Freeman Brothers was first established as a funeral director in Horsham, West Sussex, in 1855. The company remains family-run, and now has three further offices in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. Earlier this year, the final series of popular show, ‘Peaky Blinders’ debuted via the BBC. This week, it reaches the rest of the world via Netflix and, to mark the occasion, Becky’s taken a closer look at how the show represents funerals. This post contains spoilers for series four and six.
Abi and I have blogged on funerals in films and TV on several occasions (top tip, if you meet her in person, mention Love Actually at your own risk…), discussing a variety of shows from Ted Lasso to This Is Us and Pose. I was a little late to the Peaky Blinders party, but glad that I arrived, and had eagerly anticipated the final series. For myself and other fans, the anticipation was also tinged with sadness – not only was one of our favourite shows concluding, but between series five and six, Helen McCrory (famous for playing Shelby family matriarch, Aunt Polly) had died.
The show’s creators had confirmed that McCrory hadn’t participated in the final series at all – she died of cancer in early 2021, having chosen to keep her illness private – so we all knew that there would be no new content involving her. It was also clear that her character hadn’t been recast and, with where Polly was left at the end of series five, an unexplained disappearance was out of the question. Therefore all that remained was to discover whether she was simply written out and explained away, or killed off and given a farewell.
There are now spoilers ahead for Peaky Blinders series six…
My sense during the build up to the series was we’d see Polly’s funeral, and it turned out that I’d guessed correctly. Her death was revealed in truly dramatic Peaky Blinders style: series five closed chaotically, and we already knew that Polly’s new fiancé, Aberama Gold had died (this had also been upsetting for many fans – Polly’s character arc had been very unlucky in love, and many were pleased to believe that she was finally to be happy) in an assassination gone wrong, but Polly was alive as the credits rolled.
Series six opens with several shrouded bodies being delivered to protagonist (and Polly’s nephew) Tommy’s home and left in his driveway. He also receives a phone call from IRA agent, Captain Swing, who alludes to the contents of the shrouds but doesn’t give names.
Instead, witness Tommy’s reaction to revealing their identities one by one and, as ever, the role is fabulously played by Cillian Murphy. The final body is Polly’s – a fact which is demonstrated clearly via a reaction shot from the point of view of the Deceased person – and this is the one which breaks both him and the audience. Whilst being profoundly sad, it is well done: the show famously uses music powerfully, and as the realisation that Polly has been killed hits, all but the sound of a couple of birds and Tommy’s own breathing fades away to let the news sink in for the viewer. Although what follows is part of the show’s narrative, it is clearly also a heartfelt tribute to McCrory as much as to the character she portrayed.
Witnessing Polly’s funeral made me realise that the occasion was unique for fans – although there have been many deaths in the show, and a few funerals, this is the first time we see the funeral of a woman (when Tommy’s first wife dies, we don’t see her funeral). As with the funeral of John Shelby (another of Polly’s nephews, and Tommy’s younger brother) in series four, Polly is given a traditional gypsy funeral, due to the family’s mixed Irish Catholic and Romani heritage.
From the shot of Tommy crying over Polly’s body, we cut to a large portrait of her – this had been part of an earlier storyline, an item viewers will recognise. Next, we see someone carrying a torch, before lighting what is revealed to be a caravan. This is done by Polly’s son Michael, again with no music among the background audio.
This is a stark contrast to John’s funeral: the scene there is much brighter, although still sombre; Polly’s is a very dark scene and the caravan is set in a woodland, whereas John’s is out in the open. Prior to John’s funeral, we briefly see the other characters dressing the pyre, adding flowers and letters. There is a soft musical soundtrack too, prior to Tommy giving a speech.
Whilst the speech is given, we are shown the inside of the caravan, filled with John’s possessions, plus his body laid out in a suit. The camera then pans through the crowd, settling on Polly, who is the only other person to speak at John’s funeral, challenging a statement Tommy makes.
By contrast, the assembled crowd at Polly’s funeral remains silent, and we are given a still shot of each of their faces one by one. We see little of what is in her caravan, other than the portrait, before Michael breaks the silence and returns the viewer to the plot with a brief monologue which takes place in front of the other characters, but doesn’t engage them as Tommy’s had at John’s funeral.
As John’s funeral closes, we move on immediately to the next piece of action. This reminded me very much of another man – Freddie Thorne’s – funeral in an earlier series. There is however a pause after Polly’s, the viewer given space to take things in, before we flash forward and the plot resumes. When the action of the episode is finished, a dedication to McCrory is shown prior to the roll of the credits.
Had McCrory been part of the series, we may not have seen a woman’s funeral during the show at all, and I suspect that was in fact the intention of the creators, potentially as a comment on the women of the era running the show. After all, when the story begins in 1919, it is made clear that Polly had been in charge whilst Tommy and his brothers were away at war, and their power struggle dominates much of the plot.
Whilst other funerals in Peaky Blinders were clearly a farewell to each character, and a means of developing a specific plot, Polly’s is very obviously a tribute to a much-loved member of the cast and acting community, as well as the Shelby family’s matriarch.
Series six of ‘Peaky Blinders’ is available worldwide via Netflix from 10th June, and in the UK now.