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Virtuous drama

Stephen Graham, Helen Behan and Shane Meadows discuss making Channel 4 drama The Virtues, portraying difficult characters and the importance of telling working-class stories.

From Shane Meadows, the writer and director behind This is England, The Virtues is a powerful and affecting miniseries touching on themes of child abuse, alcoholism, revenge and redemption.

Stephen Graham stars as Joseph, a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon when his ex-partner moves to Australia with their young son. He then boards a ferry to Ireland to confront the truth about his childhood in the care system and reunite with his long-lost sister Anna (Helen Behan).

As part of Bafta Television: The Sessions, Graham, Behan, Meadows and the team behind the series discussed Meadows’ inspiration for The Virtues, the development of the characters, the importance of telling working-class stories, and how Behan’s chance meeting with Meadows in a pub kickstarted her career.

Graham is nominated for Best Leading Actor, Behan is up for Best Supporting Actress and The Virtues is in the race for Best Miniseries at the Bafta Television Awards this Friday. Earlier this month, Meadows and The Virtues co-writer Jack Thorne were nominated in the drama director and writer categories, respectively, at the Bafta Television Craft Awards for their work on the show. The duo previously collaborated on This is England ’86, ’88 and ’90, a trilogy of drama miniseries for Channel 4 based on Meadows’ film This is England.

Shane Meadows at Series Mania last year, where The Virtues won the event’s top prize

Shane Meadows had the initial idea for The Virtues two-and-a-half years ago and sought out Jack Thorne to discuss the story…
Meadows: Most of my stuff has an autobiographical element to it, but this was beyond that. Jack was my first port of call as a human being and a writer, to see whether he thought I was right to try to make something with the idea.
I was starting to flesh out a very rough idea based around the Joseph character. I can’t remember whether it was even called The Virtues at that stage. I don’t think we would have known whether it was a film or a series, but [I had] the germ of an idea of somebody who finds something out very late in their life that they’d forgotten had happened to them –  an incident of sexual abuse.
I had the basic framework but, like anything I’ve made, the writing, the improvisation, even on set in the edit, even during the grade, it’s always this kind of refining process.

Filming The Virtues was informed by a scene in This is England ’90…
Meadows: There was a big turning point in This is England ’90 when we were doing the reveal scene, where Lol [played by Vicky McClure] sits everyone down at the dinner table and basically tells them she was the one who killed her dad, and it wasn’t Combo [Stephen Graham].
What I’d learned over the years is that very few takes resemble other takes. [This was] one of those scenes where you sometimes get these guttural responses from actors, and sometimes it’s a wonderful bargaining chip. If that actor knows you’re asking them to go somewhere incredibly deep, there can be some reticence, because you could be asking them to go there 15 times – and no human being on Earth can go into that place 15 times in a row.
We decided it needed to be shot like a piece of theatre, because if it does happen in one take and we’ve got all of these cameras all higgledy-piggledy set up all over the place, we could shoot the entire series like that.
It’s quite a technical achievement, but that really inspired the whole of The Virtues. It needed to be shot so the actors knew that, if we laid something down in one take, we’d got a wide [shot], two mids and a close-up and could go, ‘That scene’s done.’ It might take a bit longer to set things up, but everyone knew when you shouted action that, if you had to go somewhere you were scared to go, you weren’t going to have to do it 58 times afterwards.

The Virtues centres on Stephen Graham’s Joseph, a troubled man confronting his dark past

As an actor, if Shane Meadows calls, you go…
Stephen Graham: It was either Mark [Herbert, producer] or Shane, it was a conversation on a Friday night at about five or six o clock. They were like ‘Can you get to Sheffield?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ Obviously I’m not calling myself Batman but if Shane phones, you go.
Working as an actor with Jack and Shane’s writing, it’s the most liberating, frightening, exciting, beautiful experience I’ve ever had the pleasure to have. It is all written beautifully, there are beautiful scenes, there’s beautiful stuff within these pages that you absorb. Your job as an actor is to learn these lines, but you know that, with Shane, it doesn’t necessarily have to go that way. What happens is you read them and subconsciously these words that people speak go into your head. I’m doing a lot of work in creating a character along with Shane, where Jack and Shane have done a lot of work creating the language of a character, which feeds in, and there’s a beautiful marriage that happens.

Meadows met Helen Behan, who was then a nurse, in a pub while he was on holiday in Bettystown, Ireland…
Meadows: Everyone mentioned Helen – ‘You’ve got to meet Helen’ – and I was kind of like, ‘Who is this Helen?’ She came in and it was a mental night because there was a guy who pinched about 15 ladies’ purses and was hiding them all in the cistern. It was a night for the ages.
I met her at the bar, and I was like, ‘Your reputation precedes you, madam,’ and we had a great chat. Me and Jack were writing a scene for This is England ’88 maybe a year later, and I thought, ‘What if Lol goes to see a district nurse to talk about how unwell she’s feeling?’ And I thought, ‘God, I feel like I know a nurse who’s an actress.’ Helen had told me she was a nurse – that was good enough for me. I told the team and, when we were writing, they rang Helen.

