Interview with Helen McCrory
Interview with Helen McCrory, who plays Aunt Polly Gray in BBC Two's Peaky Blinders.
...you’re looking at a new generation of women that were no longer happy to stay at home with a clothes mangle and were coming out. This independence brings a friction to the family and this friction causes these strong characters to come through."
Describe the world of Peaky Blinders
The world is Birmingham, 1919, in the back streets where a gang called the Peaky Blinders are the top dogs. Named after caps they have razor blades in. It’s a world, post First World War. Where men are brutalised. Where women for the first time have had power and are having to hand it back to men. Where the local gypsy community is running the races. Where London talks to Birmingham, talks to Leeds, and these gangs are running a new society that was born from the First World War. Where people questioned everything that came from above. No longer was church or government good. The Ulster police were being shipped into this area because an anarchy was going on in the streets. And we play this anarchy and this street life.
Tell us about your character
I play Aunt Polly who has run this gang for four years while the boys are away in the trenches. You come to the family when they come back. We know she’s had a past life of a man and children and in the series we find out who they are. But she really is the brains with Tommy behind the family and you see the difference of how to rule. One from a male point of view, which is much more physical and violent and threatening, and one from a female point of view, which is just as physically violent and threatening, but is also psychological.
Can you talk about the role of the women in Peaky Blinders?
Well I think the role of the women in Peaky Blinders, because they come from a working class family, are very strong. I mean, these were the women that would run the households. These were the women that would run the purse strings of a family. Women who had been through the First World War, had coped with those men being away and had also done the things that men had done before. So you’re looking at a new generation of women that were no longer happy to stay at home with a clothes mangle and were coming out. This independence brings a friction to the family and this friction causes these strong characters to come through.
What attracted you to the project?
Steve Knight shows this world in a way that we’re not used to in British storytelling. We’re used to seeing our victims as that, as victims. People who are not part of society. People who are the criminal class must be there because they’re forced there. They must have something wrong with them. They must always want, you know, absolution for their sins and they must generally be seen as failures. He has written them as heroes, in the style of the Western, in the style that the Americans do so very well.
What do you think makes Peaky Blinders different to other British shows?
I think the difference is the tone in which the story’s been told. I also think the difference is in the visual landscape. They have shot it in a way that does remind you of those old Westerns. Huge epic scenes and then the lone man who never describes why he’s doing what he’s doing in the centre of this. We’re all the characters around him that are those archetypes that are uncommon to British audiences.