Shane Meadows’s new drama, The Gallows Pole (BBC Two, Wednesday, 9pm), is as English as red buses and morris dancers. But there is an Irish component to the writer and director’s loose adaptation of Benjamin Myers’s 2017 historical novel, in that it is co-produced by Element Pictures. The Dublin outfit’s most significant success is its retelling of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, a show that, with its millennial melancholia, is universes removed from the psychedelic high jinks Meadows serves up in his new three-parter.
There is a long English tradition of turning the past into a crazed reflection of the present. It is there in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, a film about Queen Elizabeth I, which was really about the punk movement; in Jez Butterworth’s state-of-the-nation play Jerusalem; and in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, upon which The Gallows Pole occasionally riffs as it relays the real-life story of the Cragg Vale Coiners of the 1760s.
The Coiners were forgers who created fake currency by shaving the edges off pennies and farthings and putting them back into circulation. In the process they almost brought down the British economy. But rather than turn their story into a hey-nonny-nonny version of the mortgage-crisis comedy The Big Short, Meadows embarks on a spooky plunge into the heart of old England.
He brings in the trappings of folk horror to tell the story of the Cragg Vale ringleader David Hartley (Michael Socha). He is introduced stumbling across the West Yorkshire Moors, pursued by men wearing horned skull masks. This feels like an allusion to the old folkloric figure Herne the Hunter, as well as to the sense that, just under its modern veneer, England is a country haunted by ancient and restless spirits.
Meadows, best known for his series This Is England, takes his time with The Gallows Pole. The first episode, for instance, doesn’t even mention the counterfeiting plot. He is more interested in the textures of a Yorkshire on the brink of the Industrial Revolution. There is a likeness to the current cost-of-living crisis. Townspeople complain they can’t afford bread, let alone beer. They’ve been tipped into poverty by the failure of their weaving industry, which the rise of the big industrial cities of northern England has eclipsed.
But if the themes are serious, the tone is playful. Escaping his deer-headed pals, Hartley returns to Cragg Vale after seven years away. His wife, Grace (Sophie McShera), is surprised, if not delighted, that he’s back. His father has just died, though Hartley swears his return is a coincidence.
The episode finishes with another vision. Hartley is surrounded by the skull men again. There’s a tumult of Peaky Blinders-style anachronistic rock’n’roll. He falls into a faint, sliding towards madness. But Meadows tells the story with such vim that the viewer will want to be with him through every stage of his descent.