Contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders series 4
“Can you heal that?” asks Helen McCrory. That being the surprise arrival of a raft of coppers to cart the Shelby family off to prison at the end of series three. Even if there was a rescue plan all along, when a family member has put a noose around your neck and made you believe you were seconds from death, is forgiveness possible?
“The strength of the family is whether it can get together despite that and continue or not. This series is about that test,” says McCrory. Her character, Aunt Polly, “hates the man that runs the family,” she continues. “Even though she is a matriarch and he is the patriarch, will she unite or will she take him down?”
Polly’s experience on the gallows in the opening episode of Peaky Blinders series one has given her a new understanding of herself. “She has a fearless quality that makes somebody very dangerous, when they no longer fear death,” says McCrory. “There’s no stopping her.”
The difference this year, McCrory says, is that Polly’s near-death experience has left her an equal of Tommy. “Because of her lack of fear of death, she now no longer refers to anybody in order to act and that’s what has changed about Polly. She now makes her own decisions and that makes her really dangerous.”
Does that mean Polly gets violent in this series? “I don’t think she needs to,” she says. “I think she does as most intelligent women do, which is very quiet but far more painful than Tommy. She doesn’t hang somebody up in a butcher’s yard, she takes people down in a quite terrible way.”
Peaky Blinders creator and writer Steven Knight “really, really, really explores Polly in this series,” she says. “I think what develops this year is the best role that he’s written for me.” It’s the best series so far, says McCrory. “It continues to get better. You sort of want the smell of carbon monoxide back in Peaky Blinders again because actually if it becomes too anesthetised by money, you kind of lose that gritty, edginess and the place they come from. But how the hell do you get them back there?”
Enter: the New York mafia. They’re the new threat forcing the Shelby family to retreat back to their Small Heath safe-hold in series four. Finally introducing the mob is a very witty move by Steven Knight, says McCrory. “Everybody says ‘Is it like the mafia?’, he’s had it for years, so it’s great to actually put those two cultures together on the screen, particularly a culture that would not know the Peaky Blinders, would not care about the Peaky Blinders. You get that idea of the big bear and the scrapping terrier and it’s an interesting fight.”
Before the Changrettas returned to send the Peakies scurrying back to the Garrison, the family faced a life-changing experience on the gallows. Until their last-minute reprieve came through, Polly, Arthur, John and Michael faced execution by hanging. It was a disturbing scene to film, McCrory tells us. “We spent a day on it. Because we were shooting with two cameras, we shot it from me walking up to the gallows and then turning, and because I wanted the top shot of looking up and doing the dialogue there, it means that no-one can be beside you when you’re doing the scene. You have to have only the other actor on, with a trapdoor. It is very disturbing.”
It was important for McCrory that Polly be seen with her face in the light from above when she’s praying to the Madonna to bring her mother and father and saying she can see her daughter Elizabeth, who died as a child. “I really, really didn’t want the audience to feel that when she’s talking to Elizabeth, she’s just gone batty and therefore everything she says doesn’t matter and that it slightly trivialises either mental illness or a true belief in living with spirits.”
Polly’s currently living in a “twilight zone” says McCrory, “feeling she has ghosts and people beside her who are as real as the actual people beside her.”
The character’s experiences last season with portrait artist Reuben taught Polly, “That it’s possible to leave the world of the Peaky Blinders, but is it? Can you escape yourself? The answer is probably no. Can you change yourself? I believe, yes. Polly does change in this because of this first experience.
Series four Polly wouldn’t commission a portrait of herself as she did last time, says McCrory. “She’s understood a little bit more about life to know that it’s not just about vanity of self and self-grandiosity. She’s moved on to a deeper understanding of what she wants, and it’s not what she used to want, which was just power, or the family staying together.”
What does Polly want now? “Her idea of happiness now is to live with the grace of somebody who realises they are going to die and therefore to come to some sort of peace is her happiness.”
Happiness and peace feel like a distant dream after the cliff-hanger ending to series four’s first episode. That’s not the only shock ending to expect this year, says McCrory. “[Steve’s] gone mad!” she laughs. “It’s that very exciting thing when a writer starts to cross boundaries because as a viewer, you don’t know where it’s going to stop.” It sounds like you could say the same for Aunt Pol.
Peaky Blinders series four airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC Two.