Shane Meadows is one of the greatest living British directors, but what’s he like to work with? We speak to long-time Shane Meadows collaborators, including Vicky McClure and Thomas Turgoose, about the iconic filmmaker.
Diving into the greats is something I love. Selfishly, people have particularly inspired me, chatting to people who share my love for them, either from afar or through working with them on set. So, I’m starting with Staffordshire-born legend Shane Meadows.
I’ll never forget the night I was introduced to his work. Around 2005, my boyfriend suggested we watch Dead Man’s Shoes. He stuck the disc in the player.
To say that the film floored me is an understatement. I was sucked headfirst into Shane’s world from the start, forgetting it wasn’t real life within minutes. Paddy Considine’s performance as the vengeance-fuelled Richard is jaw-dropping and reminded me of a darker part of myself I didn’t dare dream to indulge. And with his brother Anthony alongside, played by the incredible Toby Kebbell, the pair were mesmerising.
Horrific scenes of violence came and went, laughter, tension, and relief passed through me, and then – bam!
I’ll refrain from explaining what the bam is, but I will say that as the credits rolled, I was in uncontrollable fits of tears. The next day, I woke up feeling emotionally bruised yet profoundly inspired.
Instead of feeling like I never wanted to hear Shane’s name, or the film ever mentioned to me again, I needed to find out everything about him. But enough of the arse-kissery from me. I’ll move on to other brilliant humans who share my love of his work…
I’ll never forget a moment when Shane had to keep getting moved further and further away from where we were filming as he couldn’t stop laughing at a scene with Flip and Higgy turning up on their mopeds. I thought, ‘surely he can’t get told off and asked to move – but he did!
Actress and Shane Meadows collaborator
Actor and Shane Meadows collaborator
You’ve worked with Shane continuously for a massive chunk of your life. Do you have any memories that stand out from your early days on set with him?
My earliest memories are of when I asked him for money to audition. He rang and said, ‘Will you come and do some improvisation sessions?’, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll meet Shane; yeah, I want money.
I’m currently working with Shane [on The Gallows Pole]. It’s the biggest thing to happen since This Is England. And thinking back, I actually charged him for my time.
The way Shane works is a huge treat, but also the way he is as a person. Shane was the first person I rang when my mum passed away. He surprised me by dedicating This Is England to her. At the end, it says, ‘With loving memory of Sharon Turgoose’. These little gestures change lives in a way people will be grateful for forever.
Shane and Stephen [Graham] made my mum a promise at the wrap party just before she passed away. They said, ‘we’re not just going to let Tommo go back to his old ways. We’ll guide and look after him.’ And that’s precisely what they’ve done.
Do you think you had any idea that This Is England would become such a cult phenomenon?
I didn’t know what it was. When we were doing the film, I was like, ‘When do I get paid?’. I didn’t understand what was going on. But I knew from the day of meeting Shane and everyone involved that they would be in my life forever.
You were fantastic in Looted. Do you bring any techniques you’ve used with Shane onto other sets?
The more successful Shane has become, the more directors have adopted his work style. Rehearsal time is super important, and if you’re improvising, you have to know your and everybody else’s character inside out. It’s like, ‘I know my character, but I can’t just sit and talk about myself.’
What is it like working with Shane now? Has anything changed in your approach?
It has changed because I care more now. With This Is England, we’ve all got such a special bond where you can put a camera on, and you’ll have an episode. The Gallows Pole is different. There’s a bunch of first-time actors in there. We’re like, ‘Oh shit; we’ve got to be responsible.’
Why do you think Shane’s work resonates with people so much?
I think the casting is a huge part. Shane finds people that have been through a lot. With actors like Daniel Radcliffe, or Tom Holland, they’re great at what they do and have star quality.
But the people that Shane finds are people you’ll find on estates or in rough pubs drinking Carling. Real people. They’ve seen shit—people who can tell a story with their faces without saying anything.
It’s so relatable. It’s so real. In a way, it feels like he would be making these films if we were watching them or not. And there’s a beautiful authenticity there. And that’s a wonderful thing.
Podcaster and actor
Actress and Shane Meadows collaborator
How did your part in A Room For Romeo Brass in 1999 come to you?
It was pretty surreal. I was only 15, and Shane came down to the TV workshop in Nottingham with Paddy Considine to audition me for the part of Nadine. I didn’t think I’d be old enough.
It’s been a joy to hear how you actors were brought together in Shane’s world via This is England. Do you have any memories that stand out?
The things that stand out to me are the people. We call ourselves a ‘dysfunctional family’. The day we all went and had our haircuts was a big day. I had an office job and went back there the next day with a skinhead. It was a surreal time but so liberating, and it was all filmed. I think it’s on YouTube.
Your work and performances are so beautifully truthful. Is it ever hard to shake off those heavier-hitting scenes?
