It’s a gritty, gutsy, masculine show, but the beating heart of Peaky Blinders is the formidable Shelby women. They open up to Cole Moreton about the sadness that overshadows the success. PHOTOGRAPHS: MATTHEW EADES
The women of Peaky Blinders have assembled for our exclusive YOU cover story but, tragically, there is somebody missing. ‘I consider Helen to have been the heart of this show,’ says Sophie Rundle. In the hugely popular period drama, Sophie plays Ada, who, along with her four brothers, takes on the police, the IRA, the Mafia and the world.
She’s talking, of course, about actress Helen McCrory, who starred as the family’s matriarch Aunt Polly and who should be with us as the female cast members gather to mark the beginning of the sixth and final series, but who sadly died of cancer last April, aged just 52. ‘She died as she lived. Fearlessly,’ wrote her husband Damian Lewis, fellow actor and father to their two teenage children.
According to the Peaky Blinders story, the Irish-Romany Shelby children were abandoned by their father and brought up by their hard-talking, cheroot-smoking, gun-toting aunt, played with intensity and brilliance over five seasons by Helen.
‘We were all completely devastated by losing her, because she was part of the family,’ says Sophie. ‘Helen pushed you to be better, because she didn’t take laziness at all. She made Polly so mercurial and so exciting to watch because she had that rare magic as an actor.’
Helen was already a giant of her profession, having starred as Lady Macbeth on stage and in three Harry Potter movies when with a couple of million viewers on BBC Two in 2013.
Word of mouth turned the show into a cult hit and soon the skin-fade haircuts, three-piece suits and baker boy caps worn by gang leader Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and his boys were everywhere (England footballer Jack Grealish sports a Peaky hairdo).
Hollywood stars Tom Hardy, Sam Neill and Adrien Brody have all appeared in the show, which now attracts seven million viewers on BBC One and millions more around the world on Netflix. The new season has been as heavily promoted as a movie.
While Aunt Polly’s presence is felt in a powerful way in the first episode, we’ll have to wait to see how the producers deal with the hammer blow of Helen’s death.
Today the show’s remaining leading ladies have got together for the first time since filming and it is clear they are still mourning their friend and inspiration. ‘She was one of my heroes before I got the job, so it was very intimidating when I first met her,’ says Sophie, 33, who was in her early 20s when she was cast as Ada nearly ten years ago.
‘Then, quite early on, I remember getting the train home with Helen from Manchester to London. I had just been dumped by my boyfriend and I told her and went off to get us a couple of coffees at the station but when I came back she said, “I’ve been to Marks & Spencer and bought us wine!”’
The grande dame was about to take young Sophie under her wing. ‘So we sat on the train and talked about how awful everything was. She always had steel, but when you got past that she also had generosity. When you’d had your heart broken by some dashing ex-boyfriend you wanted Helen McCrory to sit opposite you and tell you that everything was going to be OK.’
Sophie is bouncy, open and friendly, totally unlike her hard-bitten and often icy on-screen character. Ada began series one as a young innocent, the only girl of the Shelby clan, but after defying the others to marry and have a child with a communist she became a widow. Since then Ada has grown and grown, taking over the legitimate business in America before returning to help Tommy negotiate high society as an MP.
‘Ada has a stillness about her that I clearly don’t have in real life,’ says Sophie, laughing as she catches herself waving her arms about for emphasis. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be as cool as Ada. I’ll never match that. I have to ask for extra help when we’re shooting, to be made to look cool.’ Having been with Peaky Blinders since the beginning, Sophie has grown up along with the show, finding love and becoming a mother in real life as Ada has evolved. So has Natasha O’Keeffe, who plays Ada’s sister-in-law Lizzie Shelby.
Her character began series one as a prostitute hired by Tommy as he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after the horrors of the trenches during the First World War. She has become his wife and raised two children in a magnificent mansion as Tommy has risen from street fighter and illegal bookie to rich businessman and socialist MP, all while secretly smuggling drugs, ordering killings and running his clan.
