This Is England – the film that started the franchise – was made in 2006 but set in 1983 during a time when Britain was living under Thatcher, three and a half million people in England were unemployed, the nation was still reeling from the fresh wounds of the Falklands conflict, and racial tensions were mounting like never before.
For many of us watching the film, it was the first time seeing previously undiscovered acting talent including: Thomas Turgoose as Shaun, an impressionable young boy turned Britpop skinhead; Stephen Graham playing the BNP Scouser psycho Combo; Joe Gilgun as the hilarious and lovable leader of the gang, Woody; the incredibly talented Vicky McClure playing a cross between a sweetheart and a hard nut as Lol; and a host of other remarkable actors. For much of the audience, it is also the first time being introduced to Shane Meadows, the director and genius filmmaker behind the creation.
Part of the reason This Is England received so much critical acclaim, and has left its mark as a cultural and generational film that rivals the legacy of Trainspotting, is because Meadows isn’t afraid to tackle issues that most directors wouldn’t dare to touch with a ten foot barge pole. Aside from expertly portraying the music, look, feel and fashion of the decade (Doc Martens, Ben Sherman shirts, homemade tats, shaven heads and jeans turn ups), Meadows captures the very essence of the 1980s in a much darker sense by exposing and critiquing the racism of the time.
This Is England is raw, brutal, violent, unapologetic, hilarious and harrowing in equal measure. The characters provide so much realism and are so easy to invest in that Meadows decided to do something that no other director has quite done before. He knew the story couldn’t end there for this gang of misfits living on a Sheffield council estate. There was more to the story.
The main characters accompanied by Milky (Andrew Shim), Smell (Rosamund Hanson), Kelly (Chanel Cresswell) and many others came bursting through our screens again in 2010 with the next instalment, the four part TV series: This Is England ’86.
As one of the grittiest and most hard-hitting drama series British TV has ever seen, This Is England ’86 shocked and terrified, yet also mesmerised viewers as Vicky McClure’s character Lol took centre stage in a harrowing storyline in which her dark and menacing past comes back to haunt her in the form of her estranged sexually abusive father, Mick (Johnny Harris).
Meadows execution of the series is astounding and it is an incredible body of work that includes multiple storylines and subplots all going on at once, and again captures the essence of the time by showing glimpses of political issues, current affairs and the 1986 World Cup. But, similar to the original film, Meadows again forces a magnifying glass on some very uncomfortable topics as we see some of the most graphic and horrifying rape scenes ever broadcast when Trev (Danielle Watson) falls into evil Mick’s clutches.
Meadows has the great talent of somehow being able to conclude a story but leave loose ends at the same time which is what led the way for the next chapter: This Is England ’88.
This series of the saga instantly feels bleak. Although the audience were left traumatised as well as captivated by the series predecessor, This Is England ’88 feels different. Although the series is set at Christmas time, the colour seems to have drained from the gang’s lives as the bright red boots, checked shirts and pink hair fade away from memory in favour of black hair, long black coats and a dark cloud that continues to hang over our favourite skinheads.
Now with a new baby and what seems to be a mix of postnatal depression and the trauma of her past, we find Lol without her soulmate Woody and in a deeply unhappy and bitter state. Following Lol’s affair with Milky in ’86, Woody has left the gang and while he attempts to move on with a new girlfriend and a new promotion at work, we can instantly see through his rouse and we know that deep down, he is heartbroken.
Meadows again doesn’t shy away from social issues in this instalment as yet another distressing storyline sees Lol as the main focus when she is plagued by the ‘ghost’ of her dead dad Mick and attempts to take her own life on Christmas Eve. While the series ends with some light at the end of a very dark tunnel, more hints are dropped that this still isn’t the end, and luckily for adoring fans like myself, we have one last chapter of this skinhead saga to revel in: This Is England ’90.
Vicky McClure recently disclosed in an interview talking about her character Lol in the series that there will be some closure and some happiness for Lorraine “Lollipop/Lol” Jenkins in the final act which many fans were glad to hear. She also said that it is “a powerhouse of a series” that “definitely goes out with a gang”. A new trailer has been released showing us a glimpse into smiley face stickers, neon colours and rave culture of the 1990s along with what appears to be some happy moments for Lol and Woody but some trouble for Kelly and Gadget, along with these words from Milky: “Don’t worry guys, the good times will come again.”
Set to hit our screens this September, I’m sure that this eagerly anticipated penultimate series will not disappoint. I hope that we do see some happy endings for the This Is England characters, but if we know anything about director Shane Meadows, we know it’s definitely not going to be plain sailing.
One of the greatest things about This Is England is how raw and natural the acting truly is. At times, we forget that we’re watching actors on a set playing up for the cameras and we lose ourselves and start to believe that what we are seeing is real life. Cliché as it may sound, that is how rare and convincing This Is England is. Cast members have spoken out several times praising their unconventional and inspired director and have said that the reason behind the grittiness and realism of the series is the creative freedom that Meadows allows his actors to have.
It is well known that the series is not in fact scripted. Meadows simply guides the actors, explains what he wants to accomplish in a particular scene, shouts “action” and allows the actors to improvise and run with it. This approach makes the words, the movements and the mannerisms portrayed by each actor so personal, accented and delicate that it gives them free reign to really delve into the soul of their character. Not scripting the series lends itself to the scenes being so unpredictable and electrifying that Meadows achieves a magic in This Is England that is unlike any other TV series.
This Is England is a powerful saga that has made up laugh, cry, scream and shout at the TV. It is an astonishing body of work, showcasing some of Britain’s finest acting and directing talent that will truly be sorely missed. Can’t it just carry on forever?
This Is England ’90 premiers on Channel 4, September 2015.
Featured image courtesy of rafeejewell via Flickr.