Yeah, definitely. In This is England when [McClure’s character] Lol is going through a dark time. Shane is one of my best friends, so I’m always in very good hands. I wasn’t going through what Lol was, but I knew many people would’ve experienced these things in real life. It was all improvised, and sometimes you don’t know what’s coming.
Shane often gives notes to people without you knowing, so there’s an opportunity for us all to react to the truth there. And often, when we cut, there’s a moment of embrace, and we can all hug. We were constantly checking in on each other. It all comes down to trust.
Why do you think Shane’s work resonates strongly with people, especially in Britain?
I think it all boils down to being able to relate. Shane allows people to collaborate and have freedom, and therefore you create something unique. TV has many different types of shows, and Shane made his own. He creates moments you can only do if you have confidence in your actors and the people around you and you let them fly.
The first thing I noticed about Shane Meadows’s work was that we were finally and recognisably seeing working-class people onscreen. And I know he’s a Northern director, but there were mixed-race actors in there, and it just felt like there was finally some representation.
Actor and Shane Meadows collaborator
What memories stand out from your early days working with Shane?
I didn’t have a clue about the industry. I remember giving my coat to a camera assistant. I didn’t understand that people in film crews were paying their mortgages. I’ve worked on a couple of other sets that were more strict, but on Shane’s, the people were down to earth. It was all really sweet. Everybody on This Is England is so fucking close.
Were you guys prepared for how massive This Is England became?
To be honest, I didn’t care. When Shane rang me up to do the series, I was buzzing because I wasn’t doing owt. And I loved the people involved, but when I did [This Is England] ’86, it was a madhouse. It was like being on holiday. Just a bunch of wrong ‘uns having fun. But by ’90, it got real. We’re all still the same, but we had bills to pay and careers to maintain.
Was it strange going onto other film sets that didn’t feel the same? Were you able to adapt to other directors and how they worked?
I did struggle sometimes with set etiquette. There was an understanding [with This Is England] that we had licence to behave how we wanted. It added to what was on screen. But you don’t have the same relationships when you do other jobs. I’ve always fucked about and tried to make sets as fun as possible.
Tom said it was like a summer holiday.
Yeah. You were taken out of the real world, which was sometimes quite shit for me. You’d come into this bubble, working with actors that were fucking banging. You’re not on set working with someone who has a big ego and who thinks he’s the bollocks.
Do you feel more pressure now you’ve grown up? When you started working on this new one, did you feel nervous because this wasn’t This Is England?
Massive pressure. I want it to be as good as it can be. I don’t want to let Shane down. It’s probably the biggest deal of my life in terms of career. And it’s all improv, so you think, ‘ah bollocks, why did I say it that way? I wish I’d said it that way’, but you’ve got no control. You’ve got to just fuck it off.
And with Shane, you’ve just gotta trust him.
You do. You’ve gotta go, ‘he’s a fucking genius. He knows exactly what he’s doing.’ With every single thing I’ve seen of Shane’s, there’s something I can relate to or understand. Also, he’s dead good at lulling you into something and then shredding you!
I just got off the phone with Stevie [Stephen Graham] because The Virtues was terrific. I said, ‘How the fuck do you do that, and then just live a normal life.’ And he said, ‘Just ’cause you’ve grafted for a couple of hours, pretending to be somebody else while some other fucker is making you cups of tea, your missus is at home looking after a kid with diarrhoea or ironing’. You can’t take that shit home with you.
Shane has been an essential voice in British cinema for nearly three decades. In contrast to the airbrushed world of Richard Curtis, he shows a side to us that perhaps we wish we could ignore, but as I learnt the long way – resistance was futile.
Comedian, actor, and writer
Actor and frontman of Sleaford Mods
Do you remember the first time you were introduced to his work?
Dead Man’s Shoes and Once Upon A Time In The Midlands, and I’ve watched The Virtues. But it was Dead Man’s Shoes that got me. It put realism in film from the Midlands on the map. Growing up in Nottingham, I felt already familiar with him. He lived in Sneinton, which is just around the corner from where we are.
Could you relate to any of the characters in Dead Man’s Shoes?
All of them, because that’s kind of what it’s like, a bit, around here. The drug thing was very close to me. And male violence is never more than a few doors away. So all these things were familiar.
What do you think it is that makes us want to watch?
I think it’s nice to be familiarised with your life. It’s nice to have that thrown back at you. With Shane Meadows and Ben Wheatley, particularly with the film Kill List, there are parallels as directors/writers. Both have experienced trauma and alienation, and it’s moulded the way they work.
You get to a specific part of your career, and if it turns out that you’re garnering a crowd, you have to play the game a bit, but he’s untouched. He looks like he could flog you a pound of apples on a market stall, and that’s what you want. It’s from a working-class viewpoint, so these things doubly appealed to me. There are so many moments watching [The Virtues] where I thought, ‘how the fuck has he done this?’ It’s like they are real people. The bit that got me was when he fell off the wagon and woke up on the carpet in the morning. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s horrible.
A moment that stuck with me was in the pub when he went crazy, buying everyone drinks, buying gack.
Yeah, that scene is brilliant. The way he talks to the barman, it’s just crisp. It’s exactly like it is and so hard to do.
What is it about Shane’s work that resonates so much with people?
He’s talking about the person on the street. There are stories set in flats and areas that have been forgotten. There’s a big audience out there who are connected to that. The space between the dialogue, it’s almost Pinter-esque. There’s tension. And a lot of it is on stairways, in crap kitchens. I connect with his perception of the world. It’s no secret that it’s based on his trauma. All of these things make it more powerful.
He tells folktales. I think they’re very connected to traditional stories. They’re kind of morality plays. He makes them in a way that is very rooted in English identity and in an authentic way.
Author and podcaster
Actor and Shane Meadows collaborator
What was the audition process like for The Virtues, and how did it bring him to life then?
When I got the call to go and meet Shane in 2017 for the part of Michael, I was so excited and nervous about working with him. When I went into the audition, a mock-up living room was set out for the meeting. We had a long chat, and he asked me to improvise with Helen Behan and Niamh Algar.
He didn’t want much to happen in the improv, just coming home from work, catching up with my family, and having a beer. When you’re asked to improvise, the temptation is to create something interesting and dramatic. This was the opposite.
How was it working with Stephen, Helen and other Shane collaborators?
The first day was terrifying! I’ve done improvising in the past, but never for the camera.
Shane would give us a few guidelines for what he wanted from the scene and then hand it over to us. It’s liberating to be given so much responsibility. He creates a family atmosphere on set and a real sense of teamwork between the cast and crew.
Niamh and I also had a natural connection, a slightly flawed big brother/sister relationship that we could tell was going to have its ups and downs. Stephen was great to improvise with. He was generous in the scenes we had together, and there was a strong sense of equality. I think that’s the magic of working with someone like him under Shane’s direction. You feel like part of the family.
Were you prepared for the incredible response that the series has received?
We were aware that we were involved in something very special. Such a difficult subject matter to tackle, but Stephen was so immersed, and Shane managed to get so much humour from such dark material without weakening the story. It was destined to be a really popular yet challenging show.
I think Shane has a fantastic ability to get honest drama. He uses conversations you’d expect to use off-screen and does so that it deserves to be on screen. And that is a feat.
TV, gaming, and film writer
Actor and Shane Meadows collaborator
When did you first meet Shane Meadows, and how did that first part come about?
I remember going to meet him in Hampstead. He was casting Twenty-Four Seven (1997). I was supposed to be auditioning, and I remember calling my agent, who was like, ‘how did it go?’ and I said, ‘I don’t really know, just spent the afternoon watching these short films which were really good.’
What sort of techniques was he using? Was it different to your experience on other sets?
There was one scene I vividly remember where I had to punch Bob Hoskins, and I couldn’t open the car door because Bob had collapsed. We cut, and Shane said, ‘no, let’s use that, climb out the window. It would be funnier.’ So, we played it as it was.
Do you think the freedom he creates on set contributes to the work feeling so natural on screen?
I think so. We went the whole hog with A Room For Romeo Brass, as that was entirely improvised. I’d spent a couple of weeks up there with me, Shane and Paddy [Considine]. We’d go out and improvise these short films. He said, ‘put the script in the bin. We’re just going to improvise it.’
There’s a scene between me and Paddy where I finally confront him, and Shane said before, ‘look, I don’t care how you two do this. Just do it in a way I’ve never seen before.’ It was in one take, I think. Paddy was fantastic in that.
I re-watched the scene in This Is England, where you play Lenny, the National Front leader. It’s such a frightening and powerful scene. Was it challenging bringing him to life?
I’d been working in the States, so I was jet-lagged. But I came back because Shane had said, ‘can you come to do a day on This Is England? I got off the plane and drove to Nottingham, and he said, ‘I want you to play this National Front guy, and I need you to improvise me a speech tomorrow. I’ve got two cameras; we’ve got all day to shoot it.’
I rocked up on the day, and it was a very young cast, and they were expecting me to be really good. It cut very well in the end, but it was one of the most challenging days I’ve ever had as an actor.
Something is compelling about the scene because your character comes in like a businessman. It’s sinister.
The costume designer has to take credit because when I put that suit on, I thought I looked like a gangster, and she handed me a pair of glasses. That was her call. I thought it would be more chilling to play it like that, rather than someone ranting and raving.
Why do you think Shane’s work touches people so much?
What Shane brings to all his films are light and dark. Even with some of the less likeable characters, there’s a heart to them.
The work of Shane Meadows is available on streaming services, DVD and Blu-ray. Oddly, apart from Dead Man’s Shoes.