It is almost a decade since Shane Meadows’ film This is England was released and his characters — from 12 year old lost boy Shaun to the terrifying National Front supporter Combo — grabbed us by the throat.
The original film was set in 1983 with a backdrop of the Falklands War and Thatcher’s re-election entrenching her reign of destruction. Its bleak setting in a non-specific East Midlands/South Yorkshire town presented a world of limitations and small horizons. The central characters’ identity as skinheads gave them a sense of being part of a culture.
Since then we’ve had two TV sequels, set in 1986 and 1988, which have further explored the characters’ lives. This is England ’90, a four-part series, is set to be the conclusion of their story. Though the film and its sequels have been grim viewing at times, the young actors (many of whom hadn’t acted before) and the characters they’ve created are warm and vulnerable — and we care about them.
Meadows sets the scene with a montage of footage from the time. To a soundtrack of “Madchester” bands the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays we see the Poll Tax riot, the Strangeways prison riot, the first Gulf War, Tory minister John Gummer feeding his daughter a beef burger during the Mad Cow Disease media storm, Gazza in tears at the World Cup and, to the strains of “There She Goes” by The La’s, Thatcher’s resignation.
Though the characters are now all adults, we first see them back at school. Lol runs the school kitchen and her younger sister Kelly works as a dinner lady, and they are providing Gadget, Shaun and Milky with free leftovers. We later meet Woody, Shaun’s mum and other friends and family from the previous instalments.
Where in the first film the friends had a cohesive “Skin” look, there is now a divergence between the older characters and the younger ones, Shaun, Kelly and Gadget. The older ones still wear their regulation polo shirts, Harrington jackets and Doc Martens, while Kelly and Gadge in particular are getting into the Madchester rave scene — baggy jeans and psychedelic hoodies.
But, of course, they are not in Manchester, so being into the “Madchester scene” means having to go to the disco at the town hall where they at least play some of the right music. As they get ready to go out Gadget and Kelly speculate about whether Ian Brown (lead singer of the Stone Roses) would ever come to their town. “Who’s Ian Brown?” asks Lol.
Meadows has crammed a huge amount of time-specific detail into the first episode. As they sit around their flat sucking on a milk bottle bong Gadge and Harvey watch Wrestlemania. Woody discusses global warming and says “wicked”. The school dinners Lol is serving include chocolate cake with mint custard.
He also captures the mood of the time. Thatcher may have been beaten, but she was replaced by John Major and we had another seven years of Tory rule — vicious, corrupt and weak. The despondency of the mid-80s is still palpable in this small town and these young adults are limping along. The rave scene is an attempt to escape and find release.
Shaun broke up with his girlfriend, Smell, at the end of This is England ’88. She is now a fully-fledged Goth and at art school. Shaun, doing well on a drama course last time we saw him, has since dropped out of college and is drifting. He can’t move on from Smell and is distraught to learn she’s met someone else.
Woody is offered a job back at the factory he left to be with Lol. He is a full-time parent to Lol’s two kids while she works full time at the school. As he tells his parents when they encourage him to take the job, “We may look like shit but we’re happy!”
The previous two TV series focused on Woody and Lol’s tumultuous relationship, but this one seems to shift the focus onto the younger characters, Shaun, Gadge and Kelly. Shaun is clearly heading towards a crisis. While this first episode is largely cheerful and funny, dark clouds are gathering. By the end of the episode we’ve already had some Goth versus Madchester violence and some tears.
Presumably the series will take us into 1990’s “Summer of Love” — drug use so far has been limited to cannabis and speed, but ecstasy will surely make an appearance. And anyone who has watched anything by Shane Meadows will know to expect grimness. Will Combo, who took the rap for Lol’s dad’s manslaughter in ’86, return? Will Shaun spiral into self-destruction?
The shadow of Thatcher hangs over Shaun. In the film he was grieving for his father, killed in the Falklands, and in this episode we see him in tears, alone, sat on a war memorial. The violence of the Tory years has defined his story.
This is England has become a fixture on British TV, with each short series making an indelible impression. Now that we are once again living under a Tory majority government, whose policies amount to a war on the poor — and especially on the young — it resonates even more strongly.