Last night, when Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” started playing out of the TV, and the charismatic Tommy Shelby appeared on screen, we once again escaped to the dark land of Peaky Blinders. This was the first episode of season three, the year 1924 now, and the Shelbys – Birmingham’s foremost gangster family – were to be seen enjoying new wealth and with it a shiny new lifestyle. If anything was a marker of how the Shelbys are moving up in the world it was Aunt Polly’s flash, new, Daisy Buchanan-like haircut. For those of you who don’t know what I’m on about, Peaky Blinders is a BBC gang drama set in working class Birmingham during the interwar period. Since the show started in 2013, it has gained a fanbase including stars such as Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and the late David Bowie. There’s a lot of violence, gambling, booze, and the odd scene where Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy are pointing guns at one another. It’s stylised to the point of glittering; half of east London stepped out with the Shelby brothers’ shaved back and sides after season one, the soundtrack is achingly anachronistic (Arctic Monkeys soundtrack fight scenes), and Benjamin Zephaniah conducts a marriage ceremony. Historically accurate it is not, but damn, does it look good. One episode in, and the new season has already promised more glitz than we or the Shelbys have ever seen before. The family seem to have joined the establishment, inhabiting a kind of sinister version of Downton Abbey. But while you can take the Shelbys out of Birmingham, you’ll never take Birmingham out of the Shelbys. The boys are still running their illicit dealings – ranging racketeering to murder – only out of a much swankier venue. And, of course, the family’s matriarch, Aunt Polly, is still there keeping a tight rein on the male-dominated family.
Polly is a force to be reckoned with. An archetypal feminist before her time. Aunt Polly is ruthless, cold-hearted, feared and respected by her family, but with an emotional inner world that we can all relate to. As the first two series played out, it became clear that she’d never stop mourning her lost children, who had been taken into care. The ferocity with which she fought for her son, once reunited with him, broke down her stony exterior for viewers. Her maternal instinct to protect her child was so ferocious that it even pulled her into the reaches of sexual assault and murder. Set while Britain was making its social and economy recover from the First World War, Peaky Blinders encapsulates a particular moment in history when it comes to gender roles. The war had left the women in Britain empowered; while men were at the front, women took on many of their jobs. Afterwards, going back to domestic work seemed an unlikely option. Polly, for example, sustained the family business while the Shelby men were at the front and epitomises, albeit in a dark way, that strength and spirit that represented the early stirrings of 20th century feminism. In the first episode, when Tommy told Aunt Polly that the agenda for a family meeting was "no business for women", Polly coldly said, "This whole bloody enterprise was women’s business while you boys were away at war. What’s changed?" "We came back," says Tommy. Well, Tommy, I hate to say it, you came back but you still need Aunt Polly as much as Tony Soprano needed his therapist. In fact, everybody in Peaky Blinders needs Polly’s husky Brummy accent whispering threatening instructions in their ears, because they know she’s right. Even Tommy, the gang's threatening, enigmatic leader, shuts up and listens to Polly when she has something to say.
Polly thrives off of being the female leader in the Shelby family, but last night’s episode gave us a tantalising glimpse of how the power struggle between Tommy’s new wife Grace and Aunt Pol might develop, both fighting to be the confidant of hero Tommy. For this reason – i.e. because Polly isn’t the only forceful woman in the show – Peaky Blinders has been praised for having an array of "strong female characters"... "strong" being the buzzword today for describing women that do any thing remotely tough or "unfeminine". Aunt Pol, by this definition, is the ultimate "strong woman." I think if Aunt Polly knew she was being called "strong" just for doing what men do, she would feel hideously patronised. Polly makes being a "strong woman" look like the norm, and sets a precedent for the other female characters in the show, with Ada Shelby, Esme Shelby, and even Grace, all characterised as domineering women making their way through a world where guns and alpha male muscle power seem to guarantee upward mobility. Stephen Knight, the show's creator, has said that the idea one would not write in powerful women seems "bizarre."
The actor Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, said about Peaky Blinders that you see two different ways to rule, "One from a male point of view, which is much more physical and violent and threatening, and one from a female point of view, which is just as physically violent and threatening, but is also psychological." Over two seasons, now, we've seen this in action. Polly's overcome everything from war to rape to murder. For the diehard fan like me, last night’s episode begged the question of what the writers will choose to do with Polly now. It strikes me that the one thing Polly hasn’t done is romance, so maybe this season she’ll defeat odds and find love...