Vice grip: ‘The Virtues’

By Martin McKenzie-Murray

Shane Meadows’ astonishing series stems from a late reckoning with his own childhood abuse

I think I’ve now seen the screen’s greatest monster. It’s not Ridley Scott’s Alien, or any of Cronenberg’s grotesqueries. It’s not King Kong or Godzilla. It’s the large bottle of cider that Stephen Graham’s Joe anxiously holds on a park bench in Shane Meadows’ drama The Virtues.

The scene occurs at the end of the first episode, and is as powerful as it is for what’s gone before: Joe’s strained, laconic acceptance of his ex-partner and young son’s imminent move to Australia; his subsequent fall from the wagon; his waking in a state of abasement and shame.

The episode’s unsentimental realism is driven by Graham’s astonishing performance, so convincing in its embodiment of trauma that I’ve wondered the psychic cost to the actor. Perhaps most astonishing is the episode’s second act, when Joe arrives alone at a pub, but quickly ingratiates himself with strangers with drinks he can’t afford. Joe’s avuncular charm is desperate and volatile, and he must know that the relationships it breeds are for one night only – which is fine, because it’s oblivion he seeks, not intimacy. With fleeting friends, he sings, sculls and snorts lines in the toilet, before he’s shepherded, staggering, from the boozer.  

Later he wakes on his flat’s floor, bloodied and covered in vomit, having missed a scheduled call with his son in the airport departure lounge. We suspect that, despite Joe’s obvious tenderness towards his son, this is just the latest in many broken promises. When he finally does take his son’s call, he explains that he’s been in hospital after a fall. Meadows understands the cascading shames of addiction – the shame of the behaviour, then the shame of the lies enlisted to conceal it.

If little, plot-wise, happens in episode one – there’s a quiet dinner, a dramatic bender, a ferry ticket bought – then much is suggested: that Joe’s relationship has broken beneath the weight of his drinking and fickleness; and grainy flashbacks, which serve less as explication for the viewer and more as a representation of the splinters of intrusive memory, suggest a history of sexual abuse.

And so, the park bench and the cider. Savagely caught between his desire for the bottle and his shame, Joe’s mere twisting of the cap is dramatically weighted, transgressive and filthy. He hesitates. He looks over at a nearby father pushing his daughter on a swing – and his self-loathing is magnified in their image.

This profound reckoning – between oblivion and recovery, between surrender and resistance – happens invisibly even to those just metres away. A biblical concentration of suffering writhes, anonymously, on a park bench in Sheffield.

The Virtues is some of the best television I’ve ever seen, and it derived from its director’s late reckoning with his own childhood abuse. Assaulted by teenage strangers during a bizarrely stressful period – Meadows’ father had just been wrongly accused of murder – he successfully repressed the incident. But every five years or so, throughout adulthood, he experienced acute periods of depression and anxiety attacks.

In 2017, he was diagnosed with PTSD and underwent Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy. It painfully clarified memories – Meadows “stormed out” of early sessions – before he could own them and the feelings they generated. “[The show] was a chance for me to create a safe space, to face my abuser,” he told The Guardian in 2019. “All I wanted was to be able to sit down with this guy, via Stephen Graham. I’ve always been honest about where my stories come from, how personal they are. It would obviously have been easier for me not to talk about this one, but I’m not making an exception. I’m not scared or ashamed any more. Plenty of people have been through far worse and they’ve told their stories. What happened to me is the reason the series exists.”

The Virtues is just four episodes long, and for the first three you don’t much “see” the writing – the story is slow, natural and the dialogue semi-improvised. By the final episode, though, a symmetry emerges between Joe and another character’s storyline. You can “see” the plotting. A fine line exists between elegance and artfulness, but so poignantly and patiently observed are the characters that my faith survived the neat, but unsubtle structuring – and the parallel arcs that emerge from it are overwhelmingly dramatic.

The self-consciously brilliant stylist Martin Amis once said that: “An awful lot of modern writing seems to me to be a depressed use of language. Once, I called it ‘vow-of-poverty prose.’ No, give me the king in his countinghouse. Give me Updike.”

I watched The Virtues not long after I had finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel Klara and the Sun, told from the perspective of a domestic robot – an Artificial Friend – on whom artificial intelligence has bestowed awesome powers of observation, but whose grasp of the pained contradictions of human motivation remain limited, though perhaps no more than those observed.

Ishiguro is unusual in being a first-class author who writes almost exclusively in first person, and Klara and the Sun resembles his most famous book, The Remains of the Day, for the touching unreliability of the narration.

And its plainness. In writing from the perspective of the naive, repressed and guilty, Ishiguro waives the bright and lavish expression so beloved by Amis – and finds something much deeper.

Similarly, Meadows has created something uncommonly touching by his restraint. In The Virtues, there are depths to inarticulacy – and to the things never said.  

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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