The Gallows Pole: a hunger for freedom
Shane Meadows's new drama captures the defiance and spirit of the 18th-century working class.
New Shane Meadows drama The Gallows Pole premieres tonight on BBC Two. The series, an adaptation of Ben Myers’ award-winning novel of the same name, has been two years in the making. It tells the remarkable story of the Cragg Vale Coiners, who in the 1760s, clipped and coined so much illegal tender that they threatened to destabilise the national currency. The coiners’ success eventually prompted the Royal Mint to send officers to apprehend the offenders, only for them to be met with stubborn and violent resistance from the local community.
Meadows filmed the series at the scene of the crime: the hills and vales of west Yorkshire. When the Cragg Vale Coiners were operating, the local economy was sustained by the wool trade and people lived and worked in remote pockets of hill farming. As a ‘supporting artist’ (or extra) in the production, I’m probably biased, but Meadows has created a beautiful, visually arresting drama. And he has done well to bring the novel’s intimate relationship with the landscape to the small screen.
People have been coining counterfeit money since Roman times. The first recorded case of a coining offence in England was on 27 March 1575. Before the Cragg Vale Coiners, the last man to be hanged for coining was in 1698. What made the Cragg Vale Coiners so unusual was the sheer scale of their undertaking. It was a methodical and well-organised operation, under the strong leadership of David Hartley, involving hundreds of people. The coiners were supported by a local community whose livelihood in the clothing trade had been devastated by the Seven Years War (1756-63).
The gang was also able to take advantage of a genuine shortage of coinage in England at the time, and its members did so using a superior technique to their rivals – clipping and smelting existing gold guineas before pressing a replica coin on to them. Ultimately, they were too successful for their own good.
There has been a tendency to see the Cragg Vale Coiners as Yorkshire’s version of Robin Hood. That’s likely overstating it. They did reward the wider community for their silence and they dished out charity to those most in need. And when the body of the gang’s leader, David Hartley, was taken through the streets of Heptonstall to be buried after his hanging, hundreds lined the way, throwing flowers on to the cart. But the gang were also enforcers, too.
The Gallows Pole is about more than coining, though. It touches on issues of class, rebellion, loyalty, mythology, betrayal and love. And it weaves all this into a compelling narrative. It features established actors, such as Michael Socha who plays Hartley, and Sophie McShera who plays his wife, Grace. But it has also made new actors of locals, who enlisted as extras only for their roles to be developed into proper characters.
Shane Meadows improvised scenes and dialogue throughout. And it works well here – for this is a series that, above all else, evokes a hunger for freedom. After all, these were defiant people, risking the rope to defend their communities and ways of life. In bringing it all to life, Meadows has created an unsanitised, multiethnic but steadfastly Yorkshire world, free of almost all traces of the wokeness that usually permeates BBC dramas.
The beautiful, ancient village of Heptonstall is a star, too. Much of The Gallows Pole is filmed in a 400-year-old building which, for the past 50 years, was a museum, until the council closed it. However, the production company helped to restore the building’s interior and the museum has now reopened and is run by volunteers. A few yards from its door are the graves of David and Grace Hartley. Thus, a drama about a local legend has helped save a local museum and has given a new lease of life to the community.
Meadows has been bold, and has played his hand with a whole heart. The Gallows Pole deserves to be widely watched. Those of us involved with the museum are holding our breath, too – 250 years later, we still need the coins.
Michael Crowley is an author and dramatist. Visit his website here.
Picture by: BBC/Element Pictures (GP) Limited/Objective Feedback LLC/Dean Rogers.