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31 May 2023

Shane Meadows’ The Gallows Pole has plenty of vomiting and swearing – but very little drama

The 18th-century fable about coining gangs, adapted from Benjamin Myers’ novel, is relentless and self-indulgent.

By Rachel Cooke

For about five minutes, maybe ten, I was a little bit in love with Shane Meadows’ adaptation of Benjamin Myers’ 2017 novel The Gallows Pole. The sunless, sullen look of it. The hammer of clogs on wooden floors and flagstones. I liked its purity, each shot somehow scrubbed clean, for all that every shirt was filthy, every mouth missing teeth. Meadows has worked to give us both a Before Time, when England was still Eden and a man could be buried beneath any oak tree he liked, and an On-the-Cusp Time: a liminality during which mills, though mostly still elsewhere, really did seem satanic to rural people newly cast out by mechanisation (it is the 1760s). “The only place there’s work now is Halifax, and we don’t want to go there,” someone said, as if the town was Mephistophelian beyond all imagining.

But such effects soon palled. Having set out to give costume drama a good kicking, Meadows’ approach here is more or less the same as in any of the dramas with which he made his name (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, This Is England). The dialogue is improvisational and highly naturalistic. Close attention is paid to belching, vomiting and swearing. One woman, bizarrely, sports a full-on undercut, her hair shaved at the sides and long on top. His characters might as well be in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley – another series set in Calderdale – as in an 18th-century fable about coining gangs (Myers’ novel is based on the Cragg Vale Coiners, who made fake money from melted-down clippings, and were led by a man called David Hartley). Only their long skirts and the mullioned windows of their spartan houses give the game away.

[See also: Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland reveals the madness of sectarianism]

But Happy Valley is exciting and funny, which this series isn’t. One of the problems with a certain kind of naturalism is that it wants for drama. In The Gallows Pole every scene is too long, and without any real reason: only rarely do these little playlets move along the action. When Hartley (Michael Socha) argues in the Yorkshire darkness with Grace (Sophie McShera), the sweetheart he abandoned seven long years ago (he has returned to his impoverished home village after a mysterious absence in Birmingham), it’s like listening to some random couple rowing outside your house on their way home from the pub. Shut up, I thought, as the minutes ticked by. Just bloody well go home to bed.

Meadows has decided to go along with the idea, popular right now, that our ancestors were in most ways just the same as us – a notion I tend to resist (they were, and they weren’t). But this then presents him with a further dramatic problem. Questions of heaven and hell matter little to us, and so we struggle to believe in the faith of these near mirror images of ourselves, of the terrors (and comfort) such belief brings with it. When Hartley, who killed a man in Birmingham, wonders whether he will go “up or down” if he dies from a stab wound before he gets home, he might as well be asking what beers the pub has on for all we feel it matters. (The answer to this last question, incidentally, is not many; like everyone else in the village, Barb the landlady is on the bones of her behind).

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There are some nice touches. People are famished, a hunger Meadows conveys exquisitely in a scene where Hartley’s brother, William (Thomas Turgoose), furtively eats only the edges of an oatcake his wife, Gwen (Charlotte Ockelton), has made, as if she won’t notice. But it’s so relentless. Baked goods aside, I’m simply not compelled enough to want to find out what David, who has eyes like two coal holes and a mouthful of metal, is going to do to save his relatives from penury, nor where this may lead him (I assume it’s nowhere very holy).

For all that Meadows’ approach is bracing – and I’m willing to bet someone, somewhere, will call it edgy – it’s self-indulgent, too. He just can’t get enough of the demotic language he thinks he’s discovered, though I will admit that his silly olde worlde titles – henceforth, all directors of photography should be known as guardians of the travelling lamp, and all editors as cutteth’rs – did make me smile.

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The Gallows Pole
BBC Two, 31 May, 9pm

[See also: Steeltown Murders left me bored and furious]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation