Cinematographer Danny Cohen tells DQ about reuniting with director Shane Meadows for the BBC’s naturalistic historical drama The Gallows Pole, filming on the Yorkshire moors and the importance of quad bikes.
The sound of dark, foreboding strings accompanies images of the suitably misty, rugged Yorkshire moors in the eerily atmospheric opening to director Shane Meadows’ first ever period drama, The Gallows Pole.
The series transports viewers back to 1760s England, where David Hartley (Michael Socha) returns home to the hills of the Calder Valley, at a time when the country is on the brink of industrial revolution and traditional skilled workers are seeing their fortunes dramatically decline. Hartley assembles a gang of weavers and land-workers to embark upon a revolutionary criminal enterprise that will capsize the economy and become the biggest fraud in British history.
Based on the book by Benjamin Myers, the three-part miniseries fictionalises the remarkable true story of the rise of Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners, with the ambition to get viewers to understand why they did what they did and to fall in love with these characters along the way.
Produced by Element Pictures in association with Big Arty for the BBC, The Gallows Pole reunites Meadows with cinematographer Danny Cohen – or as the olde-world credits would describe him, Guardian of the Travelling Lamp. They previously collaborated on feature films Dead Man’s Shoes and This is England, as well as the latter’s small-screen sequels This England ‘86 and ’88.
Fortuitously, Cohen had read Myers’ book some years earlier, so when Meadows asked if he might be interested in joining the project, he was immediately on board. “It was too good to miss from my point of view,” he tells DQ. “The Gallows Pole was an amazing experience because it’s an extraordinary book, and working with Shane to put that together was great. Everybody really enjoyed it. It was a great thing to do.”
Cohen describes The Gallows Pole as a drama set in the real world, but one that “slides around” a lot while telling a story that is more than the Robin Hood tale it might appear from its brief synopsis.
“Reading the book, I remember thinking, weirdly, what Hartley was up to was essentially a very early form of quantitative easing, which I thought was really funny,” he says. “Doing what they did, they basically threatened the Bank of England, and the authorities stamped down on it and came down on them like a ton of bricks. I was aware of all that stuff, so it was funny then that Shane chose it as his next project.”
Work began with “a few chats,” before their discussions centred on one of the key considerations behind the series – where it would be shot. Recces and location scouting then began, but because it is a historical drama, the creative team were keen to avoid building any sets and instead wanted to find new locations to feature on screen.
Meadows later came across the house that became one of the show’s main locations, though at that time it was “a fallen-down ruin,” Cohen recalls. “So part of the production design was to stick that back together and make as much use of it as possible.
“Then we did shoot it up near Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd, that area of Yorkshire. We found a lot of stuff quite local to the house, which made it work logistically so you’re not eating into your day with lots of travel time. It was a way of working where you’re trying to find amazing locations but ones that practically work as well. It’s that weird combination of creativity but also reality, trying to make those two interweave. As the cinematographer, you’re always trying to make the day and take each day as it comes along, but you want to push it and give it the most interesting look you can.”
From the outset, the series has a notably naturalistic tone, exemplified by the characters’ relaxed, conversational speaking style, almost as if it were improvised. In fact, that’s not far from the truth, with up to five cameras being used simultaneously to capture the action.
“It’s a weird one because Shane is focused on the story and the acting, and getting the most out of the performers that he can. He’s always pushing that,” says Cohen. “So as much as we could, we shot with multiple cameras because, perfectly logically, you don’t want to miss anything and you want to be able to intercut between conversations that you don’t have to repeat. With the house stuff and the pub stuff, we’d literally get as many cameras in as we could. It’s almost like a play in that sense that he just wanted the reality of it. As they get into the scene and things change, you want all of that to be useable.”
Shooting more traditionally, with one or two cameras filming in one direction before turning them around and shooting the reverse, would have meant locking the script down so the dialogue would be the same in each take.
“But Shane really enjoys the fact he never quite knows where things are going to go,” Cohen notes. “The actors have an idea of the script but he gives them a lot of freedom, so he’s capturing that and the ease of that, which is really important.”
Alongside Socha and a number of first-time actors, the cast of The Gallows Pole includes Sophie McShera, Thomas Turgoose, Yusra Warsama, Anthony Welsh, Samuel Edward-Cook, Joe Sproulle, with Adam Fogerty, Nicole Barber-Lane, Fine Time Fontayne and Ralph Ineson.
Although the actors were given the room not to stick entirely to the script, Meadows made sure they knew what was expected of them through a series of workshops he led before production began, with the aim of getting under the skin of the characters and the world around them.
“I remember months before we started shooting, we got historical advisors to give lectures on language, what people would actually say, and all sorts of stuff where they [the actors] could cherry-pick the interesting bits. And because it became familiar to them, they could use that – so if they wanted to say something [off-script], it was historically accurate,” Cohen says. “That’s what a lot of the fun is. It’s accurate to a degree, but it isn’t hardcore. So then there’s a lot of modern stuff that you just accept, which in a weird way makes it much more understandable.”
