Helen McCrory: “How dare you sit on your arse and not support other women?!”

Peaky Blinders' Helen McCrory on playing Aunt Polly, working-class Britain – and the lack of feminists in today's society
Programme Name: Peaky Blinders 3 - TX: n/a - Episode: Peaky Blinders III Ep1 (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Aunt Polly Gray (Helen McCrory) - (C) Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd & Tiger Aspect Productions Ltd 2016 - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

How much have you enjoyed creating season two?

Polly’s story this year is much, much more interesting. I don’t know if Steven [Knight, writer] 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.

It even passes the Bechdel test. Does it offer a more interesting perspective of women in period dramas?

If you actually look at the working class, the working class women ran 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.

Anti-heroes (and anti-heroines) are at the centre of the story. Is it tricky to make such a conflicted character likeable?

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?

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To 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!

How do you think Peaky Blinders represents post-traumatic stress disorder?

I think it’s a really important part of the drama, because I think that in drama it’s been ignored for too long. My great-grandfather came back from the trenches and he was shell-shocked, 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.

Steven Knight has spoke of how Westerns mythologised that era, and that he wanted to do something similar with this in Birmingham. Is there another particular moment in history or era that you would particularly like to explore in film or TV?

I’m incredibly depressed at the amount of women now that say “I’m not a feminist”

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, “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.