SARAH VINE'S My TV Week: Strange tale of the £650m peasant fraudsters

SARAH VINE’S My TV Week: Strange tale of the £650m peasant fraudsters




Television can seem very samey sometimes – when producers find something that works, they like to flog it to death. In the past week we’ve had a new series of Who Do You Think You Are? (No 20), as well as the finale of series God-knows-what of MasterChef.

Actually, the opening episode of WDYTYA? (Thursdays, 9pm, BBC1 and iPlayer) is well worth a watch, since it features Andrew Lloyd Webber (along with his canine companion Mojito, a Cuban Havanese) tracing his ancestry all the way back to Henry VIII via the Battle of Waterloo, various castles, one or two East End pubs – and a group of 18th-century travelling showmen.

But as well as familiar formats, we have something a little more unusual. The Gallows Pole, from acclaimed This Is England director Shane Meadows, tackles the tale of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a group of counterfeiters in 18th-century Yorkshire. 

Based on the book by Behamin Myers, The Gallows Pole tells the story of David Hartley (played by Michael Socha), the leader of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a group of counterfeiters in 18th-century Yorkshire 

Mesmerising performances: Sophie McShera plays Grace, wife of counterfeiter David Hartley, in The Gallows Pole, from acclaimed This Is England director Shane Meadows

Based on the book by Benjamin Myers, it tells the story of their leader, David Hartley, and his brothers, weavers who – as the Industrial Revolution takes hold – find themselves unable to make ends meet.

It’s a true story with a place in English folklore since the gang were so successful they almost brought down the British economy at the time. 

By clipping gold and silver coins, melting down the shavings and then forging fakes, they put £3.5 million of coinage back into the system – the equivalent of £650 million in today’s money – reducing the currency’s value by 9 per cent.

In the end they were betrayed by an associate and met with a sticky end – but not before Hartley had earned himself the moniker of ‘King’ and his brothers ‘Dukes’.

They were hard men for hard times, ruthless and violent – but also respected and protected by their community, which viewed them as outlaws by necessity, the Robin Hoods of their day.

This is very much how Meadows frames their stories. The hardship and brutality of the times are unashamedly romanticised, as are the characters, their suffering – and their subsequent crimes. 

He infuses the harsh landscape and bleak lives of the protagonists with a savage beauty, bringing their rebellion to life with an almost painterly eye.

The performances are so intense they’re mesmerising. Unusually for a period drama, they feel unscripted and spontaneous, and the direction has a fly-on-the-wall quality that really transports the viewer to the heart of the action. 

Sarah Vine (pictured) reviews The Gallows Pole

The emotion is high, urgent, at times feverishly so, reinforcing the desperation and anger of the situation.

It is also, at times, incredibly weird. There’s a sinister, surreal element to it, with Hartley cast as a messianic figure in possession of mystical, mysterious powers drawn from nature and the landscape. 

He’s haunted (or are they real?) by a troupe of black-robed figures wearing stag skulls, their purpose never quite clear. 

It’s hypnotic, and is shot through with dark, folklorish nightmares, echoes of The Wicker Man and Midsommar, the 2019 cult folk horror film starring Florence Pugh.

The result is a show that’s as weird as it is brilliant, a truly original piece of television, with a fantastic and very talented cast (led by Michael Socha as Hartley). 

Some viewers might find the action rather slow – but I enjoyed the longueurs, the moments of stillness that set the tone and atmosphere.




Annika, starring Nicola Walker as DI Annika Strandhed, who’s recently transferred to the Scottish police’s Glasgow-based Marine Homicide Unit, is also quite a peculiar proposition. 

This show premiered on the Alibi channel in 2021, but has just turned up on the BBC – and if you like moody police dramas it’s well worth a detour.

Annika, starring Nicola Walker (pictured right) as DI Annika Strandhed, had the potential to be pretentious, but her skill, together with the droll, deadpan dialogue, saves it from that fate, says Sarah

Annika, who is of Norwegian extraction, is also a single mum. When not managing her stroppy teenager Morgan (Silvie Furneaux, left, with Walker), she spends her time philosophising to camera and collaring killers with an unerring sixth sense.

In the hands of anyone else but Walker, the whole thing might seem rather pretentious; but her skill, combined with the droll, deadpan dialogue, makes this a distinct cut above.  


More than simply a musical icon Tina Turner, who died on 24 May, was a trailblazer and her life a lesson in courage and self-belief, says Sarah

The death of Tina Turner last month marked the end of an era, the passing of a woman who, for fans like me, was an inspiration not just in musical terms but also just a very fine example of a human being. 

On the day of the announcement I went back and watched When Tina Turner Came To Britain (BBC iPlayer). If you want a lesson in the power of one woman’s courage and self-belief, look no further. Some great music too, obviously. 

Channel 4 has broadcast some pretty questionable stuff in recent years, but Open House: The Great Sex Experiment really plumbs new depths. 

Dressed up as some sort of anthropological exploration of open relationships, it’s basically just an excuse to show people rutting on camera. In other words, porn. I genuinely have no idea how they get away with it. 

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