The Gallows Pole: 'Grace is feisty but capable, a million miles away from Daisy in Downton Abbey', says West Yorkshire actress starring in TV drama about Cragg Vale Coiners
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The Bradford-born star, who plays Grace Hartley – the partner of notorious counterfeiters gang ringleader ‘King’ David Hartley (Michael Socha) – in the upper Calder Valley-set series, The Gallows Pole, said it had been nice to be back home in West Yorkshire and working with director Shane Meadows to bring the ‘outspoken and capable’ female character to life.
It’s a far cry from Sophie’s role as Daisy the kitchen maid in all six series of the hit show Downton Abbey.
“When I first met Shane, he spoke about how it was important to him to bring the female characters more into the story – and I think just by giving those women space they came to the fore and became integral to the whole thing, especially in getting the community on side,” she said.
“Less is known about Grace than David and she doesn’t really appear in the novel (Gallows Pole), but there is no way she wasn’t involved in what the coiners were doing – she definitely wasn’t just in the background.”
The character of Grace is feisty, outspoken and capable – she is described by Hartley at one point as “mouthy but wise” – and a million miles away from Daisy in Downton Abbey.
“Yes, they are quite different. I absolutely loved playing Daisy and I learnt so much while I was playing her but I really relished the prospect of coming to this new character, showing a different side to myself and what I can do.”
The legend of the Coiners, previously little known outside Calderdale, was brought to wider public attention by Calder Valley writer Ben Myers’ award-winning 2017 novel The Gallows Pole which inspired the new three-part BBC series.
It is a Robin Hood-style story of wealth redistribution in that the counterfeiters gang, led by David Hartley, collected coins, clipped them, made new coins out of the clippings and then gave them to members of their community, all of whom were in dire need.
The venture became one of the biggest frauds in British criminal history, but it was born out of desperation not greed.
The group comprised destitute weavers and farm workers whose lives and livelihoods were adversely affected by the beginnings of industrialisation in the West Riding of Yorkshire as formerly booming cottage industries were being overtaken by the unstoppable march of the Industrial Revolution.
Directed by filmmaker and screenwriter Meadows, best known for his 2006 film This Is England and its TV sequels, he has effectively created a kind of prequel to Myers’ book, exploring how and why Hartley and his associates became counterfeiters.
In preparation for filming the series, the actors were brought together to workshop their roles, building up trust and working on their back stories. Improvisation was a key part of the process and much of the dialogue in the finished product is improvised.
“We did a lot of work together in the months before being on set,” said Sophie.
“The whole of our audition process was improv and we also did walks together, walking the places our characters would have walked. It is a really good way of working because when you come to the set it’s not hard because you have already built those relationships and bonds.”
The cast includes an ensemble of first-time local actors.
Sophie said she found them inspiring and said that their presence “upped everyone’s game”.
“I loved working with all the first-timers, it was so exciting,” she said.
“It is something that Shane is passionate about – giving people a chance. He is so good at finding people who have this spark.
"His way of working definitely creates a strong bond and a real connection, because we are all looking after each other.”
Sophie was just 12 when she secured her first professional role in the West End musical The Goodbye Girl in 1997, although it all happened almost by accident.
“I only started doing drama because my parents decided I needed a hobby and I went to a drama club in Bradford called Footsteps. One week when I was there a girl had dropped out of going to an audition in London and the tutors were looking for a replacement to send instead.
"They asked me if I could sing and do an American accent, and I said yes. Then I went home and said to my dad ‘we are going to London this weekend’. It certainly wasn’t something I had planned or was looking for but we went down to the Palladium – and I got the job. Then I fell in love with acting and decided I wanted to do it professionally.”
Having studied drama at university and acting at the Manchester School of Acting, her career began in earnest in 2007 with early roles in Emmerdale, Waterloo Road and the science fiction drama Survivors before being cast in Downton Abbey in 2010.
Since then, she has worked steadily on television, stage and film including the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit; Jez Butterworth’s hit play Jerusalem and in the 2015 movie Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Working with Meadows and the ensemble of The Gallows Pole, though, has clearly been a highlight of her career so far.
“I loved working with Shane – it was so interesting,” she said.
“We had lots of historical experts talking to us about the time period and learnt about the social history of the area and I found it really useful to be there walking through those fields and up those hills. We got to do all this research but we also had a lot of freedom to be instinctive – and that’s the way I love to work.”
The series was filmed entirely on location in characterful buildings of the period, in and around the actual places where the real-life events took place including the rural south Pennines and places like Heptonstall.
“Filming on location felt important,” said Sophie.
“Being in the dirt and looking out at those beautiful, imposing, unforgiving landscapes. And the way we were filming meant we could do stuff for real – there was a funeral and burial scene on the hills and we carried the coffin up there all in real time and we even dug the grave together. We were filming last summer but we had all weathers – I remember taking sun cream and thermals.”
Now based in London, the West Yorkshire actress enjoyed spending time back in her home county.
“It was so nice being back in Yorkshire,” she said. “And being close to my family was really fun. It was lovely to experience living in Halifax while we were filming – we were staying right near the Piece Hall – and I loved discovering all these new places.”
Despite the fact that The Gallows Pole is a story set in the 18th century, with the current cost of living crisis it is one that has 21st century resonances.
“I don’t think that actually occurred to us when we were filming it but as we were watching the preview, we could see the parallels,” she said.
“Those people were thriving before the beginnings of industrialisation, then they lost everything. We wanted to show what motivated them to do what they did and the terrible poverty that had befallen them. A lot of people have said to us that it feels very timely.”