Pagans, folk rock and no script: the making of The Gallows Pole, the BBC’s wacky new historical drama

In the middle of the Yorkshire countryside, in the 18th century the scam of a lifetime was brewing. Over a period of 10 years, a group of disaffected locals conducted one of the greatest frauds in British history, forging thousands of fake coins and capsizing the economy before vanishing into the mists of history.

Now, a new TV show is bringing the Cragg Vale Coiners back – alongside a dollop of pagan lore, some funky psychedelic music (by Swedish band Goat) and lashings of dark comedy.

Titled The Gallows Pole, it’s the brainchild of Shane Meadows, whose unorthodox approach lent itself perfectly to satirical films such as the 2006 cult hit This Is England – but less so, perhaps, to adapting an acclaimed historical novel on the Cragg Vale Coiners by Benjamin Myers.

“I think it was just one of those moments where you kind of go, ‘This might fail miserably, because I don’t know if I’m meant for period drama,’” Meadows told the crowd at a screening.

“I met [Myers] and obviously told him, ‘I don’t know if you’re aware that I never do anything how it’s meant to be, and it’ll probably be really different.’ And he said, ‘That’s fine.’”

Set in the 1740s, the story follows the enigmatic David Hartley (played by This Is England star Michael Socha) as he returns to the village of his birth in Yorkshire after seven years away and finds it ravaged by the Industrial Revolution: cottage industries have been replaced by factories, leaving many out of a job.

The men are out of work and families are going hungry – so Hartley becomes the mastermind of a scheme designed to earn money the dirty way, by clipping the edges off genuine gold coins and forging imitations from the shavings.

But Meadows’ version is no exact recreation of the events; it also includes ghostly pagan figures wearing stag skulls, hallucinogenic flashbacks and a fast-and-loose approach to historical fidelity (one of its female characters, for instance, has a Mohawk). Central to it all is David – whom Socha describes as the “weirdest, weirdest hero ever”.

Grace (Sophie McShera) and David (Michael Socha) (BBC/Element Pictures (GP) Limited/Objective Feedback LLC/Dean Rogers)
Grace (Sophie McShera) and David (Michael Socha) (BBC/Element Pictures (GP) Limited/Objective Feedback LLC/Dean Rogers)

“He is not typical. He’s obviously very flawed and he’s got a lot of stuff going on and is looking for redemption,” he says. “He’s found himself back in a land that was once so familiar; now it’s so foreign. It’s just completely layered. There are so many different paths with David and you can sort of think you’re going one way, but then you don’t.”

That multi-layered approach might well be due to the unorthodox way in which Meadows writes his scripts – or rather, doesn’t. Socha describes it tactfully as an “outline”, before Meadows jumps in.

“It started as a script you never saw,” he tells Socha. “Then I did an outline that you saw, [but] it was so close to the shoot day that I didn’t write down anymore. You never saw the original scripts, there was three full scripts.”

“There was a script, but it was very much you were led by the people,” Shaheen Baig, the casting director, says. “Nothing was ever set. No characters were definite… it was all very fluid. So, you know, people would come in the workshops and do something with Lee and Shane in one direction: you change your role, or you reimagine it.”

That relaxed approach paid dividends when it came to shooting some of the series’ most charged moments – including several featuring David and his former flame Grace (played by Sophie McShera). Initially written as a star-crossed romance, their relationship underwent several tweaks during the pre-filming process, becoming far more fractious and troubled to reflect the actors’ tendency to bicker off-set.

One scene in the first episode stands out, where David and Grace have a heart to heart outside a pub. The catch: they’re sitting on either side of a wall, speaking their lines to thin air. It’s a darkly comic moment, and it’s straight out of the Meadows playbook.

“Shane kind of sprung that on us… we were meant to have a scene together looking at each other. And I think that [doing the opposite] just unlocked this amazing magic,” says McShera.

“I knew it was going well, because Shane is the naughtiest director ever, because he just laughs really loud when you’re on a take, but sound don’t get mad with him because it’s Shane Meadows. And we could hear Shane laughing.”

The same problem cropped up again in the series’ opening scene, which features Socha as a grievously wounded David, struggling for life on the moors. He’s surrounded by the deer-skull-wearing pagans – for which Meadows was doing the voices live, using a microphone hooked up to a karaoke machine.

The cast of The Gallows Pole (BBC/Element Pictures (GP) Limited/Objective Feedback LLC/Dean Rogers)
The cast of The Gallows Pole (BBC/Element Pictures (GP) Limited/Objective Feedback LLC/Dean Rogers)

“He sometimes shaded me in the voice of the Stag Man,” Socha recalls – in particular the weight Socha put on after eating at the staff canteen for 10 weeks. “[He’d] go, ‘Oh David, what’s happened here? Have you been doing press-ups, David?’”

Comedy aside, Meadows and his team were also adamant that as many Yorkshire actors as possible be used to create the world of The Gallows Pole.

“We created this flyer, which said we were casting for Shane’s project. And of course, the minute we did that, it went almost viral,” says casting director Shaheen Baig.

“It was insane. It was a massive, massive search all over Yorkshire. All sorts of places, from garages to hairdressers to beauty salons to pubs, social clubs, wherever. And we ended up with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tapes.”

One of those tapes was sent in by Stevie Binns. A Yorkshire local who had never acted before, he ended up becoming one of the series’ main characters, the Mohawk-wearing Mand. “I nearly ended up with a mullet,” Binns says. “But we were all really involved in it: it wasn’t a thing where Shane came up to me and said, ‘So we’re going to shave your head.’… we had a good conversation about it and what my thoughts were around how I saw Mand coming together.”

For Meadows, it’s clear that character development takes precedent over historical accuracy – which itself proved to be a rather nebulous thing.

“Everybody really took it seriously and really tried, but then you realised… you’ll meet one person who’ll be telling you this, and the other one will be telling you that. One of them – everybody was growing beards – was like, ‘Take the beards off! They didn’t have beards!’ and then someone goes, ‘They had goatee beards.’ And then you go, let’s just do what looks good.”

With The Gallows Pole set to air at the end of May, the cast and crew have nothing but glowing words for their eccentric showrunner. “I felt like it was all so instinctive what we did,” McShera says. “Everything just feels real and true… and that’s why Shane’s amazing.”

The Gallows Pole airs on May 31 on BBC Two, with all episodes available immediately on iPlayer’