Growing up in one of the less healthy areas of south London in the early 1980s, a young man called Paul Anderson used to dream of becoming a rock star. “He always wanted to be the leader of a band,” he recalled. “I’m not a footballer. Not an actor. Not a police officer or a firefighter, of course.
But he became an actor, and one who, ten years ago (he was in his mid-30s by then), rose to fame thanks to his towering role as gangster Arthur Shelby in the BBC drama Peaky Blinders.
The series, about a fictional Birmingham crime family between the wars, became a cult show, not only in Britain but around the world, and Anderson’s performance as the tormented, drug-addicted Arthur was seen as the key to its success.
Roles in Hollywood blockbusters followed, including alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in the bleak 2015 western The Revenant. For years, few could imagine that Anderson’s future career would be anything other than starry.
Because, in a poignant case where life mirrors (or possibly surpasses) art, his world seems to have gone off the rails in a way that might have been a shock even to the troubled and depressed Arthur Shelby.
Peaky Blinders star Paul Anderson leaves a bakery near his north London home looking emaciated
In late January, it emerged that Anderson had been fined for possession of drugs, including crack cocaine, following an incident at his local pub on Boxing Day in which he was found “drunk” and carrying a crack pipe. And no sooner had his fans digested this unedifying fall from grace than he was photographed last week leaving a bakery near his north London home looking almost unrecognizable.
Gaunt and with his features deeply wrinkled, the staggering Anderson looked perhaps two decades older than his 46 years.
The transformation, along with the drug conviction, has led to speculation that Anderson will not be invited to reprise his role as Arthur in the highly anticipated (and recently confirmed) film version of Peaky Blinders, which is rumored to begin filming early of the summer.
If so, this would be a blow to Anderson, as it comes against a backdrop of continued brilliant success for his co-stars on the show.
Last week, Cillian Murphy, who played Arthur’s ambitious younger brother Tommy, won the Bafta Best Actor award for his fascinating portrayal of the eponymous scientist in Oppenheimer. Meanwhile, Joe Cole, who played another brother, John, had been nominated for a Bafta for an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dark thriller series Black Mirror.
During Covid, it seems like his behavior started to fall apart.
Then there’s Tom Hardy, who appeared as London crime boss Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders and with whom Anderson became so close during filming that he referred to him as “my brother.”
Hardy has spoken candidly about his own addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine as a young man, saying he was “out of control” before seeking help when he was 20. Since then, his career has gone from strength to strength, including an Oscar nomination. for Best Supporting Actor for The Revenant.
All of which makes Anderson’s downfall all the more poignant.
Raised in Kennington, south London, where his mother was a waitress, Anderson left school at 14.
While dreaming of rock stardom, he made money working as an illegal ticket scalper, earning the nickname ‘Boycie’ after Del Boy Trotter’s dealer friend from Only Fools and Horses.
But operating outside the law proved its worth. In 2008, aged 29, Anderson approached a Chelsea fan who wanted a seat for the Champions League match against Manchester United. The fan’s name was Nick Love and he turned out to be a respected film director.
In a scene straight out of a movie, Love heard Anderson’s gruff South London accent and decided that, despite his lack of experience, he would be perfect for the role of football hooligan Bex in the 2009 film The Firm.
“It turned out that he was outside and he was handling one or two strange tickets and exchanging them for money,” Anderson later recalled. “I was with a group of friends and I sold them tickets.”
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in the hit BBC Brummie gangster show, Peaky Blinders.
Love enjoyed working with him so much that she cast him in her film version of The Sweeney, starring Ray Winstone. Anderson also appeared in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows alongside Robert Downey Jr, and was so determined to perfect his new craft that he enrolled in drama school, describing it as the “university experience I never had”.
In 2013 he was cast as Arthur Shelby, a character that fans quickly took to their hearts. “A lot of people say, ‘We love Arthur,’ and I guess I understand that,” Anderson once told an interviewer. He was also a part that he came to understand deeply, perhaps due to his own demons.
“What I love about him and why I like playing him is that he’s not just one-dimensional,” Anderson said. “It’s hard and it can be violent and brutal, but it’s not just that. It has this internal turmoil, this dichotomy: ‘I don’t want to do this, but I do it because it’s my life and that’s how things are.’ It’s not turning the page and being a kind, pious and God-fearing man. He is still suffering.
It is unclear whether he will now be able to appear in the Peaky Blinders movie.
With fame came fortune. After starring in the 2015 crime thriller Legend and the 2017 western Hostiles alongside Christian Bale, Anderson bought a £1.2 million house in leafy Hampstead, north London. He was rumored to be dating jewelry designer Stephy Clark, founder of the cult brand Steph Metal, although their relationship status was never made public.
But in 2019 he said that “I feel like an impostor most of the time in my life,” and during the pandemic, it seems his behavior began to unravel.
In January 2023, it emerged that producers were investigating his conduct on the set of Peaky Blinders following a complaint from a colleague, the details of which have not been revealed. Then came that incident on Boxing Day.
Police were called to the pub when a drinker told the manager that a smell of drugs was coming from the disabled toilet after the actor had left it. Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court later heard that police had found an “intoxicated” Anderson with a youth and a 17-month-old baby.
He was taken to a police station where he was found to be carrying crack cocaine, a brown powder wrapper identified as amphetamines, diazepam and pregabalin. He tested positive for opiates and cocaine.
Paul Anderson alongside his Peaky Blinders co-stars Joe Cole and Bafta winner Cillian Murphy.
Anderson later admitted possession of crack cocaine, as well as class B amphetamines and two class C prescription substances. In mitigation, defense lawyer Moira MacFarlane said she sometimes found it difficult to shake off the expectations attached to her on-screen alter ego when she faced the fans.
“He often gets recognized and goes out of his way to please fans of the show by getting into character,” MacFarlane explained. ‘He was recognized that Boxing Day and tried to play for these people. And because of the lifestyle he leads, people often offer him incentives. True or not, this seemed to make little difference to the magistrate, who fined Anderson £1,345.
No one knows where this conviction and Anderson’s troubling physical appearance ends with his professional commitments. While Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight is understood to still be working on the film’s script, it’s unclear whether Anderson could (or can) now play what has always been a pivotal role in the story.
However, it seems that the actor himself has not lost hope of returning to the character that made him famous. Last week, in response to a comment on an Instagram post where a fan had written: “By order of The Peaky Blinders,” Anderson replied: “Forever.”
And let us not forget either that if life reflects art, Arthur Shelby is nothing more than a man who dreams of better times. “My heart is a broken ship,” he proclaims in one of his most memorable lines. “But inside there still beats the throbbing pulse of a dream.”
One wonders if, despite his recent setbacks, this troubled star would say the same.