Cillian Murphy is electrifying in the role of Tommy and Natasha has come to match him over the years. She joined Peaky Blinders as a young actor trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, whose first break had been a part in the video for the Oasis single ‘Falling Down’.
Now she is 35 and lives by the sea in Margate with her two children, aged three and five, and her partner, the actor Dylan Edwards, but has loved returning to see her Peaky gang every time. ‘It’s like you have a temporary family for the three months of filming, then you say your goodbyes until the next year. You become very close.’
Her blue eyes glisten as she talks about Helen. ‘I’m still reeling from losing her. It’s still shocking. I just can’t quite believe it. The grief hits me in waves.’
They played a lot of scenes together and became close. ‘There was always a chemistry between our two characters; they come from the same kind of place.’
Was it strange filming scenes without Helen? ‘Very much so. I didn’t really talk to people about this, but I’d almost speak to her before some of my takes. She was very much there with me. I asked her for guidance.’
I lost a close friend last year myself, I tell her, but can still hear his voice in certain situations. ‘That’s exactly it – you know what they would say. They stay with you, don’t they?’
She smiles when we talk about how Peaky Blinders has become part of British culture now. ‘Those haircuts, they’re in every single barber shop. Once you start seeing people getting the haircuts you know something is catching on. Also, I remember at Manchester train station seeing a Porky Blinders hotdog stand, with the letters in the same font as the show.’
Thousands of fans even turned up in period flapper dressers and suits, braces, starched collars and caps – or copied Polly’s androgynous look – for an official Peaky Blinders festival in 2019, featuring staged bare-knuckle fights, fashion shows and music from the likes of Primal Scream and Anna Calvi, who wrote the score for the fifth series.
The Shelby clan is based very loosely on a real gang called the Peaky Blinders, who wore razor blades hidden in their caps with which to blind their enemies, just as Tommy and his brothers do. Show creator Steven Knight has always hoped to take us from the aftermath of the First World War in 1919 to the first air raid siren in Birmingham at the start of the Second World War in 1939.
Series six will be the last on television, but a Peaky Blinders movie will apparently start shooting next year, so what does Natasha make of that? ‘The movie? Well, I haven’t heard if Lizzie’s in it, but it would be amazing. I’d love that.’
The third of the Peaky Blinders women we’re meeting today is Kate Phillips, 32, who plays Linda, the wife of Arthur Shelby. He’s the eldest sibling and chairman of the Shelby Company, which takes care of business, both legal and illegal. Linda is a former Quaker who helps Arthur out of drug addiction for a while, then gets hooked on cocaine herself. ‘Peaky Blinders couldn’t exist without the women,’ insists Kate. ‘They play a huge part, they’re incredibly influential. Those moments where we have come together as a team have been really powerful and memorable. They sort of hate each other – well, they certainly hate my character Linda – but they know they need each other. They recognise that they’ve got some s*** to do.’
Kate is in a dressing gown and freshly made-up, ready to be photographed with her blonde hair in clips, but she still has the natural reserve that saw her cast as Jane Seymour in the award-winning TV adaptation of the book Wolf Hall back in 2015.
‘My dad’s an engineer, my mum was a drama teacher, but as I was growing up she worked in helping businesses to do presentations. I really wanted to act, but I never presumed I would be able to do it, soI did work experience as a chaperone and stage manager in the West End before getting into the Guildhall School of Drama. My life changed then.’
Kate was still a third-year student when the Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky took a chance. ‘To this day, I am shocked and grateful that it happened. It is still quite a rare thing for a director to cast a complete unknown in a role in a show like that. And he very generously asked the crew to applaud me after my first take.’
Her very first day in television was a scene in what was to be a critically acclaimed drama playing a future queen opposite an Oscar winner – Mark Rylance– as Thomas Cromwell. ‘It was perfect: I was playing a very nervous Jane Seymour and I was s*** scared!’
