In this game, it’s rare that an interview is truly harrowing. But when Miranda Sawyer spoke to Shane Meadows about his new Channel 4 series The Virtues, I don’t think anyone involved – except maybe Meadows – could have anticipated the dark places upon which their conversation would touch. What was abundantly clear from that interview is that Meadows knows deep psychological pain, the kind that leaves a scar on your soul. We might have already been able to deduce that from films such as Dead Man’s Shoes and This Is England, but his blunt description of the childhood sexual abuse he suffered casts a new light on almost his entire body of work.
Watching the first episode of The Virtues with Meadows’ interview in mind amplifies a difficult hour of television into something that claws at your heart and burrows into your brain. You’ll have to excuse the suggestion of hyperbole if I call it the best hour of television I can remember watching. There have been shows I’ve enjoyed more, but nothing that felt so visceral and unbearably real.
The Virtues, directed by Meadows and co-written with Jack Thorne, begins with Stephen Graham returning from work to his apartment. He gets ready and walks to a suburban house where he’s warmly welcomed by a couple and their son. As dinner progresses, it becomes apparent that there’s a complicated history here. Graham’s Joseph is on the outside of a family he helped to create: the woman his ex-wife, the boy his son, the man his replacement. They’re emigrating to Australia and it’s clear that this is just another way that life has left Joseph behind.
Pushed to the brink by a painful goodbye with his son (I honestly thought my heart would implode when he suggested that his son call his step-dad ‘Dad’ from now on), Joseph sails off the wagon with a punishing drinking binge. Film and TV generally struggle to convey the abhorrent emptiness and loneliness of a compulsive binge, but Meadows captures every detail of Graham’s descent with unflinching accuracy. Every stain on the pub carpet, every slurring reveller, the barman who walks a line between chummy and threatening, it all feels incredibly real. You can practically smell the vomit stuck to his chest the next morning and feel every dagger behind his eyes.
This season premiere sets Joseph up as a tower always teetering towards collapse. His aggressive enthusiasm during his drinking binge feels like it could switch to plain aggression at any moment. But there’s something else underneath, and The Virtues could verge on being too painful to watch, were it not for Stephen Graham. It’s no exaggeration to say he deserves every award out there and every plaudit in the English language for how subtly he conveys the pain that outweighs Joseph’s best intentions, particularly as he tries to stop himself from drinking a three-litre bottle of rot gut grog in a playground. Meadows throws in flashes of a previous life, but not enough to piece together into a whole picture. Just enough to suggest an awful, undigested trauma.
The episode ends with Joseph en route to Belfast. We can only imagine the pain he’ll face there, but already you fear for him. The journey feels arduous before it’s even begun, but Meadows, Thorne and Graham have made it clear that this is a long, hard road worth taking.
The Virtues is now streaming on All 4. New episodes are on Channel 4 every Wednesday at 9pm