Helen Behan: It was a mental night. It’s such a small village, and superstar directors don’t often walk in the door of your local, so I saw a chance and I took it.
When eventually they did call [about This is England ’88], I was leaping up and down and screaming, then coming back [to the phone] and going, ‘Yes, that sounds very nice.’ Because of people like Shane, some working-class people will have a shot because you’re seen and you’re heard by people like him. [Meeting Meadows] was the turning point in my life.

Helen Behan plays Anna, Joseph’s long-lost sister

Meadows is keen to champion new and underrepresented talent…
Meadows: In lockdown, I’ve worked with a few groups [focusing on getting underrepresented talent into work], and Bafta Elevate most recently, and it blew my mind how much talent is out there from places people don’t normally associate it coming from.
Whether it be that they might not have a classical education or that they’re just from a background that’s severely underrepresented, they just never really get that chance. Things are definitely, definitely looking brighter on that front.

Working class stories need to be told…
Graham: We need to find the writers who can tell these stories. The likes of Jack, Shane, Nickie [Sault, producer] and Mark are trying to help those people get those opportunities. What I love about Shane and Jack’s writing is there’s so much humour as well – because we’re not all miserable bastards!

Graham is happy to be known for playing difficult characters…
Graham: I’m never going to be Mr Darcy, do you know what I mean? For me, it’s just about trying to play those parts and being a part of the stories I used to watch as a kid that made me want to be an actor in the first place – all those great dramas I was brought up watching on telly.
Fortunately enough, the stuff I choose is very social, has a message and it’s kind of political. For me, it’s always been about the truth of the story and the humanity of the character. I find them really interesting to play.

But Joseph in The Virtues is a character particularly full of pain…
Behan: Nobody sits with pain as much as Joseph does. Pain demands to be felt, and it’s that examination of the human condition which we all have or will have in our lives. That’s why people connect with it, that’s why it’s so important, that’s why it’s such an amazing programme.
I love working but nothing will come close to that job, it’s been amazing. It’s a happy day at work, it’s a sad day, you’re crunched up, you’re laughing, you’re crying and it’s been one of the best [jobs] of my life.

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Virtues reality

Stephen Graham gives an award-winning performance as a man facing up to his haunting past in Channel 4 miniseries The Virtues. Shane Meadows, the director known for This Is England, details how his own life experiences inspired the drama.

Best known as the man behind the This Is England film and its trio of TV sequels, Shane Meadows has a well-earned reputation as a writer and director who can deliver an emotional gut punch like no other.

So it should come as no surprise that his new series, The Virtues, promises to be just as powerful and affecting, touching on themes of child abuse, alcoholism, revenge and redemption. The show sees Meadows reunite with This Is England actor Stephen Graham, who goes straight from starring in season five of BBC1 police drama Line of Duty to leading the cast in this Channel 4 miniseries.

Graham plays Joseph, a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon in spectacular fashion when his ex-partner moves to Australia with their young son. Physically and mentally at rock bottom, Joseph withdraws the scant contents of his bank account and boards a ferry to Ireland to confront the truth about his childhood in the care system, a past he had gone to great lengths to bury.

After an arduous trip, he tracks down his long-lost sister Anna (fellow This Is England alum Helen Behan), who, after overcoming her shock and disbelief at being reunited with her brother, lets him stay at the home she shares with husband Michael (Frank Laverty). Taking on work at Michael’s construction company, Joseph is quickly forced to deal with long-repressed trauma when he meets Craigy (Mark O’Halloran), an outsider dogged by troubling rumours who recognises his new colleague.

Shane Meadows clutching his award for The Virtues at Series Mania

Meanwhile, Joseph soon finds himself drawn to Michael’s sister Dinah (Niamh Algar), another character haunted by a deeply held secret.

The drama is given extra gravitas by the fact the story was inspired by traumatic events from Meadows’ own life, something he hints at when discussing the origins of the show, which he co-wrote with This Is England ’86, ’88 and ’90 collaborator Jack Thorne (National Treasure, Kiri).

Admitting the project had been in his head for some time, Meadows explains: “I’d been through something in my childhood that I didn’t realise had happened until I got to about 40. I got to the bottom of this thing that had happened in my life as a kid – I’d had fragmented memories. The sort of acorn, if you like, for Joseph’s journey was born out of what happened to me as a kid.

“When I discovered this thing, I sort of went into a place of trying to track down the people who had done it. I was like Columbo – but not a good Columbo; a sort of Travis Bickle-style Columbo. I was sat with my kids having tea one night and I’d just about tracked down this guy I wanted to find, and I wanted to confront him, basically.

“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. So I decided to ring Jack and talk about making something instead, which was probably far healthier.”

