‘Peaky Blinders’ creators discuss the loss of Helen McCrory

WARNING: Features spoilers regarding character Polly Gray

The creators of Peaky Blinders have spoken to NME about the death of Helen McCrory, and paying tribute to both her and her character Polly Gray.

The first episode of the sixth and final season of the Birmingham-based period crime-noir drama premiered tonight (Sunday February 27), marking the first new instalment of the show since McCrory sadly passed away from cancer last year.

Speaking to NME, show creator Steven Knight remembered the first time that McCrory appeared before him to take the part of the Shelby family matriarch.

“It was the perfect match,” said Knight. “She just absolutely took control – not just of that role, but the family and often the shoot. She was such a strong human being and a great actor that you knew, ‘This is exactly who this should be’. It was beyond what we had expected.

“It was the way she looked as well. I had this photo of my nan and when we were developing the character I said, ‘She should look a bit like this’. She dressed like my nan with a certain fierceness.”

Aunt Polly was the formidable matriarch of the Shelby crime family. CREDIT: BBC

Asked about how her loss affected the cast while filming the new season, Knight said: “The mood on set was reflective of her loss, but everyone felt that knowing Helen as a person, what she always wanted was just to get it done. To get it done with energy and have a laugh. The spirit of that helped people to get people through.”

On dealing with writing the death of her character Polly Gray into the show, Knight said: “It’s a challenge, but it’s one that you take on. Compared to the tragedy, it’s nothing. It happened by degrees. It emerged that having Helen as her usual character wasn’t going to happen [due to her illness], so then it was trimmed and trimmed until it wasn’t possible to have Helen at all. We changed the story, we changed how it worked and somehow it fitted.

“We pay tribute to both the character and the actor.”

Helen McCrory as Polly Shelby in ‘Peaky Blinders’. CREDIT: BBC

At the time of speaking to NME, Peaky Blinders director Anthony Byrne was still working on the final cut of the final episodes of the new season. Asked about the loss of McCrory, he said: “It’s still a very difficult but I’m still finishing the show so I’m hearing Polly’s voice and Helen’s voice. Personally, it’s very sad and upsetting.”

He continued: “In the beginning, we were talking about Helen, her situation and her deteriorating health, then the logistical changes that we as a production needed to make happen quite quickly in terms of rewriting scripts.

“Then you’re talking about a character who’s dying in the show. Your mind goes to all of these places, and then at the end of it you keep coming back to the fact that this is somebody who is still alive but seriously unwell. It becomes a fog of these issues.”

'Peaky Blinders' season four
‘Peaky Blinders’

Discussing the character Polly’s funeral scene in the first episode of season six after she was murdered by the IRA after they foiled Tommy’s assassination attempt on Oswald Mosley, Byrne said that the day’s shoot was highly emotionally charged.

“When we shot that, Helen was still alive,” Knight told NME. “There were scenes that we shot when Helen was still alive because we hoped that we’d be in a position where we could bring Helen back to shoot for a couple of days with us. That was very positive and we were very engaged in that.

“There was a small group of us who knew about what was happening, but the crew didn’t know what was going on – other than that she was unwell.

He added: “I really genuinely feel that we have done a very good job of paying tribute to both Helen and to Polly in that opening section.

“I can also tell you that the last shot of the entire season that we shot was Cillian reacting to her body being left outside the house. It was a shot looking up at him reacting. I certainly had that as something that I wanted to do and for that to be the final image that we would film.”

Read our full interview with Byrne and Knight here, where the pair also tell us about what to expect from the new season, how Anna Calvi along with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood contributed to the music of the series, new and returning characters and what’s coming from the feature film and spin-off series that will follow after.