Shane Meadows was on a train to London in early 2019 for yet another meeting about a project that, seemingly, nobody wanted. “It was this mad international series,” explains the This Is England director over Zoom from his Nottingham home. “Nobody understood what it was, how it would work, why it would have no repeat characters. Everyone was hating it.”
Meadows had taken with him a copy of The Gallows Pole, the 2017 prize-winning historical novel (and local publishing success story) by The Offing and Cuddy author Benjamin Myers. “I very rarely read, to be honest,” says Meadows, but he began the book anyway. By the time he had arrived in the capital, he was pitching a very different idea.
The Gallows Pole – airing on 31st May on BBC Two and available on iPlayer – is Meadows’ new three-part drama, telling a prequel story to Myers’ original novel. The plot is based on the real life story of David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners: the gang who, in the 1760s, committed one of the largest frauds ever recorded in English history by counterfeiting coins to reverse the decline of their West Yorkshire community. The Coiners’ timely slogan in the show: “Clip a coin and fuck the Crown.”
With almost half of the cast being West Yorkshire locals who have never previously acted, Meadows has created something unique: British TV’s first period drama that is genuinely naturalistic and, well, normal. This is England 1768, if you will. The characters’ chat is instinctive and funny, whilst their nights in the pub are as rowdy and bleak as any town centre boozer at the weekend.
Once telly commissioners began to warm to Meadows’ new idea, he visited Myers at the author’s Hebden Bridge home. “I was extremely nervous, and told him as much,” says Myers. A long-time admirer of Meadows’ screen world of “violence, bullies, hapless criminals and local oddballs”, he’d written the novel with a vague notion that the director might one day adapt it, sensing an affinity between Meadows’ films and the real-life historical story he was aiming to tell. “Fortunately,” says Myers, “he had been up most of the night at an awards ceremony and was a little frazzled.” They spoke about bare-knuckle boxing and “legendary gypsy fighters”, and Myers showed Meadows the woods, hills and moors that had provided the backdrop to the Coiners’ activities.
“I love working with a community of people rather than a leading man and leading lady,” says Meadows, 50, “and like This Is England in particular,” he says of his 2006 – 2015 film and TV series, “there was the potential to build a community [for The Gallows Pole] and to see how a community ends up making that decision, to risk being hung to put food in their kids’ bellies.”
But how does a director build a community from scratch? “You start to look into the village and the area. I realised there were still a lot of relatives of the Coiners who lived in that area. It would have been a crime not to have opened it out.”
Building on a practice that he’s used since his directorial debut Small Time (1996), Meadows knew that to make the period drama different, the cast had to be drawn largely from the local area. During lockdown in early 2021, the show put out a casting call on social media and in Yorkshire local press seeking “confident, charismatic, ambitious and witty people” to submit a one-minute video clip. Meadows personally watched over 6000 of those videos in a casting process that took his team to pubs, nail salons, hairdressers and social clubs across the region.
Stevie Binns was a team leader for a small business in Halifax, whose mates had initially tagged her in the casting call Insta post as a joke. “I think it was a bit of a sly dig,” says Binns, “it’s a running joke with my pals that I’ve got a very broad Yorkshire accent.” She sent in a short video and told nobody, assuming that she would never hear back. Instead, Binns was invited to workshops and soon cast as key Coiner matriarch Mand. “I’ve fallen in love with something I never knew I was even interested in,” she says. “I’ve got an agent now, she’s helping me feel my way around the acting world.”
Binns is now following in the footsteps of other actors who have been cast and nurtured by Meadows at crucial points in their career, including Vicky McClure and the director’s schoolfriend Paddy Considine. Other local newcomers in The Gallows Pole include David Perkins, who had been working as a car mechanic prior to filming, and recent Bradford College graduate Olivia Pentelow.
“This is something that’s developed over years,” explains Meadows. When he made Twenty Four Seven (1997), “I saw what an amazing combination it was having someone who had been to Hollywood like Bob Hoskins with a load of guys from a workshop in Nottingham – incredible guys, incredible actors, but without the CVs.”
“He doesn’t want you to play a character, but he doesn’t want you to be yourself either,” says This Is England veteran Michael Socha, whose central role as David Hartley feels career-defining. In preparation, the 35-year-old learnt how to dry-stone walls and spent time working on a West Yorkshire farm. “It’s a brutal way of life,” says Socha. “It’s fucking cold all the time, you’re up early, there’s sheep to herd and sheer and feed. I saw how hard they work.”
Improvisation and deep character work is crucial to Meadows’ process. “People think improv is just that we all go to the pub, have loads of meals and then turn up and see what happens baby,” he says with a grin. “Weirdly, when actors come to set, a lot of their dynamics and history are in place because we spend months [preparing] before. On a new project, all brand new characters, we needed to put that work in.”
Bradford-born actor Sophie McShera (Downton Abbey), who plays David Hartley’s wife Grace, relished the freedom that Meadow’s process afforded her. “I remember having a conversation with Shane about Northern women – I’ve been brought up in a big family of really powerful, interesting Northern or Irish women,” says the 38-year-old. “You’re not trying to fit into a scripted idea of a bad-ass woman. This is being able to make my own version of powerful, which makes it so different and exciting. I’ve never had a job like that before.”
Whilst Meadows has always focused on working-class communities, during the long edit, he found new resonance in The Gallows Pole – especially given the ongoing pressures on working-class and low-income households brought on by inflation and accelerating living costs.
“The very, very basics couldn’t be afforded in these communities,” explains Meadows of the original Coiners. “That life and death aspect probably wasn’t as present [at the beginning of the project] as it is now in our culture. The last six to 12 months have changed that for many, many people. Many families and many communities. There’s an added resonance now.”
The Gallows Pole is also arriving at a point when British TV’s class problem has become more urgent. Following this year’s closure of Oldham Coliseum theatre, after over a century providing theatre to communities often underserved by arts in the UK, actors including Maxine Peake and Christopher Eccleston have spoken out about how hard it would be for them to enter the industry today.
Private school voices dominate British screens and stages, while a lack of affordable housing or social security is keeping working-class innovators from breaking into the arts. What does Meadows – the son of a lorry driver from Uttoxeter who had to direct TV adverts even whilst working on commercially successful films like Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and This Is England – make of the current climate?
“Things have got loads better and much worse in equal measure,” says Meadows, “I know when people are pretending. And what I’m feeling working with the BBC or Channel 4 is that people are genuinely, rather than box-ticking, wanting to make things more diverse.”
Technology has both given and taken. “What’s brilliant as a filmmaker is I’ve got my phone here, it’s got a cinematic mode. I wish I had that when I started. But availability makes people lazy, and there’s five million people making films on Vimeo trying to get seen,” the director continues. “But something’s happening at the moment that won’t appear fully on screen for a while. I think things will blossom again. Things are looking brighter if you’re coming at things from an unconventional way.”
From the boldness of Myers’ source material to the richness of its cast and Meadows’ refusal to settle for the customs of period storytelling, The Gallows Pole suggests a brighter and more exciting way of operating. In creating it, Meadows has taken an anarchist crime story of class war and made one of 2023’s least conventional dramas.