After that her career went off like the bullets from a Peaky Blinders machine gun. Kate played Churchill’s secretary in The Crown and Princess Mary in the film version of Downton Abbey. She joined Peaky Blinders in series three as the wife of the much-loved Arthur. ‘I think it was quite intense for fans of the show. They were a bit like: “Sorry, who is this woman?”’
Her introduction to the cast was also a challenge. ‘I won’t forget the first day on set. I arrived at night under the arches of Hall, Tommy’s big mansion [known as Arrow House in the show]. I had met the director before at my audition and we had sort of connected but now he was like: “So here’s your husband. And here’s Tommy. Shake hands!”’
They began filming straight away. Kate had never even met Paul Anderson, who plays Arthur. ‘We just had to do the scene and hope for the best, really. And the fact is, my experience that evening – while being very nervous – was glorious.’
The world of Peaky Blinders is intense and violent and is clearly not something you’d want intruding into your home life, but Sophie had no choice. A delay in filming due to Covid last year meant she returned to play Ada having just given birth to a son.
‘I had this lovely, blissful maternity leave planned then everything got pushed and it was just the way it had to be to get the show done. My baby was four weeks old when I went back, which was hugely intimidating.
‘I said to my partner the night before: “God, I’m not who I used to be any more, a young actress who’s had a full night’s sleep.” I had eye bags down to my chin and I was exhausted. He said: “Well, Ada is a mother of two. If anything, you’re closer to who she should be.”
‘My partner would bring the baby to me in the middle of the day so I could be with him. My trailer was full of nappies and a screaming baby. There was lots of juggling in my head from mum mode to actor mode, but it worked. They gave me a lot of very sympathetic lighting.’
Sophie has also appeared in Bodyguard and The Bletchley Circle and was Suranne Jones’s beloved in Sally Wainwright’s Victorian lesbian romp Gentleman Jack. She met her real-life partner Matt Stokoe on the set of the Sky drama Jamestown. Last summer they moved to what she has called on Instagram a big, rambling place in the Cotswolds countryside. ‘We’d always wanted to do that with our huge dog Buddy. He’s a golden retriever/polar bear who thinks everyone wants to cuddle.’
I’ve heard a rumour that she and Matt got married over Christmas – is it true? ‘Everybody wants to know this and I don’t understand why. You’ve had a baby, is that not the biggest commitment?’ So what’s the answer? ‘Very vague. I’m just going to keep that private because I feel like it doesn’t matter.’
Perhaps not. Sophie hasn’t posted about that on Insta, but she did put up a photo of her on the last day of shooting, saying: ‘So long, Ada. I will miss your wild Shelby gypsy heart, your “don’t f*** with me” attitude and your fabulous wardrobe. It’s been a ride.’
Hang on, though – what about the movie? ‘Well, actors are the last to know anything. There’s a lot of rumours. I meant that this is the last of the TV series, which will always stand alone. A film is a different thing, isn’t it?’
So what’s next for Sophie? ‘Maternity leave, because I didn’t get any. So now I’m just going to do that for a while in my big spooky house. Then I’ll go back to work.’
And with that, Sophie says words that could come from any of the many rivals beaten down by Ada and Tommy, Lizzie, Linda and, of course, Polly over the years, as their long, wild story moves towards a no doubt bloody climax: ‘How do you compete with Peaky Blinders? I really don’t know.’
Series six of Peaky Blinders is coming soon to BBC One
READ MORE: Our tribute to Helen McCrory
PICTURE DIRECTOR: ESTER MALLOY. STYLING: KAREN PRESTON, ASSISTED BY HELEN ATKIN. MAKE-UP: JUSTINE JENKINS USING SEEDS OF COLOUR; NATHALIE ELENI USING DECORTE SKINCARE AND CHARLOTTE TILBURY MAKE-UP. HAIR: SVEN BAYERBACH AT CAROL HAYES