TV: The Virtues – Shane Meadows

This Is Life 2019

That rushing, crashing snap when everything starts to sound like you are being witch tested, emotively bound to something, a memory, an event, a singular moment, forcing you under dark cold invisible water, your mind starts to drown in the relentless waves of incomprehension, emotions, panic, gasping, despair and isolation. You might have read or heard about this mind whirlpool happening to others, but now statue still, your very fabric of sense and being erodes with the rivers of tears that etch your face, washing away the landscape you were once so familiar with, your own identity reduced to the integrity of a sodden sand castle.

There can’t be many folk around who haven’t had a moment, that was a bit of a meltdown, to say the least. I have, I remember it vividly. The causes and intensities are as varied as there are stories and people, it could have been because you didn’t get what you believe you deserved, or it could be because you got something you didn’t deserve.

One such event was the catalyst to the latest drama that Channel 4 is about to tie us all to this week when they broadcast the latest work ‘The Virtues’ by one of the greatest directors the UK has ever produced, Shane Meadows.
It’s a four-part series primarily staring Meadow’s regular Stephen Graham, who of course is rightfully receiving recognition for well, EVERYTHING he does, most recently in ‘The Line of Duty’ as DS John Corbett and soon to be Anthony Provenzano in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming movie ‘The Irishman’. ‘The Virtues’ is a very different beast though, for all concerned. Co-written by another Meadow’s regular Jack Thorne from the ‘This Is England’ series, this is the most powerful and the most personal work Shane as ever done, and it shows in every single frame.

Joseph (Graham) is a pretty ordinary guy, middle-aged, jobbing as a painter/decorator, the graft of life has taken its toil. Whatever he may has dreamed or aspired to as a kid, it’s certainly not where he finds himself now. But in reality not every kid actually gets to have dreams, just surviving on a daily basis was far more important.

Decades have been repeatedly painted over, layers of drinking, drugs, failed relationships, all coming to a blistered head with the recent development of his ex deciding to move out of the country for a fresh start with her new partner, and also taking Joesph’s son Shea. This is one crack that can’t be painted over, and Joseph literally starts to fall apart before our very eyes.
It was only a few minutes into the screening of the first episode that I was already shredded. You’re looking at Joseph, but to the greater extent, you  see yourself, regardless of your set up, life, successes, losses. If you have basic humanity empathy, all you want to do is jump into the screen to try to help him, tell him he will be okay, as his life is demolished, all around him
There are so many things that are never thought to us in school, or things that you have to get a license for before using, For some peculiar reason we are never really thought how to function as a mere human, nor how to drive the thing that is our mind. So when in moments of crisis we are prone to get involved with somewhat destructive vices, which of course in turn fuel the incapacity to function at all.

Joesph is spectacular at not functioning, he is brutally human. His heart is huge, which seemingly has just made it an easier target to stab. He hoovers up drink and drugs like there is no tomorrow, as, despite the jovial japes and free rounds he dishes out to new transient mates for life, he doesn’t want a tomorrow, he just tries to fill the cracks with cocaine and let the windows of life sparkle with all you can drown alcohol.

We’ve all known, or have been this person, no matter how brief the chaos, and what Graham portrays is like nothing he nor Meadows/Thorne have achieved before.

Flashbacks start to happen to Joseph, images and glimpses of events that happened when he was a kid. The fact that they are seemingly triggered, or more importantly unleashed by the trauma he is currently experiencing only exacerbate the frenzy, the spiral, the collapse. In a last glimmer of hope, the remnants of an internal safety net, the final shredded threads, he follows them like Theseus in the Labyrinth to track down and face, to slay his own monster, his own Minotaur, whatever form it may take.

That Labyrinth is Ireland, where he lived as a young kid, and as we heart-poundingly follow him, around every corner, we know we are getting closer to the monster’s layer, were trauma no longer sleeps.
The series is four episodes, two of which I was fortunate enough to see. By the end of episode two the story has gotten to a certain point of the maze, but you are still somewhat in the dark as Joesph is, none of which I’m going to say here.

However, in no uncertain terms, The Virtues is INCREDIBLE, on every single level. Brutally human, raw, beautiful, tender, honest, harsh, funny, real, winding, exhilarating, vibrant, dark and in the most fulfilling way possible, probably the greatest things every single person involved has ever done. High praise indeed, but as the story emerged from an event of abuse that Shane actually experienced himself as a young kid, there is zero punches being pulled, no token gestures, this is leagues beyond make-believe, or mere drama.

This is Shane as he’s never written before, understandably enormously intimate, fragile. The directing brilliantly bursting into whole new territories, as if striving for answers and solutions to what we are seeing, all supported by a stunning cast, who it would be more appropriate to call his friends such is the closeness of the creative team and the rehearsal process that prepared them all to get to such heights and depths. It’s more often what isn’t being said than what is, that packs the punches. But then the words come, and you are knocked out flat. Oh, and let’s not forget the fantastic score by PJ Harvey who had emailed Shane hoping that she could work with him at some stage.

There is a darkness at its core, but it is completely surrounded by light, love, empathy, hope and an admiration of the ordinary folk who scale mountains on a daily basis, just to exist. They may not win awards, be hailed in a destructive shallow press, but these are the genuine heroes. The ones who despite what is going on in their lives, always have a moment of sincerity for others, a spare few minutes to listen, a helping smile, true virtues.

Shane has taken a moment of trauma and turned it into a thing of profound beauty. And that’s what true success looks like, to live, to heal, to forgive, to help.

‘The Virtues’ directed by Shane Meadows starts on Channel 4 15 May 9pm.

Steve Clarke

Born in Celtic lands, nurtured in art college, trained by the BBC, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and released onto the battlefront of all things interesting/inspiring/good vibes... people, movies, music, clubbing, revolution, gigs, festivals, books, art, theatre, painting and trying to find letters on keyboards in the name of flushthefashion. Making sure it's not quite on the western front... and beyond.