You might think it would take a lot to make Shane Meadows wince, but that’s what is happening right now. “Some of the violence is up there with [Meadows’ 2004 film] Dead Man’s Shoes,” says the writer and director, referring to The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers’ novel about an 18th-century West Yorkshire counterfeit gang that he is now bringing to the small screen. “Some of it,” he adds, “actually turned my stomach.”
What can compete with the infamous scene in the film-maker’s brutal revenge thriller where three men are fed a bucket (well, kettle) load of LSD and then – via gun, knife and a nose punched into a brain – executed, one by one?
If you’ve read Myers’ book, you’ll know it could be a shooting, a beating, a hanging, or that bit when a man’s face is held in a fireplace until it comes off his skull. Nonetheless, when he was first sent the novel, with a cover he describes as “Trainspotting in the 1700s”, Meadows felt perplexed. “I couldn’t work out why an author would imagine me for it,” he says. But what he didn’t know, opening that book on a train journey to London, was that Myers had him – plus a smattering of the cast from Meadows’ film This is England – in mind before he’d even written a word about the real-life Cragg Vale Coiners and their ringleader, David Hartley.
Meadows was so taken by the novel he phoned his agent straight away. “I said: ‘This book’s landed and there’s something really special about it.’” Within 24 hours, he was finishing the final page of the book in a doorway, then walking into a meeting to acquire its rights.
Not a surprising move, you could argue, for a film-maker who likes to operate on his gut. But there is plenty about the decision that is surprising – not least because taking this on meant Meadows, peerless chronicler of working-class life in the Midlands of the 1980s and 90s, doing period. And not just any old period, but period on the BBC.
He still seems amazed they were up for it. “They’ve been incredible,” says Meadows, generally a Channel 4 stalwart. “Because you go, ‘What’s the most expensive thing? Period drama.’ And then throw me into the mix, changing stuff every day.” The big question is, how do you make a Shane Meadows period piece? One with his voice and sensibilities? And it turns out the answer is: by making period bend to him, not him to it.
This meant the following: no script, since Meadows prefers “scriptments”, or story and character notes. He ran extensive workshopping to build, or entirely rebuild, characters. Actors were allowed to speak naturally, with not an ancient “thou shalt” or “my liege” in sight. Casting involved a mix of seasoned actors and locals who’ve never acted before. Scenes were shot in order, at length, and they refused to move on until it was right – schedule and budget be damned.
And the end result: it’s a Shane Meadows joint from the very first seconds. A man, bloodied, knackered and battered, drags a heavy sack across bleak moorland. As he collapses, he’s surrounded by a vision of stag-men: cloaked figures with stag skulls and antlers. “Which way am I goin’ boys?” he asks casually before they escort him home, to the village he’d left behind seven years earlier.
The man is David Hartley, and the three-part series, a prequel to the book, ending where Myers’ novel begins, tells the story of how and why, as the industrial revolution changed everything, he convinced his struggling rural community to turn to clipping and forging coins.
It’s about family, community, power, loss and struggle. It’s psychedelic, funny and sad, full of the realism and naturalism that’s become the pulse of his work. It turns out that having a drink with your mates down the boozer sounds and looks the same, whether it’s the 18th century or the 20th.
It helped that Meadows pulled in his regular collaborators across both cast and crew, including Michael Socha as David Hartley. Socha, like several of Meadow’s regular actors, came up through Nottingham’s TV Workshop, and was then cast as hard-faced skinhead Harvey in This is England. The bruised vulnerability Socha showed when folded into the settee under his dad’s fists suggested he was capable of more. “He’s got this Matt Dillon quality,” says Meadows. “But it’s so raw. The fact he’s from Derby makes it just beautiful. He’s got no airs and graces. Michael doesn’t like bullshit and doesn’t need perks and treats and runners doing stuff for him. He’s got this charisma and speed of thought.”
Socha wasn’t initially David, though. Not until, in a display of courage befitting a man who’d lead a criminal gang into exploits carrying the death penalty, he rang Meadows up and asked for a chance. “When anyone does that,” says Meadows, “and you know it’s not coming from, ‘I want a bigger pot’, you know it’s from a genuine place. People say, ‘Sure, I’ll give you everything, I’ll give you 100%.’ It’s just talk. But Michael actually meant it. He went and lived up on the farm, went shearing sheep and wild camping and properly immersed himself.”
Playing opposite Socha, as his ex-girlfriend Grace, is a Meadows first-timer, Sophie McShera. She’d earned her period stripes as Daisy in Downton Abbey, but this time she’d be building her character pretty much from scratch. Grace is the only major female character in the book, and one lightly drawn in Myers’ masculine landscape. That simply wouldn’t do in the Shane Meadows cinematic universe, populated as it is, with blazing women.
“For me, that was a real blessing,” says McShera of the slight source material. “There wasn’t a preconceived idea of what she should be like. But we know she existed. And we know she will have been a massive part of the story.” She visited her real-life character’s grave, inhaled the world of the book, then simply went for it in the workshopping. And gobby, funny, fat-hearted Grace can proudly stand alongside some of Meadows’s other outstanding female creations, such as This is England’s Lol, Smell or Trudy.
“I just knew there’s no way I didn’t want to [include them],” says Meadows of building a small army of formidable women on screen (and special mention really does have to go to ferocious newcomer Stevie Binns as Mand). “When I grew up, the women were as amazing and as hard as all the men. And there was never this thing of just the blokes going off to do shit.”
It’s all part of Meadows’ determination to authentically reflect the complex realities of life in working-class communities – of the people who walk their streets. The warmth, the brutality, the hilarity, the kinship, the mundanity, the pain, the pleasures, the love. The despair and injustice that can drive a community to collective action. Here, it’s crime, though this isn’t a story of greed, but one of righteous need – of putting food in baby’s bellies. There are clear echoes of life in Britain today.
“I bought some salmon yesterday and nearly spewed up,” says Meadows of the soaring food inflation that’s worsening the cost-of-living crisis. “It’s at the point where people are looking at whether to heat their home or have their tea. And I could see cultural comparisons [then] but as things have gone, especially in the last three to six months, I think it’ll resonate with people in a way we didn’t even intend when we started it.”
It strikes me then that what Shane Meadows found appealing about this project wasn’t the stomach-turning violence, meted out in increasingly imaginative ways (he includes relatively little of it in this show). It’s something, not unlike the man himself, much gentler. The determination, sometimes desperation, of everyday people to live a good life. A dignified life. This is England 1760, if you like.
The Gallows Pole launches at 9pm on Wednesday 31 May on BBC Two, with all episodes available immediately on iPlayer