HERE were plenty of exhilarating, typically Peaky Blinders scenes as the fifth season opened on Sunday: the slow-motion walks, the look-away-now violence over the rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, Cillian Murphy simply being Tommy Shelby. But there was a quieter moment that really summed up how far this unique gangster series has come.
The Shelby family gather themselves together to plot their next move after the Wall Street Crash has left them vulnerable. Tommy strides into the room but it’s Helen McCrory’s Aunt Polly who steals the scene. With just one look, she’s withering, menacing, powerful and completely assured. It’s acting of the very highest quality.
‘She’s enjoying her riches and the success of the Peakies, and then within moments we have the crash, everything’s lost,’ says McCrory. ‘She’s back… not on the streets again but definitely back in defence, in punching, fighting mode. I think she’s much happier in the corner, ready to come out all guns blazing, than she is sitting back, drinking champagne.’
Back in 2013, when she agreed to star in the first series of Peaky Blinders without any hint of how huge it would become, she thought she was doing a period drama ‘with Any Old Iron as the soundtrack or something’. She had no idea who this matriarch of a gangster family was — she says she channelled her Glaswegian grandmother — or how Peaky Blinders’ style would catch on with millions across the globe.
‘I never realised what a big character Polly would become,’ she says. ‘I’ve never signed a contract — I’m the only person who hasn’t — and still now I don’t know where she’s going or how important she’s going to be in the end. I had no idea how much people liked her either until we did screenings and people cheered when she was on the screen.
‘I began to get letters from people saying what Polly means to them, and someone came up to me and said they’d lost a child, so that storyline had really affected them — which really took me aback. Other people love the way she walks down the street, her swagger, her strut. Polly can definitely be softer and more feminine. Most people who are tough and funny are usually the softest, I find. I’m deeply suspicious of gentle people because they’d probably mug you in an alley for a penny!’
Which sounds like something Aunt Polly would say. McCrory admits series creator Steven Knight now writes the characters to the voices he hears — ‘and Polly’s given some very funny lines’ — but given McCrory’s theatrical background, it’s obvious she relishes the role.
‘I’m a gun-wielding, knife-carrying, whisky-swigging matriarch of Birmingham,’ she says proudly.
Just don’t celebrate Aunt Polly as one of television’s ‘strong women’.
‘I never understand that description,’ she says. ‘Strong in what way? Whose idea of strength? She’s direct, she’s the only person in the family who is as bright as Tommy and will stand up to him but not in some kind of ball-breaking woman way. It’s because she loves the family, wants to protect them and is honest with them. If she thinks Tommy’s an idiot, she will tell him.’
There is something utterly assured about McCrory, which does make her compelling as both pure-blood witch Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter and human rights lawyer Emma Banville in Fearless. But back to PB — what was her favourite moment in the making of the new series? According to McCrory, it was appearing in a suit, sunglasses and hat, leaning cockily against a period car.
‘I’m really glad we finally got to 1930,’ she laughs. ‘My highlight was definitely striding out in that Greta Garbo Blue Angel outfit.’
We’ll see her next in the TV adaptation of His Dark Materials in an entirely different outfit altogether, playing James McAvoy’s daemon.
‘I’m a snow leopard,’ she says. ‘It consisted of me standing in a studio in Soho and looking at my snow leopardness and doing a vaguely snow leopardy voice… and then being told to stop doing that and just read the lines. But it looks fantastic.’
And with that, the doughty, fearless McCrory is off.
■ Peaky Blinders is on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1