When multiple cameras were in use, Cohen could be found with an iPad or a monitor relaying images from every camera in use, while he would also often use headsets to be able to communicate with the camera operators to make sure they could capture what was needed and avoid repeating any shots.
“Then as you get into a project, people become aware of what’s working and what ticks the boxes,” he says. “We had a really great camera crew and you’re all working on instinct, which is great. You’re not being told what to do. Shane’s in the next room with the monitor with all the images, and he definitely knows what he wants to get. If we end up doing another take, he’ll say maybe do this or do that. It’s quite organic but it does work really nicely. I don’t think anyone else works the way Shane works; he’s always pushing the envelope and doing something people haven’t seen before, which is brilliant.”
To help recreate the 18th century, Cohen shot with a variety of old lenses that had been rehoused to fit modern digital cameras, while a LUT (look-up table) was constructed to ensure each camera captured the same colour profiles, providing a consistent look across all the footage.
“You also take into consideration the colours of the costumes and hair and make-up, the colours of the landscape, the buildings and the colours of the stone,” he explains. “The LUT affects everything in the image – the grass, the sky – so you’re trying to create a look that feels period but in a way that isn’t too specific.
“I remember Shane sending me a whole file of photos he’d taken really early on of walks he’d done in and around Hebden Bridge. He put them into Photoshop and put filters on them, and I could see the direction he wanted and the feel he was after.”
The biggest difficulty facing Cohen on The Gallows Pole, which is distributed by A24, had nothing to do with the actual camerawork, however. Instead, it was getting the cameras to the right locations in the first place – a task complicated by the frequent need to traverse steep hills, marshes and bogs across the undulating Yorkshire countryside.
“Logistically, it was a bit of a challenge but we ended up having a few quad bikes that really helped people to lump stuff around,” Cohen says. “It wasn’t like getting off a unit minibus and walking down a street and setting up a tripod. It was climbing up some ridiculous hill. For the burial of the dad [Hartley’s father in episode one] on a really steep hill under a tree, trying to get the cameras up to there, it was really inaccessible. It was all paths, there was no tarmac or anything, so we were pushing stuff on carts to get anywhere near where we wanted to be.”
But Cohen and the rest of the crew wouldn’t be deterred, and the results speak for themselves. “That’s the fun of it,” he jokes. “It’s definitely a challenge, but I remember when I first saw a cut of the burial. Shane ditched all the dialogue and just put music over the images and it really worked. It was phenomenal.”
Cohen’s work with Meadows on The Gallows Pole and This is England is among a number of period and historical projects the cinematographer has filmed. Other notable credits include features Les Misérables, The King’s Speech, Victoria & Abdul, Florence Foster Jenkins and The Danish Girl, plus TV series A Very English Scandal.
“You end up doing whatever comes your way,” he says, with the caveat that he’s keen to avoid projects that are too similar or replicate the same time period or style of filmmaking. However, he also points out that making dramas from any period have similar demands. “If you think about This is England, when we shot it, that was a period drama because it was set in 1983, but we shot it in 2005-ish, so anything in front of the camera has got to be designed in the same way as The Gallows Pole, which is set in the 1700s.
“Shooting a film set in 1983, the cars have got to be correct or the street furniture’s got to match the period so nothing sticks out, which is exactly the same as what you’re doing on The Gallows Pole. It’s just deeper back in time.”
As well as his film work, Cohen’s recent television projects include the upcoming fourth season of Apple TV+ drama Slow Horses. And with viewers increasingly expecting cinematic visuals on the small screen, Cohen says advancements in technology mean it is now possible to do more and more with the camera in television.
“But the thing is to use technology to tell the story, so you’re using it as opposed to being led by the technology,” he says. “That’s one of the things that’s changing. Essentially, there’s nothing you can’t do anymore, but you’ve got to use what’s there in a way that really pushes the narrative.”
For example, when it came to using equipment such as drones on The Gallows Pole, “it didn’t fit or feel right,” he continues. “In that instance, it takes you out of the story. If we ended up putting up a camera in the sky that looked down on them, it would take you out of the story. I’m pretty sure we didn’t use drones at all. It feels like it was really about being with all the characters. With any of the landscapes, you could have easily said, ‘OK, let’s put a drone up and do a fancy-pants shot that encapsulates what they’re doing and puts them in the landscape,’ but it just feels like that was the wrong perspective for that story.”
As for his work on Slow Horses – Cohen also shot season one – “it’s completely different” from The Gallows Pole, he says. “What was interesting about that is they just gave us a lot of freedom. We weren’t put in a box and told, ‘This is what we’re after.’ We had a lot of freedom over the look of it.
“The biggest kick was to help design the look, because it’s anti-slick tv. It looks quite slimy, quite gungy, so it’s creating that world and putting Gary Oldman and his cronies in that world, which is a lot of fun. It was London at night, which always looks amazing, so it’s just about taking that and making the most of that opportunity.”