Two minutes into Shane Meadows's new drama The Gallows Pole, as mystical Stag Men are stood ominously over a dying man on the bleakest of moors and he utters "which way am I heading boys, up or down?", you might think you have a sense of the series. I can guarantee you do not.


Meadows has crafted one of the most utterly unique dramas in years, a mash-up of his own sensibilities with historical storytelling, along with some psychedelic imagery thrown in for good measure.

As such, both Meadows super-fans and those looking for something innovative and off-kilter will likely find themselves enrapt by the ever-changing tone and unknowable nature of his series. But for others, mileage may vary.

The series stars Michael Socha as David Hartley, a man returning to his Yorkshire village after time spent away in Birmingham, whose journey leaves him at death's door. Coming back to a frosty reception following the death of his father, Hartley proposes a criminal venture to his family, friends and neighbours.

Michael Socha as David Hartley with the Stag Men in The Gallows Pole
Michael Socha as David Hartley with the Stag Men in The Gallows Pole. BBC/Element Pictures (GP) Limited/Objective Feedback LLC/Dean Rogers

The plan is for a gang of weavers and land workers to supplement their earnings by forging coins, a treasonous offence which would go on to capsize the economy and become the biggest fraud in British history.

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The best way to understand the tone of the series is through the Stag Men - mystical, ominous-looking creatures with an apparent connection with the afterlife.

As they seemingly haunt David (or maybe he's just imagining them?), you could envisage a world in which this was treated deadly seriously, with the Stag Men taking the place of the witches in Macbeth or many other supernatural/spiritual beings throughout literature, television and film.

Instead, Meadows has them communicate with Hartley as though they are his friends down the pub, breaking into non-sequiturs and questioning the logic of their own situation.

In fact, it's not just the Stag Men that speak anachronistically: Everyone in this series speaks in a way which wouldn't feel out of place in a 21st century setting, with Meadows employing his trademark improvisational techniques to draw out a sense of naturalism in conversation.

The Gallows Pole
The cast of The Gallows Pole. BBC

Meadows said that he was inspired to adapt The Gallows Pole because of the book's cover, which he felt looked like "Trainspotting in the 1700s". In truth, what he has created is more like This is England in the 1700s, or at least the happier scenes of camaraderie and friendship seen in This is England.

This is a far lighter series than most are likely to anticipate, with the tone frequently bordering on satire, as the wannabe coiners bicker amongst themselves. Then, a more serious moment will arrive and remind you that it's not - it's just a hyper-specific, fluctuating tone and you have to adjust to it.

The show also has heart to spare - you feel for these characters, you believe in the relationship between David and Grace, and you want to spend time with them.

The emotional beats work because of how much time you spend with these characters going about their daily lives, and because of the strength of the performances, particularly from Socha and McShera.

It's true that the stylistic and tonal choices will likely be hit or miss for many viewers. In Disney Plus's A Small Light, I found the anachronistic dialogue and contemporary feel struggling to mesh with the serious historical plot line.

The Gallows Pole
Sophie McShera and Michael Socha in The Gallows Pole. BBC

But here, because it's a generally lighter story and one most people are unaware of, the whole thing just kind of works as this punky, unknowable oddity. If you give the series a chance and settle into its rhythms, it's a funny, earthy and unique ride with some truly endearing characters.

However, the one element which does pull the series down is the pacing. Meadows has decided to make this season, in essence, a prequel to the original book, previously stating that this gave audiences a chance to "understand 'why' the Cragg Vale Coiners did what they did" and also to "fall in love with them a smidge".

He's right on both fronts, but the glacial pace at which the central plot gets going does grate at times, and leaving me with the sense that I would rather they just get on with it all.

The things this series gets right more than anything else are those elements Meadows is known for - his stylistic flourishes and his sense and understanding of communities. The show looks phenomenal, the soundtrack is breathtaking, and the tone is both unique and frequently enjoyable.

Come the end of this season of The Gallows Pole, there's no doubting that I wanted to see a second outing to further develop these characters and to truly explore this scheme they've embarked upon.

By the closing credits we've only just begun to scratch the surface - there's certainly no sense of this being the monumental, financial system-wrecking enterprise we've been told about.

If Meadows was just able to quicken the pace, reduce some of the idle chit-chat (of course, not all, otherwise it wouldn't be a Meadows project) and hone in on that central story, then this could go on to become a truly special series indeed.

The Gallows Pole premieres on BBC Two on Wednesday 31st May at 9pm, when all episodes will also arrive on BBC iPlayer. For more, check out our dedicated Drama page or our full TV Guide and Streaming Guide.


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