“Just imagine two bald men sobbing,” Shane Meadows tells the crowd at a Bafta preview of his new Channel 4 drama The Virtues. He’s almost laughing, describing the day he met with This Is England co-writer Jack Thorne to discuss his new project. In a side room of a local arts centre, Meadows told Thorne about the event in his childhood that inspired the four-part drama.
“The very basis, the acorn if you like, of Joseph’s journey is something that happened in my life as a kid,” Meadows tells Empire Magazine Editor-in-Chief Terri White. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed. Following a screening of the first two episodes, which were met with peals of applause, Meadows is taking part in a Q&A with Thorne, producer Nickie Sault and cast members Stephen Graham, Helen Behan and Niamh Algar. They all clearly adore him.
There’s a lot of laughter during the evening, not least when Graham – a supreme performer – holds court with an uproarious account of filming one scene alongside a pubful of non-actor locals. Though painful, Meadows tells The Virtues’ origin story with a light touch, explaining that when memories of a long-repressed childhood event resurfaced, he became obsessed with trying to track down the people responsible.
“I was like Columbo,” he tells the crowd, “not not a good Columbo, a Travis Bickle-style Columbo.” Meadows eventually found one man, “But I knew if I confronted him and 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,” he says to more laughs, “so I decided to ring Jack and talk about making something instead, which I thought was probably far healthier.”
Given the subject matter (Meadows has publicly told the story in one interview only with The Observer’s Miranda Sawyer), the laughter might seem insensitive but Meadows is setting the tone. His work, especially in the TV sequels to This Is England, routinely combines kidding farce with extremes of degradation, and never to the detriment of either. On stage, Terri White describes one scene in The Virtues as moving from “devastation to hilarity”, which says it perfectly.
The Virtues is the story of Joseph (Stephen Graham), a man in his forties whose life has been corroded by childhood trauma. In the first of four episodes, Joseph undertakes a journey to confront his past. Though personal, it isn’t autobiographical, says Meadows. He told Thorne, “I don’t want it to be about me. It’s not about me, I want to create a series where I get a chance to face somebody that wronged me.”
Telling such an intimate story was “an honour and a burden,” says Jack Thorne. The day he and Meadows spent sobbing together felt like a privilege to be entrusted with. Since then, he and everybody involved in The Virtues have been trying to do their best, says Thorne, “with Shane’s heart.”
The affection and loyalty Meadows inspires in his cast and crew is made clear throughout the session. Helen Behan and Niamh Algar, who play Anna and Dinah in The Virtues, repeatedly say that they’re unlikely to experience anything like that level of collaboration again.
Stephen Graham goes one further, calling himself spoiled by the overwhelming honesty and trust in Meadows’ process. “Without sounding wanky and pretentious,” he says, “it’s not acting, it’s not. You embody that person and that character and that situation. These words just come flying out of your mouth.”
“If you turned up in your Winnebago and it was on the edge of the cliffs of Dover and you heard ‘We’re shooting here today’ you’d walk up to him and you’d go ‘Right, do you want me to walk off, or do you want me to jump off or do you want me to run off?’ You wouldn’t ask if there was a safety net, you’d just do it.”
“I don’t want to sound disrespectful,” Graham continues, “but I’ve worked with a couple of directors who can be extremely opinionated about what it’s meant to be and what it is, whereas Shane will take an idea open to the floor. When you’re working with him, there’s no wrong. It can’t be wrong, it can just be a different way of looking at it.”
Meadows and Graham first discussed the character of Joseph ten years ago, back when the drama was called Mary And Joseph, and inspired in part by Meadows’ scaffolder uncle. The story since evolved to include a starring role as Anna for Helen Behan, whose first acting work on screen was her role as Lol’s nurse and Combo’s post-prison mentor in This Is England 88 and 90.
“There’s a lot of me in Anna, there’s a lot of Anna in me,” says Behan, explaining how Meadows will take inspiration from his cast’s real-life experiences to evolve story. “Workshopping is like group therapy,” says Behan, “you go in and start to talk about the character and inevitably start talking about ourselves.”
A case in point is the introduction of Niamh Algar’s Dinah, in which she throws a couple of handy-looking punches. Algar has boxed professionally, something that came up in conversation with Meadows during filming. Before she knew it, she said, her pages had been rewritten to reflect that.
Collaboration and reactivity is key to the process Meadows has forged with his cast and crew, all in the name of putting truth on screen. As a result, the work created is always personal but this one is more so than most. “This Is England and The Virtues were the two I knew I had to get out,” Meadows tells the Bafta audience, “before I went crackers.”
Four-part series The Virtues starts tonight at 9pm on Channel 4.