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The Gallows Pole 'reflects what the country is going through now' says Shane Meadows

Shane Meadows directs Michael Socha and Sophie McShera in a radical adaptation of Ben Myers’ hardcore historical fiction novel The Gallows Pole

Michael Socha and Sophie McShera in The Gallows Pole

Michael Socha and Sophie McShera’s David and Grace Hartley find love and hope in The Gallows Pole. Image: BBC/Element Pictures

In the 1760s, the Calder Valley in Yorkshire appointed its own king. With the traditional cottage industry of the area facing ruin as factories and mills threatened to radically alter both the landscape and economy, times were tough. Only landlords were getting rich, or even getting by, in this neglected part of England.

But then local lad David Hartley returned from Birmingham with a literal money-making scheme that would transform the community and almost bring down the Bank of England.

Shane Meadows writes and directs this adaptation of Ben Myers’ compelling, brutally poetic 2017 novel The Gallows Pole – expanding the scarcely believable true story (and the myths and the legends that go with it) of one the biggest and most audacious frauds in British history.

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“I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard it,” says Meadows. “When I read Ben’s book and he wanted me to make the series, I felt like I’d had a diamond dropped in my lap.”

If the semi-improvised dialogue recalls the hardcore naturalistic style of Meadows’ This Is England film and TV series, the atmosphere more closely channels Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. The overall effect is dynamite. A psychedelic, poetic, hypnotic, gothic folk crime drama for the ages.

We first meet Hartley (played by Michael Socha) after he’s walked from Birmingham to the Calder Valley after years away. He arrives home with a serious stab wound and a pocketful of forged coins to find his father dead and his community in poverty.

“What can we do? There’s no way out of it, David,” says William Hartley (This Is England’s Thomas Turgoose), as he explains the cost-of-living crisis of the 1760s to his brother. “We’ve not eaten like this for a long time,” says another mourner, thanking David for the spread at their father’s wake. “We’re all brassic round here.”

“The industrial revolution was such an incredible period. Life completely transformed. And it’s a time that reflects a bit of what the country is going through now,” says Meadows.

“People who are incredibly marginalised. People who had a meaning and a purpose – this weaver community were some of the finest woolsmiths in the entire world. But their way of life is over.

The Gallows Pole was filmed before the cost of living crisis really bit. But life imitated Meadows’ art.

“When we filmed David saying, ‘Fuck the king’, Queen Elizabeth was alive and well,” says Meadows. “And our show was in the can before the energy crisis and cost of living crisis in the last 12 months. So I’d be lying if I said I knew it was coming.

“When we were filming, we were looking back at the 1700s thinking, well, we’re not on that breadline, luckily, most of us. But now there’s a whole host of people that really are struggling for the most basic things.

“People watching will have been having to decide whether they can afford to have their radiators on. You walk into the supermarket and have seen the price of butter go from 80p to £1.50 to £2.10 in a single week. I’ve never seen a time quite like it.”

Sophie McShera and Michael Socha star in The Gallows Pole

If Hartley Sr’s wake offers a rare chance for the community to cut loose, relax, eat, drink and be merry, Hartley Jr’s scheme brings better times.

The Cragg Vale Coiners clipped the edges of coins and forged new coins from the clippings. Money made by the people, for the people. Little wonder the community got behind the project that brought hitherto unseen riches to this part of Yorkshire.

The story of a community ravaged by industrialisation plays like a negative image of the de-industrialisation of the 1970s and 80s. And the political neglect and economic ruin being visited on this community is stark.

By expanding the world of the book to include the struggle and poverty before the coiners began their work, we see that this seemingly victimless criminal enterprise was not just a money-making scheme. It was the only way to survive.

“I grew up in a semi-rural market town. If they couldn’t make ends meet or couldn’t afford to buy things, people would either split and share or go into shops and take,” says Meadows. “There was an ingenuity and a community about it. We had Thatcher growing up as a kid. She was like the baddie in a cartoon. And in this story, they have King George – back when kings wielded more power. But then and now, when you’re an isolated community, you know that no one in power gives a fuck about you. So you start to look after yourself.”

Leading the revolution was King David. Actor Michael Socha, who played bully Harvey in This Is England and starred in Being Human, takes on the role of this unorthodox, awkward, reluctant leader of men who is guided by the mythical stagmen he sees in visions.

“Shane knows I’m not someone who likes big crowds,” says Socha. “Even things like this interview I find utterly intimidating. So rather than doing stuff that doesn’t come naturally to me, we use that.

“Because David is not your typical hero. He is massively flawed. He doesn’t really rally the troops – he just sees everyone is struggling and is desperate to help.”

Sure enough, when he shows locals – including his former love Grace (Downton Abbey’s Sophie McShera) – how he creates new coins, it is with a winning haplessness. But the results speak for themselves.

The series not only extends the timeframe of the novel, but expands the women’s roles. “Ben said he’d had a bit of flak because there aren’t that many female characters and they’re not maybe treated the best,” Meadows says. “He also said he loved Lol in This Is England, which sort of gave me permission to do what I wanted with the story.”

McShera relished the chance to work with Meadows to create the character of Grace.

“We know she exists. She is in the grave with David Hartley,” she says. “But we don’t know much else. That gave us loads of freedom. Her relationship with David and the idea of the heroes in The Gallows Pole is unusual. I love Shane’s take on the male and female roles. Grace is quite combative. I was so excited that I got to give Grace her power and put her back in the story.”

The sense of realness is aided by authentic folk songs, sung by Jennifer Reid, making her screen debut as landlady Barbara. And no one does pub scenes like Meadows, as anyone who saw The Virtues will recall.

“Those were some of my favourites to film,” says McShera. “It’s when you see Shane’s process come to fruition. All the work we do before means we really know our characters and can bring all this texture and realness. When we were shooting, it felt real.”

Socha went for full authenticity too. The Derby actor became a dab hand at the ancient art of coining to play ‘King’ David. 

“Coining in itself was not a new thing, but with them what was different is that it was an enterprise for the whole community,” he says. “The upper classes were constantly exploiting the working classes. But with David’s help, people were able to flip that. Because they relied on the greed of people with money to get the enterprise going. I find it mental. I did loads of research and for getting into the character, I learned how to coin.”

“You were amazing at it. You’d definitely get hired,” chips in Meadows.

“Aw, stop it,” returns Socha. “But no, I really enjoyed it. The whole process was magical. Watching something solid turning into something liquid turn into something beautiful. Did that sound a bit nobby?” 

“Nah,” grins Meadows. “That was perfect.”

And it might just sum up the Meadows method too. The alchemy of blending scripted scenes with free-flow improvisation, experienced and first-time actors (including, according to Meadows, “a down-on-his-luck mechanic, an ex-cage fighter, a Gary Barlow impersonator and a woman whose hairdressing salon collapsed during Covid”), and adding a startling soundtrack – built around Swedish experimentalists Goat and LA psychedelic rockers The Mystery Lights’ theme tune – to create something hugely valuable. The Gallows Pole. A period drama that looks and sound entirely new. Pure gold.

The Gallows Pole airs on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer from 31 May

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income

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