought up just 10 miles from each other and speak with completely different voices, so I thought I would just relax and do my own thing." The actor seems to have no illusions over how difficult the task was to pull of, and knows some wouldn't like it. "I'm sure there are people who will say, 'that's a crap accent.' To which my answer is, I'm sure there's someone in Northern Ireland who speaks like that," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

Why the Accents Matter

Getting the accent right was important not only for the verisimilitude for the show, but was also important in terms of securing an American audience. Producers wanted accuracy, but not at the sake of clarity for anyone not familiar with the Northern Irish speech patterns. "They said not to have too strong an accent because we need to be understood, but the Northern Ireland accent is very challenging," Neill explained.

He's not the only one who had to shift accents for the show. To play Thomas Shelby, Cillian Murphy had to adjust his natural Irish accent to be a bit more like someone from Birmingham. It's interesting to see the debates about the accuracy of accents on "Peaky Blinders," as someone who grew up in the southern United States, where actors tend to either use the wrong cadence for the wrong place, or don't even try to not sound like a stereotype.

However, accent work is more than just what an actor does with their voice, according to Elspeth Morrison, a dialect coach who spoke to BBC about the accents on the show.

There tends not to be much movement of the face with the Birmingham accent. Too much facial activity or tightness in the face and you can end up sounding like you are from Liverpool. For Birmingham accents the lips tend to poke forward, so they're quite pouty and rosebud shaped. It works the other way too. I had a director phone me once saying he had an actress who was meant to be doing a Liverpool accent but she sounded Brummie [Birmingham accent], I told him to ask her to smile and put a bit of tension in her cheeks – that really helped.

Essentially, accents are greatly affected by facial expression and tension, which is probably more important for an actor's focus than getting every syllable right. Hearing Morrison's explanation, I'll have more patience with actors who are least giving it an honest try.

If you're ready for a glimpse of what season 6 has in store for "Peaky Blinders," check out the trailer. The show returns for its sixth and final season in the spring of 2022. However, there is also plans for a finale movie are already in the works for 2023.