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The Gallows Pole

Directed by Shane Meadows

BBC TV 2023

Review by Nou Ra


Shane Meadows’s latest offering is a historic tale reflecting current social injustices, portrayed through a series of outwardly prosaic, yet ultimately poetic explorations of poverty and crime, and their correlation.

The Gallows Pole, based on Benjamin Myers’s 2017 novel, is a fictionalised telling of the true-life story of David Hartley and the Cragg Vale coiners: a gang of counterfeiters who specialized in ‘clipping coins’.  The outer edges of real gold guineas would be clipped by a millimeter or two, and then filed down to obscure any evidence of interference. Once the gang had trimmed enough coins, they would smelt the gold and forge new guineas with a special tool that Hartley possessed. 

Meadows’s story begins with a foreboding intertitle: ‘In the early 1760s the thriving Calder Valley in West Yorkshire produced some of the finest cottage spun textiles in the world. But as the decade wore on its fortunes began to rapidly decline.’

This is Meadows’s wheelhouse. His 2006 series This is England is a period drama set in 1983. It bears a resemblance to The Gallows Pole in its themes and overall message. It asks the question: what happens when a group of people, marginalised by cultural expectations, financial hardship and inequality, are forced to deal with a condition that seems, like a tragedy, to offer no way out?

The Gallows Pole is more hopeful than This is England but it still presses us to reflect on the realities of extreme poverty. 

David Hartley (Michael Socha) returns to his family’s village after seven years, grievously wounded and dragging a sack. Within the first few minutes of episode one, The Resurrection of Dave, it becomes apparent that this unusual drama is enticing, magical and mythical. 

Hartley’s return to his family home is badly timed. As he comes to terms with what has happened in his absence, he flits between premonitions, flashbacks and near death experiences. He asks a group of Stag Men (mystical creatures): ‘which way am I going boys? Up or Down?’

This is a recurring theme for Hartley, who confides in his brother William (Thomas Turgoose), ‘I think I might be going to hell’ as he struggles to think of himself as being worthy of life and salvation.

Redemption becomes a possibility when Hartley shares his premonition and newfound knowledge of skullduggery, not only with his immediate family, but ultimately with every member of the village, giving them all the chance to opt in on the ruse. They combine forces against the landowners, who control their livelihoods, and against the clothiers, who lease looms to the villagers whilst the cottage industry is thriving and who continue to charge them for those looms even when there is no more work.  

The villagers’ only goal is survival. As we learn from episode one, this was a time when: ‘manpower was about to be replaced by that of fire and steam; lanes and rivers by toll roads and canals; and weavers’ cottages by Behemothic factories.’ 

Meadows’s drama resonates. We are at a similar turning point in our culture with rising unemployment, inflation at its highest point for a generation, and a ‘cost of living crisis’ that means the price of food outstrips the average family wage. All this, whilst corporations report record profits and individuals reap bonuses that could feed a city. Add in the threat of Artificial Intelligence replacing humans, from songwriting to truck driving, and I find myself asking: how are we not all the Hartley family?

Shane Meadows has pioneered the casting of unknown actors in his work, for example, introducing Vickie McClure and Paddy Consadine  to audiences. The Gallows Pole feels contemporary. Its dialogue is intense yet organic – a result of it being work-shopped over months with seasoned actors like Sophie McShera together with newcomers who responded to an Instagram online casting call. They range from Stevie Binns, a financial team leader, who plays Mand, to Dave Perkins, a mechanic from Sheffield. The common thread that binds these actors is the authentic use of Yorkshire dialect; Binns is convinced it was her accent that got her the gig.

Meadows’s portrayal of a community coming together to defy all odds against the poverty making machinery of late stage capitalism is amplified by the specificity of the voice and feels timely.