Earlier this year, we sat down on the set of Peaky Blinders series two to chat with Helen McCrory about her character Aunt Polly, feminism and depicting mental health issues on screen…
What have you just been filming?
Peaky Blinders moves to London, and when it moves to London it moves to the world of Noah [Taylor] and Tom Hardy and different gangs and so it all has a much more epic scope. I think that Steve [Knight, the writer] established so much in the first six episodes that you don’t need to do it any more, so there’s a much faster pace. The scene I’ve just been doing is set in the Shelbys’ new offices, which are quite a step up from what it was, as we start to earn more money, but then get into the complications that [happen] when you expand.
Polly’s story this year is much, much more interesting. I don’t know if [Steven] made a conscious effort or it’s just what he found the most interesting from the last series, but the women’s parts on the whole [are more interesting]. I think you have to establish that the world of the Shelbys is a man’s world, but once you’ve got that up and running, then you can start to look at the women’s world, which were much more delineated than they are now, so they are completely different characters and completely different sets and settings. I’ve had a fantastic time this year, he’s written me one of my best parts I’ve ever played.
Have you enjoyed being able to see more of the women’s world as well as the guys’?
Oh yeah, as a woman particularly, yes! And also because it’s more interesting as a viewer. If you’re going to create a story and shoot it in this John Ford [style], [with the] cowboy personalities of these men who say nothing and keep their secrets to themselves and go through this landscape – and it’s fictional, clearly people don’t react like this, people don’t slash people and walk out and adjust their collar, it’s entertainment – but what he’s done in this series is give a lot more emotional weight to my story in particular. But it’s very dramatic, it’s not the emotional weight of chatting about how exhausted I am with the mangle, it’s glamourized, it’s stylized.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test?
What does?! Yes, it does.
Do you think there’s an opportunity in this setting to tell different, more interesting stories about women than we usually see in 1920s period dramas?
Yes, in the way that if you’re going to set a series in the drawing rooms of the people who ran the country, maybe behind every great man is a great woman, but that would be when everybody leaves the dinner table or when they’re in the bedroom, you know, [the woman saying] “Hector I do think you should get the bill through Parliament” or whatever it is. But if you actually look at the working class, the working class women [did] run the homes, those women worked hard, [they were] the heartbeat of the society, knowing where the kids are, running it all, making sure that the drunk man in the pub was picked up by somebody else’s husband and brought home, and knowing what’s happening on the streets, because you have to, because no one else is helping you. So yes, just by setting it in working-class Britain, which was 95% of the rest of the country, yeah it does.
It’s a very different sort of period drama than some of the competition, isn’t it?
Yes it is, and I think Steve very particularly decided that he wanted to set it in this world, and to set it in Birmingham as well, which we rarely see in drama, but of course at this time was the richest city in the world. [There was] just an extraordinary amount of manufacturing going on. You go down to those places now and they’re shells of course, or they’re made into apartments for businessmen or whatever, but there’s beautiful architecture there, still.
Our hearts did sink a bit when Laurie Borg [Producer] said it was all moving to London…
But it’s all shot in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. I think we had three days away in Chatsworth House for one character’s home, a new character that’s coming in, but apart from that… because the architecture is all still here. You go around Manchester and it’s like Gotham City with these amazing modern Shard-like buildings next to great big red brick old warehouses next to fantastic civic halls… beautiful architecture. We don’t have it in London in the same way. So no, we say we’re going to London but we actually just went to Leeds and then came back again.
Anti-heroes and anti-heroines are quite popular on TV at the moment. How much fun is it to play a character like that, and how tricky is it to make not always very likeable characters compelling and keep audiences rooting for them?
I think that if the writing’s good enough and it shows you the complexities of the motivations of the characters… Also in this case these are not people who, to a large extent, had an alternative. I mean Polly presumably left school at 11, literate – we know that she’s the financial advisor so we know that she has numeracy – but if you are excluded and you feel, particularly like the men who came back from the First World War, that there is no God, and you lose faith in your government because they’ve sent you to war, and you’ve had officers send you over the edge safely from a long way away – what that does to the psyche of the men who are coming back to the women that were left there and then [were] disenfranchised once again as they gave their jobs back… to a people like this, if you didn’t make money, criminally, what were your options? Polly’s going to go and work in the local factory? Tommy’s going to go back, [with] high unemployment, to where? There’s no NHS, there’s no social services, this was a world where people were still starving in Britain. It’s comparatively recently that we’ve had a short window of comfort, and we’re losing it again with more people going to food banks now. I think that helps you empathise with the characters.
But also, it is stylized. Nobody for a moment pretends that people are really like this, and I think it’s very clear right from the first beat, when Tommy enters on a black stallion to Nick singing away Red Right Hand, this is a romantic idea. This is not Ken Loach, this is not gritty realism. There’s much nicer lighting!
With all that in mind, what do you think Polly wants? What’s driving her?
I think at the start of the series it’s stability for her family. There are a lot of wild cards in the family. If Arthur’s not snorting it, he’s fucking it, and if he’s not snorting it and fucking it he’s trying to fight it, so he’s somebody you’ve got to look after. Tommy is just constantly imploding and [she’ll] worry about him, [she’s] terrified that Esme’s wangling her way into the family. It’s great, they’ve actually got [Esme] starting to dress a little bit like Polly, it’s all like All About Eve. [Polly needs to] maintain [her] power within the family and [she’s] feeling threatened by another woman coming into it.
