The Women of Peaky Blinders – Where the real power lies

The women of peaky blinders

There’s lots of posturing and dirty work from the Shelby men but to understand the real family dynamic you need to understand the women of Peaky Blinders.

When Steven Knight came to populate the world of Peaky Blinders he didn’t have to invent strong, female characters.

“Having come from a working-class background, and in Birmingham, the women run the show. It was never a question of saying, ‘I’m going to deliberately put some strong women in it…’ It was more like, ‘just look out the window,’ you know, ‘look at what really is happening.’” 

During the First World War, he points out, when the men were away, “women did everything.” And so when the men came back – the jumping off point for Peaky Blinders – that wasn’t going to just stop.

Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) and Ada Shelby (Sophie Rundle) - The Women of Peaky Blinders
Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) and Ada Shelby (Sophie Rundle)

“The idea that you’d have this environment where the women were completely subservient?” Knight says. “Nonsense. No, it wasn’t like that. And it isn’t like that. So it’s just a question of reflecting reality.” 

But it was a reality that hadn’t been reflected in many other epic gangster TV shows when Peaky Blinders first landed on BBC Two in 2013. 

“You know about the Bechdel Test?” says executive producer Caryn Mandabach, in reference to the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s criteria in which any film or TV show (1) has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

“We’ve always passed the Bechdel Test. But more than that, I’m a member of a family. You’re a member of a family… we have roles to play inside our family. And those roles are changing. I think what Steven Knight did most extraordinarily is to presage what those relationships were going to look like in the future.” 

With Mandabach at the helm Peaky Blinders was never going to be simply guys with guns. Mandabach, after all, produced Roseanne and later Nurse Jackie, both landmarks in feminist television. But given the genre – scarred men navigating dark times – it was still a bold call in 2012 to have the Shelby women front and centre

“The women in Peaky are as tough as the men,” says Sophie Rundle (Ada Shelby), “they just happen to be wearing dresses, I think it’s as simple as that. The women in the show are a victim of the time that the show is set in — they weren’t as liberated as we are now. But they’re just as steely, just as tough… if not more so because they have to be to stay afloat.”

What’s really interesting,” says series executive producer Jamie Glazebrook, “is that the men in our show listen to the women and the women have voices; the women have their own agency.”

So much of that stems from the indomitable Polly Shelby, Tommy’s (Cillian Murphy) aunt, treasurer of the Peaky Blinders and the unofficial head of the family, played by the late Helen McCrory.

Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) - The Women of Peaky Blinders.
Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory)

The character of Polly was actually very vulnerable,” says Glazebrook. “She has a very, very hard life and is presented with hard choices. So on one level, you’d always think she wants to get out, leave the family, leave the organisation. But she knows she shouldn’t, because even though she could exist outside she has that loyalty, so she can’t. It’s that vulnerability that makes those moments where she is kick ass – like when she went into the convent [to confront the nuns, S5 episode 1] so incredibly exciting, and joyful. Because Helen projected so much joy in that character. And you can see why viewers just embraced her so much.”

McCrory’s Polly had a profound impact not only on the viewers and the Peaky storylines but on the young female actors cast around her. 

“She took that character, and she just ran with it,” says Sophie Rundle. “Polly’s way more terrifying than Tommy Shelby! This was one of my first ever jobs after drama school – same for several of us – so we all kind of gravitated around her. Once you think about Polly then you’ve got the natural fallout of like, what is Tommy Shelby’s sister like; what is Tommy Shelby’s wife like; who does he look up to; who does he want to be like? You know, you’ve got these smart, badass women who grew up around guns and knives. And it’s only natural that they would be as terrifying as the men.” 

It helps, Rundle says, that Knight writes women so well. “He gives them really kick ass lines, and they’re fearless and completely outrageous. I’ll really miss playing someone who is as bolshy and bold and as steely as Ada.”

Natasha O’Keeffe plays Lizzie, a prostitute and gangster’s moll who, as the series progress, outgrows both of the screen cliches associated with those labels.

Lizzie Shelby (Natasha O'Keefe) The Women of Peaky Blinders
Lizzie Shelby (Natasha O’Keeffe)

“When I was working alongside Helen as Lizzie with Polly there was this learning that was going on. I was looking and learning – and also Lizzie was looking and learning from this incredible force and this matriarch – how to hold herself; how to dress herself; how to function in this seeming man’s world.

“And that it’s okay to be that person who is watching, doing it with a coolness and an ease. There was a subtle chemistry between Polly and Lizzie – it was ‘we’ve got this; let the men scrap… we will get shit done.’”

And get shit done they do, right to the end.

“We’re a show that is about a gang,” says Jamie Glazebrook. “And the women have always been part of the gang. So Ada and Lizzie in this series are both extraordinary. You’ll see from the trailer that Esme also returns. Steven just does an incredible job of writing women and understanding how important they are in these men’s lives and the world of Peaky Blinders.”

You can catch Peaky Blinders on Sunday at 9.00pm on BBC One and on BBC iPlayer