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Helen McCrory had been in Peaky Blinders since it started nine years ago

Peaky Blinders has dedicated the first episode of its sixth and final series to the late actress Helen McCrory.

McCrory, who starred as Shelby family matriarch Polly Gray in the BBC One crime drama, died from cancer last year at the age of 52.

Gray’s absence was written into the plotline in the opener, with news of her off-screen death having a huge impact on the gangster family.

The closing credits included a tribute to “the memory of Helen McCrory CBE”.

In his four-star review of the first episode, The Independent TV critic Ed Cumming wrote that “McCrory’s absence leaves a chasm” and that, as the mother of the cast, she “will be missed terribly”.

Carol Midgley, writing in The Times, said the the episode handled the death of the show’s “linchpin”, and in turn paid tribute to the late actress, “with class, something McCrory had in bucketloads”.

Chris Bennion, giving the episode four stars in his Telegraph review, agreed that it was a “classy curtain raiser”, noting that “in normal circumstances, 60 minutes of Peaky’s sweltering, lads’ mag machismo is ended with a burst of music.

“However, on this occasion, the credits rolled to the softest of chirrups, following a tribute to Helen McCrory. For a moment, the world stopped. A minute’s silence, not a minute’s applause. As it should be.”

Speaking at the premiere in Birmingham last week, creator Steven Knight described the loss of McCrory as a tragedy.

“After she’d gone we knew she wanted this thing to continue and we hope we have continued in a respectful and appropriate way and moving forward she will always be part of Peaky.”

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Gina Gray (Anya Taylor-Joy) isn’t afraid to take on Tommy Shelby

Knight’s final series sees lead character Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) four years on from where we left off, living off the coast of Newfoundland and hellbent on flooding the US with opium, his latest ambitious business plan.

The first episode was watched live by 3.8 million viewers on Sunday, although more will catch up with the show on the BBC iPlayer.

Anya Taylor-Joy – whose leading role in Netflix series the Queen’s Gambit catapulted her to fame after she joined Peaky Blinders in series five – returns as Michael Shelby’s American wife Gina.

Stuart Jeffries, writing in The Guardian, also gave the first episode four stars and suggested: “What we are witnessing here is the succession of the title of Peaky’s Queen of Swagger from Helen McCrory’s Aunt Polly to Taylor-Joy’s Gina Gray.”

Metro’s Charlotte Manning described Taylor-Joy as “simply stunning as her character goes up against Tommy with no fear whatsoever”, and awarded the episode four-and-a-half stars.

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Peaky Blinders stage show to open in Birmingham

While this series marks the end of the TV show, which has been running since 2013, it’s not the end of the Peaky Blinders, with a film due to begin shooting in the next couple of years.

The show has also spawned a ballet, which will open in Birmingham in September.