But as her family issues become resolved, a self-loathing comes out in Polly, a destructive self-loathing. Children make us look at ourselves. I know this from my own life, I have a six-year old and a seven-year old, and you become much more self-aware [about] what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it, because you realise that they ape you. So I think that when she finds family stability, a self-loathing comes out in Polly. So I think it’s peace [that she wants].
What do you think about how Peaky Blinders represents PTSD, going into series 2?
I think in the first series, with Danny Whizz-bang, with Tommy self-medicating, to a certain extent with Arthur self-medicating, I think the smell of the trenches is still there in Birmingham. In this series, it’s not as apparent. It is in Tommy, you feel still that there’s a restlessness – well no, that’s not true. In this series it is actually accentuated because Arthur really starts to go off the rails, and Polly starts trying to motivate him with morphine, with opium. People just took quick fixes at home, still so little was understood about mental health, even now no one really knows the right way to medicate or the right way to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome, it’s individual case to case. I think it’s a really important part of the drama, because I think that in drama it’s been ignored for too long.
It’s a problem today. There was a documentary done quite recently tracing post-traumatic stress syndrome throughout literature and describing literature [about] people coming back from the Napoleonic wars and it was so similar, the shakes, the inwardness, the self-loathing, the nightmares, everything was exactly as it was. We know now all that ‘Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black; Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds’ [a quotation from Wilfred Owen’s poem Mental Cases] we know all the First World War poets and we know much more, but it’s extraordinary how many homeless people come from the Forces, still now. What happens to men and women who’ve seen conflict and how it’s very hard to re-wire.
And [for the family] coping with people with mental health issues as well, it’s exhausting.
Is there a sense of social responsibility in terms of how it’s portrayed on screen?
I don’t know if I’d say that there’s a collective responsibility. I think that individually actors are keen to get it correct and truthful because then it’s recognisable and everyone understands what we’re talking about. Also, it’s not the social services, it’s an entertainment show. But there are many more scenes this series talking about Arthur and how to deal with Arthur.
Is shellshock something that the characters are aware of?
Yeah. I don’t know if they called it shellshock, but yeah. My great-grandfather came back from the trenches and he was shellshocked, and he was in a wheelchair, and it was so common. Men were walking around the street with half a face, and no legs, and we forget this, and it was all around you, and I think that the great lie of ‘it’s not in our family’… but it’s important that it is part of the drama.
Is that something the female characters have to deal with, without having shared that experience?
Yes, they dealt with it in as far as they were the ones that looked after [the men], and also there was [a sense of] camaraderie [in] that men would look after men. You had that in episode 1, when Danny Whizz-bang starts smashing up a pub and Tommy, who owns the pub, who normally would just kneecap him in our world, actually gives him the grace to go because he understands what the man’s been through. And the hopelessness and the helplessness that Polly feels will resonate with anyone who has a member of the family that’s going through mental health issues because it’s such a new science and it’s very hard and it’s relentless. No amount of therapy is going to get it out as quickly as people want it to. But I think it’s treated in a way that is responsible in the way that it’s faced by everyone, not necessarily in the best way, just like in life, but it is faced and discussed.
Who do you think needs the other more, Tommy or Polly? Who is more reliant on the other for survival?
I think they’re so locked together now. It’s very interesting, we do a couple of scenes this year that is [like] husband and wife, clearly not in a carnal way because we’re related, but in [the sense of] getting ready to go out and we’re just chatting about a younger member of the family, and I think that’s what they’ve become. She’s unmarried, he’s unmarried, and they’re both, you know, not on drugs, which makes them stand out from the rest of the family, so they’re both the carers. I think they need each other for different things. I think she needs him because it’s a man’s world and he’s able to do things that she can’t do, and also that he’s intelligent and political, it’s Machiavellian. And I think he needs her because she looks after the family, and him.
Is he the one pulling the strings, or is it a supportive relationship?
He makes a lot of decisions alone and continues to make a lot of decisions alone and she continues to keep up and round on him and be his moral… be his judge. So that hasn’t really changed as we go into London. There is a line that he says a few times, that if anything happens to him, Polly takes over.
Steven Knight has spoken in the past about how Western films mythologised that era, and he wanted to do something similar with this era in Birmingham. Is there another particular moment in history or era that you would particularly like to explore in film or TV?
Abi Morgan’s just done a film called Suffragettes. I would love to do a piece about suffragettes, but have it written like a thriller, instead of having Daphne looking out of the window and saying [affects super-posh accent] “I wonder if Charles will still love me when he sees me dragged away from Parliament Square”. If you look at that period, and I have looked at that period, the amount of tactics those women were using, and you had every strata of life chatting about it…
I think it’s a really important issue. I’m incredibly depressed at the amount of women now that say “I’m not a feminist” and you just think ‘Why?’ because you’re not being a feminist for you, you’re being a feminist for the women who are not being able to be educated, who are not being able to drive a car, who are not having equal rights and you now have them so how dare you sit on your arse and not support other women? And rather than that, which obviously would be quite an angry and boring thing to watch, I think you could write a series based [at] the start of feminism, so you can understand and explore those themes, whilst making it thrilling and exciting, and not seeing it as something that was in the past, because it still isn’t. It won’t be until men have maternity leave.
That’s really angry! What the fuck was that?!
Helen McCrory, thank you very much!
Peaky Blinders series two starts on Thursday the 2nd of October on BBC Two.
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