Folk horror, black comedy and Ken Loach-style social commentary frolicked together across the West Yorkshire Moors in Shane Meadows’s enjoyably weird The Gallows Pole. With one foot in the supernatural and the other in English historical drama, his retelling of the story of the 18th-century gold counterfeiters who nearly unravelled the economy was a giddy plunge into a mostly unknown story.
The writer and director is best known for unflinching contemporary dramas This Is England and The Virtues, but The Gallows Pole rewound to the days of George III, taking inspiration from the 2017 historical novel by Ben Myers and described by Meadows as “Trainspotting in the 1700s”.
It was bizarre from the outset, kicking off with a memorable introduction for “Cragg Vale Coiners” ringleader David Hartley (Michael Socha). He appeared crawling across the landscape, flanked by men in creepy ceremonial stag skulls. He was returning to Cragg Vale, the Yorkshire village he’d left seven years previously, with a bag of gold and a life-threatening wound acquired in mysterious circumstances.
The scene unfolded in slow motion, like an avant-garde pop video. Was a bass line about to kick in, the deer-man to break into a “Thriller”-style synchronised dance? I wouldn’t put it past Meadows to go there – he was clearly in a playful mood.
These Wicker Man trimmings were probably to be expected from a series co-produced by folk horror powerhouse production company A24 (The Witch, Midsommar), but were offset by a boisterous script.
Hartley, who seemed to be suffering out-of-body visions, had reappeared just in time for his father’s funeral. Everyone in the village was surprised – especially the returning outcast’s wife, Grace (Sophie McShera). Not that she was inclined to cut him any slack. “I’m not going to give him dead dad sympathy,” she said, a rejoinder typical of the flinty dialogue.
A returning scoundrel was the least of the villagers’ woes. The weaving trade had collapsed due to technological advances such as the spread of the canals and the growth of the big industrial cities.
Meadows’ portrait of a community devastated by economic changes had obvious modern parallels. Everyone in the village was constantly fretting about having enough money to put bread on the table or afford a pint – a cost of living crisis that will have struck a chord with many.
Despite the quick-witted script, The Gallows Pole had a leisurely pace. Hartley had returned home with a sack of shiny gold, but the iffy means by which he had acquired the coin was kept secret in this first episode of three. Nor was there any mention of the forgery scheme for which he would finally go down in infamy.
Instead, Meadows focused on establishing a blackly comedic tone, the deprivations of the villagers mixed with a droll banter. “Are you actually doing the pauses on purpose?” Grace asked her husband when David kept lapsing into dramatic silences.
Historically, Hartley and his accomplices were considered villains and fiscal vandals. Others have argued that they were folk heroes talking on the 17th-century equivalent of the 1 per cent.
Meadows invited the audience to see them as something else: ordinary people forced into an extraordinary situation by economic necessity. However they are remembered, this tale of financial hardship and imaginary deer-men was a stag party to relish.