New Channel 4 drama The Virtues is based on writer Shane Meadows’ own repressed childhood memories

"I'd been through something in my childhood that I didn't realise had happened until I got to about 40," said Meadows

The Virtues, Shane Meadows (C4, Getty)

The Virtues writer Shane Meadows has revealed that his new drama, starring Line of Duty’s Stephen Graham, is based on his own repressed childhood memories of sexual assault that only came to light in the last few years.

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Airing on Channel 4, the haunting new series follows Joseph (Graham), a troubled man who sets off for the south of Ireland to confront the demons of his past and to reconnect with his long lost sister Anna, who until now had thought that her brother was dead.

“I’d been through something in my childhood that I didn’t realise had happened until I got to about 40,” Meadows, who is now 46, said at the premiere of The Virtues.

“I got to the bottom of this thing that had happened in my life as a kid, and I had fragmented memories. The very basis, the acorn of Joseph’s journey, was borne out of something that happened to me as a kid.”

Bafta-winning writer Meadows later explained in an interview with The Guardian that the series was borne out of his own experience, at the age of nine, of being sexually assaulted by an older child.

“The awful thing about that event, though, is that I couldn’t remember it,” Meadows said. When through therapy the memories began to return, he explained, “it was like I was living it for the first time.”

At the screening for The Virtues, Meadows said that his first reaction was to seek revenge for what had happened.

“Fundamentally, when I discovered this thing, I went into a place of trying to track down the people that had done it,” he said. “I was just about to track down this guy I wanted to find – to confront him, basically – but I knew if I confronted him, if at any stage in that conversation he smirked at me, I was probably going to jump over the table and bite something off his face.”

Instead, Meadows contacted fellow Bafta winner Jack Thorne, who had previously collaborated with him on TV drama This is England, to ask him to co-write The Virtues.

“I decided to ring Jack and talk about making something instead, which I thought was probably far healthier. I met with Jack a couple of years ago and sat in a room with him, and told him about this thing, and that I didn’t want it to be about me, it’s not about me. But I wanted to create a series where I had the chance to face somebody that wronged me,” Meadows said.

“So me and Jack sat down together knowing that we were going to make something, rather than me being naughty. That was the seed, if you like.”

Jack Thorne accepting the award for Best New Play for Harry Potter And The Cursed Child on stage during The Olivier Awards 2017 (Getty)
Jack Thorne accepting the award for Best New Play for Harry Potter And The Cursed Child at The Olivier Awards 2017 (Getty)

On meeting with Meadows to discuss the project, Thorne said, “Just imagine two bald men sobbing; that was sort of it.”

He added: “It was a real privilege to be trusted to be part of that, and an experience in my life that I’d never had before. I just wanted to do the best with Shane’s heart.”

Thorne said that making the series was both an “honour” and a “burden” – “I didn’t want to do wrong by this man who’s very, very important to me and very special to me. That was the writing process – fear and love.” 

Graham, who starred in Meadows’ film This is England, told RadioTimes.com that he hadn’t previously known about the screenwriter’s repressed memories: “Neither did he in many respects… it’s post-traumatic stress disorder, basically, in its purest form.”

Joseph (Stephen Graham)
Stephen Graham in The Virtues (Channel 4)

Meadows’ personal attachment to the story brought an extra weight of responsibility to the role of Joseph, explained Graham.

“As an actor, you’re always here to find truth in everything you do, but especially with this you have an obligation because it’s happened to a lot of people: a lot of people have had that sensitive issue of abuse, so you do have this duty of care to tell the story properly, truthfully and honestly.”

He also described how emotional it got on the set of The Virtues. “I don’t mind saying it and I’m sure Shane doesn’t – there was many a time when we had a good cry on set just after we’d done a take.”

“It must be extremely cathartic,” he added, “and liberating but also very frightening to find a way to express what’s happened to you and what your deepest emotions are.

“He’s laid himself bare on the line.”

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The Virtues begins on Wednesday 15th May at 9pm on Channel 4