The Virtues stars Stephen Graham as Joseph

Meadows subsequently met up with his frequent collaborator to discuss the disturbing genesis of the story in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of a leisure centre. “I sat in a room with Jack and told him about this thing and said, ‘Ultimately, I don’t want this to be about me; it’s not about me. But I want to create a series where I get a chance to face somebody who wronged me.’ We [ended up] knowing we were going to make something rather than me go off and be naughty.”

Recalling the emotional meeting, Thorne picks up: “It was extraordinary. Just imagine two bald men sobbing. It was a real privilege to be trusted to be part of that – an experience the like of which I’d never had before. From then, it was just about trying to do our best with Shane’s heart.

“It felt very, very important and significant. It was an honour and also a burden, both things at once. You didn’t want to do wrong by this man who’s very important and special to me.”

Lightening the mood for a moment, he adds: “So yeah, that was the writing process – one of fear!”

With such delicate material, a heavyweight cast was always going needed to portray The Virtues’ array of troubled and layered characters. As such, Graham (Boardwalk Empire, Little Boy Blue, Save Me), another of Meadows’ regular collaborators, was the director’s choice for the lead from the beginning. And hearing the actor speak of his admiration for Meadows, it’s instantly clear there was no chance he was going to turn this one down.

Joseph goes off the rails after his ex-wife moves to Australia with their son

“The experience is so overwhelming and it’s from a place of such purity and honesty and joy that, without wanting to sound wanky and pretentious, it’s not acting,” he says of working with the filmmaker. “You embody that character and that situation.

“Every single member of the crew, they’re so emotionally involved. They create this platform to enable you to play. The joy about Shane, without being disrespectful, is I’ve worked with a couple of directors who can be extremely opinionated about what [a performance] is meant to be and what it is, whereas Shane will take an idea and allow anyone to bring something else to the table.

“When you’re working with him, there’s no ‘wrong,’ it’s just looking at things in a different way. With how beautifully he orchestrates it and puts it together, these words just come flying out of your mouth.

“Shane was the first person to really have trust in me and to make me believe in my own ability. People would give their right arm to work with him.”

Both Meadows and Graham highlight the freedom afforded to the dialogue, with actors allowed to deviate from the script when caught up in the emotion of their performance. “There’s no script supervisor saying, ‘Ooh, where does it say that?’” Graham notes. “That doesn’t exist in this situation. It’s such a collaboration.”

On screen, this brings an added layer of realism to the drama as the characters’ lines never feel forced. Recalling a scene in episode one when Joseph talks to his son for the last time before his move to the other side of the world, Meadows says: “If you were writing it all out [not just the dialogue], you’d need something like 150 pages. But like in real life, there’s not that many lines. There are only two or three emotional moments, but they tell you everything.

Niamh Algar as Dinah, another troubled character to whom Joseph is drawn

“Sometimes when you write that on a page, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough information. But the great thing about working with actors like Stephen and the kid in that scene is they’re able to [pick up on] the subtext, and the things that aren’t said are sometimes the things that can push you back in your chair.”

A drama’s score is often key to heightening its emotional moments, and The Virtues seizes this opportunity thanks to music from celebrated British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, whose involvement in the project was seemingly meant to be.

Contrasting the show’s music against This Is England’s very of-the-era soundtrack, Meadows says: “This was always going to be much more cinematic – I knew it had to be a score, rather than a soundtrack. As I was on the cusp of having a word with my agent about approaching PJ Harvey to see if she’d be interested, a letter arrived for me from her, saying she liked my work and would be interested in scoring it. So I got to play it cool in the first meeting!”

The director and musician collaborated on the score in a somewhat unusual manner. “The whole thing was done completely mobile. She read the scripts, she wrote tunes and she sent them to me,” Meadows explains. “She would never put the images on. A lot of times, people will score and they’ll sit there [and write to it], but she just wrote it and sent it to me.

“Sometimes she didn’t know which scenes I was going to use it in. She sent me these incredible soundscapes and they really inspired me, so it wasn’t the traditional thing where I would give her a finished episode and she would then write over the top of it. It was a two-way thing.”

Although the tracks Harvey supplied were intended as demos that could be tweaked according to the final episodes, both agreed they worked perfectly in their original form.

Produced by UK duo Warp Films and Big Arty, with distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, The Virtues launches on UK broadcaster Channel 4 tomorrow night following its world premiere in March at Series Mania, where it won the official competition’s grand prize. Graham was also named best actor.

While viewers will have to wait and see whether Joseph gets a happy ending, the journey to bring this deeply personal story to the screen certainly seems to have been a cathartic experience for Meadows.

“I first spoke to Stephen about this part I don’t know how many years ago. I kind of knew it was coming but I didn’t quite know the reason why,” he says, adding that it “didn’t come to fruition” until his aforementioned realisation of childhood trauma. “This Is England and The Virtues were the two that I knew I had to get out the door before I went crackers.”

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