Helen McCrory: who was Peaky Blinders actor who played Aunt Polly, and how does series 6 pay ‘tribute’ to her?

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Helen McCrory, who was married to fellow actor Damian Lewis, passed away in April 2021

The long-awaited return of Peaky Blinders series 6 has been overshadowed by a real-life tragedy.

Helen McCrory, who played Shelby family matriarch Aunt Polly across five series of Peaky Blinders, passed away in April 2021. At the time of her death, McCrory had been suffering from breast cancer for some months, and as a result had not been able to take part in filming for the final series of Peaky Blinders.

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While they have not yet revealed how Aunt Polly’s absence will be handled in the new series, the cast of Peaky Blinders and creator Steven Knight have spoken about paying tribute to McCrory across the finale run of episodes.

‘It’s like when anybody has lost a member of their family’

Helen McCrory as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders (Credit: BBC One)Helen McCrory as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders (Credit: BBC One)
Helen McCrory as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders (Credit: BBC One) | BBC One

Speaking to Radio Times, Steven Knight likened the loss to “when anybody has lost a member of their family – they’re gone but their opinion stays in the house.

“In other words, when something happens you still think, ‘What would they have thought about this? What would their opinion have been of this?’ and I have tried to keep that with Polly so that the family still thinks, ‘What would Polly have done?’ which is what I think happens with people.”

Knight had previously explained how the production accommodated for McCrory’s illness, changing their plans as they realised how serious her condition was.

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“To begin with, Polly was in the series and then incrementally bit by bit, it became apparent that there was less and less she would be able to do.”

“In the end, we’d reached a point where we knew that she couldn’t be in it at all.”

“And then you have to first of all deal with the consequences in terms of the story, taking a moment to deal with the loss of the character, but then knowing that that has a reflection in the real world with the loss of the person. So it was trying to balance all of that, and I think we’ve done it right.”

‘The whole series is really in tribute to her’

In an interview with Variety, Cillian Murphy described the whole series as a “tribute to her and to honour her”.

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“Her presence and her character’s presence are very much still felt in the series, and it is very much part of Tommy’s journey in the season.”

“I’ve spoken about how phenomenal she was as an actress and as a person and it is an enormous loss to the whole acting community and not just for our show. I just hope that the show will live up to her memory and our memory of her.”

How did Peaky Blinders address Aunt Polly’s absence?

Spoilers follow for Peaky Blinders series 6.

The new series opens in the wake of Tommy Shelby’s unsuccessful suicide attempt. He returns home to Shelby Manor, and finds his family home in disarray - and a truck delivering three body bags.

A phone rings. “Last night’s operation was carried out by soldiers of the Irish Republican Army.”

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“We need to keep Mr Mosley alive… Also, you should know that saving Mosley’s life wasn’t our only intervention last night — we’ve made some changes to the structure of your organization.”

“Ever since you began to build your empire you’ve had a crutch to lean on. Last night, we kicked away that crutch. From now on it will be us that you lean on. Please be aware, Mr. Shelby, that the deaths of your people are your own responsibility because you consistently fail to understand your own limitations.”

Though we do not see inside the bag, it’s clear that Aunt Polly has been killed. The family assemble for a funeral, where Michael (Polly’s son and Tommy’s cousin) swears revenge on Tommy.

The episode cuts to four years later. In pivotal moments, Tommy hears Polly’s voice echo in his mind - it’s only a memory, though, archival recordings taking from earlier episodes.

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Helen McCrory on film and television

Outside of Peaky Blinders, McCrory was probably best known for appearing in the Harry Potter films as Narcissa Malfoy.

She had a lead role in Tom Rob Smith’s MotherFatherSon, a Succession-esque drama about a media dynasty with sweeping political influence; McCrory played Kathryn Villiers, an heiress and the estranged wife of newspaper owner Max Finch (Richard Gere).

McCrory also appeared in Doctor Who as Rosanna Calvierri in Toby Whithouse’s The Vampires of Venice. It’s a performance probably too often overlooked – she’s memorably sinister in the role and has great chemistry with Matt Smith, in many ways prefiguring later characters like Missy (Michelle Gomez) or Tasha Lem (Orla Brady).

One of McCrory’s final roles was an appearance in Channel 4 drama Quiz, playing lawyer Sonia Woodley QC (the last in a long line of lawyer and MP roles). It’s a small but not insignificant role, with McCrory grounding the drama at a crucial point – she’s the one still point in a miniseries all about contrasting interpretations of the same event.

McCrory is survived by her husband, the actor Damian Lewis (Billions), and their young children Manon and Gulliver.

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