Helen McCrory tells Des Sampson how the new season of Peaky Blinders flips the script.
After playing the benign, benevolent mum in the recent miniseries, MotherFatherSon, Helen McCrory is back with a bang as the sinister, scheming matriarch, Polly Gray, in Peaky Blinders. It's a change of character and a change of scene that she's clearly relishing.
"It's such a relief to be back, as Polly, especially after playing someone who's just a bit too nice for her own good. All that bloody piety, who needs it?" says McCrory, cackling with laughter as she compares the roles. "It's much more fun playing the baddy, in this, than playing nice in MotherFatherSon."
She's admits that having the opportunity to return for a fifth series of Peaky Blinders, when there were no guarantees they'd even be a second, is especially satisfying now that her character has become ever more complex and multi-faceted as the show has progressed.
"It's a great role to sink your teeth into, because it's one that is constantly evolving and developing, as you'd expect when we're telling the story over such a long period of time," McCrory explains. "It also makes for interesting viewing, because she's constantly changing."
What also makes for interesting viewing is that the illicit world the notorious Shelby clan inhabit is constantly changing too, with the latest series set in 1929 - right on the cusp of the Wall St Crash and the ensuing Great Depression. It's a period of enormous political, social, industrial and technological upheaval, as prefaced by the fates and fortunes of Polly and her eldest son, Tommy Shelby - played by Cillian Murphy - who's recently been elected Member of Parliament for Birmingham South.
"Right at the beginning of the [new] series, there's the stockmarket crash – a time when fortunes could be made or lost overnight – and Polly's enjoying the money they're making from that. But at the same time she feels uncomfortable all dressed-up in silk and doesn't particularly like the people that wealth brings with it, either," says McCrory. "Then there's Tommy ending up in Parliament, so it's all change."
Another change depicted in the latest series is the emergence, from the shadows, of the women in the Shelby family, mirroring the groundbreaking social and sexual changes taking place in 1930s Britain.
"That era was the start of women gaining parity with men," says McCrory, nodding animatedly. "So, you see the women in Peaky Blinders start drawing the parameters, turning to the men around them and saying, 'These are the limits,' telling them that they can't just go around doing whatever they want anymore, because their actions have consequences - like getting their son's head cut-off in retaliation for something. It's a big change for the women in the family and in society, especially in terms of having sexual freedom for the first time. It was the start of women deciding they wanted to have sex for fun, rather than because they wanted a baby."
McCrory admits that her character, Polly, is determined to swing with the times too, with her own share of fun and frolics – although she's coy about revealing too much.
"Yes, romance is in the air for dear Pol but I don't know how much romance you'll see and how much you won't. That depends on what gets cut," she adds, quickly sidestepping awkward questions about her love interests, plot twists and spoiler alerts.
"What I can tell you is that the new generation – the kids – come forward more in this series. They start to have more say in what's going on, so you'll see them more, plus some new characters too," McCrory says. "Also, you start to see Tommy and Polly thinking about what legacy they're going to leave behind them, as you do when you have children. I know that's something I think about, myself, with my kids."
Apart from that, McCrory insists it's "business, as usual" for the Shelby family and that everything you've ever loved about Peaky Blinders will still be there for the foreseeable future - including the gritty storylines, the show's inimitable style, its skulduggery, brutal violence and myriad plot twists and turns.
"I don't think Steve [Knight] has any intention of stopping his writing for this, any time soon. Actually, I know he's already talked about wanting to take Peaky Blinders right up to World War II, which seems like a fitting period for it to span – from one World War to another – and I'd love to see that," says McCrory.
"For me, personally, I'd just love him to keep going forever because he's created such an amazing show, with a level of depth, quality, texture and craft that's rare in a [cinematic] world of high-definition, Botox-filtered perfection. So, please, no one tell him it's ending - and hopefully he'll just keep writing."
What: Peaky Blinders season 5
Who: Helen McCrory
When: Airing express weekly from Monday, 9.30pm on BBC UKTV (Sky channel 7) starting next week