It’s a gross failing of Britain’s entertainment industry that there’s a time of life when women fall off our screens. There’s no absence of roles for twenty, thirty and forty-somethings. Turn 60 and, if you’re lucky, you can navigate the journey to retirement via the sort of roles Helen Mirren or Dame Judy Dench have made their own. But in your fifties? Not so much. If you’re a woman in your fifties who likes sex? Drinking? Y’know, an authentic representation of a woman in middle age? No chance.
It would be wrong to say that Helen McCrory – who has died aged 52 from cancer – changed this. But her role as Peaky Blinders’ chain-smoking matriarch Polly Gray has made such an impact that it will surely lead to future change. Her casting as Aunt Pol in the interwar crime drama went under the radar in 2013; the show’s lead, Cillian Murphy was a far bigger name. But it was far from undeserved. Anyone who has three Harry Potter movies on their resumé, an acclaimed West End career, has worked with the great Martin Scorsese (in 2011’s Hugo) and played her part in making 2012’s Skyfall the best Bond movie of the modern era is worthy of a punt.
And yet nobody could have predicted just how snuggly McCrory came to inhabit the skin of the aforementioned Polly. Aunt of the Shelby Brothers, treasurer of their criminal enterprise, Murphy might have been the show’s leading man, but McCrory as Polly was the series’ beating heart. It’s tempting to think of her portrayal of Polly as akin to the conductor of an orchestra, with every note at her disposal being an emotion innate to the human experience. Conceived by series creator Steven Knight, we cried with Polly, ached with her, invested in her frequent fury and unparalleled sass. There’s a trope in drama of strong women, a phrase circulating in tributes penned today to the brilliance of McCrory’s alter ego. But the song of strong women is often played by one instrument in that aforementioned orchestra. Polly’s strength rang out, strength emboldened by the pain of life.
We learned, in time, that this pain had come from the trauma of abortion, a procedure forced upon her too young; being torn from her son, Michael (Finn Cole) and the death of her unknown daughter. But even without such intricacies of her story being revealed to us, we knew that Polly’s burden was one of womanhood and the era in which she inhabited. While the boys run around with their guns and their silly little feuds, she’s forced to comply with the standards imposed upon her. When Major Campbell attacks and rapes her, while negotiating the release of the imprisoned Michael, she suppresses the natural and understandable desire to maim and to kill. When this spills over and she shoots him dead at the climax of season two, we don’t judge her for this deed. 1922 or 2021; women like Polly are dealt shitty hands ever day.
Polly takes her strength from family – keeping the unit together, more or less, through a tumultuous third season. She’s, to a degree, spiritual; depressed, she turns to a medium in season two, and a season later, prays to God with the clock ticking towards the time of her scheduled execution. But the rod that runs through her resolve is her birthright as a Shelby and the knowledge of what that name means. None of the Shelby boys are strong like Polly is. Arthur is too wild. Tommy has his own struggles – Polly telling her nephew to “shake hands with the devils and walk past them” demonstrates an understanding of mental illness for the ages. John is, eventually, too dead. McCrory plays her part with the ferocity of a pit bull, the heart of a lion and the grace of a swan.
Because Polly is a lover and a fighter. Be that Ruben Oliver, her late, great love Aberama Gold, or whoever – as she pledges to find during a conversation with niece Ada – “someone unsuitable to sleep with” is. It’s delightful to see her living it up in Monte Carlo at the start of season five; this is the life Polly always deserved. McCrory’s portrayal was salt of the earth, yes, but perhaps salt lifted from Hollywood’s glamorous Golden Age. Tributes will flow in for McCrory’s immense talent for weeks to come – her passing seems both cruel and impertinent; much, you suspect, was still to come. But when you think of Aunt Polly, when you’re looking for an image to remember this great British television icon, think of her living it up under the blazing Monaco sun.
Thanks for everything Pol. What will those boys do without you…