Skinheads: the forebears of New Britain?
This is England is a humane and hilarious portrait of a lazy Eighties summer, until it tries to turn skins into models of multiculturalism.
Coming from Shane Meadows, the director of such small-scale gems as 24/7, A Room for Romeo Brass and even Dead Man’s Shoes, This is England suffers from overambition. It aspires to be a rotten state of the nation address, a portrait of England primed to blow away whatever smug complacency Blair’s Britain can still muster. It may very well be set a year after the end of the Falkland’s War, but as a study in hate, in machismo without purposeful expression, it reckons on reaching into the dark heart of contemporary intolerance. Or at least that seems to be the idea. As Meadows himself asserts: ‘It’s as much about England in 2007 as it is about England in 1983.’ (1) However, despite trying – perhaps too hard – the film doesn’t really live up to its title’s grandiloquence.
And nor should it have tried to. For half the film at least, This is England displays Meadows’ gift for affectionate parochialism, a unique atmosphere in which uncommon characters jostle and banter, fall in and out of love, and mock each others’ clothes. There’s more realism in this approach than in many so-called grittier efforts. For whilst such fare sanctimoniously wallows in its naturalism, allowing the ‘isn’t it terrible’ brigade to vent their spleen, Meadows’ films lilt, sometimes brutally, but never without a rough-hewn humanity – people, not issues, are at its centre. Then there’s the humour: This is England is seriously funny. Even during the racist attack on Sandhu’s Newsagents, laughter impinges upon moral repugnance the moment ‘Tubs’ tries really hard to have a shit on the newsagent’s floor, much to the incredulity of his fellow attackers. And strangely, it works, deflating and mocking their ‘terror’ tactics. If only This is England had the courage of its artistic convictions then the realism inherent in Meadows’ approach might not have succumbed to proselytising.
In terms of its central narrative, then, the film tells of the rites of passage of Shaun, a big-hearted, pie-faced 11-year-old, living with his mum. When we meet him, it’s a year after his dad was killed during the Falklands War. If that wasn’t difficult enough, this particular day is non-uniform day at school, meaning Shaun has to wear his bell-bottoms, an unwanted complement to his shaggy mop of blond hair. ‘Woodstock’s that way’ mocks a teenage Goth. One fight later, and a fed-up Shaun is wandering home. On his way, however, he has a life-changing encounter with the likeable Woody, and his gang of amiable skinheads. Within days, Shaun has had his head shaved, acquired some junior bovver boots and a Ben Sherman shirt. He now also has a gang of friends, and with them, a sense, as Meadows seems to imply, of tribal belonging, of identity.
This half of the film is where Meadows is at his best. As in previous work he is great at recreating the exuberance of young lads’ friendships, the sheer unthinking intensity of simply mucking about with your mates. It’s actually quite joyous to watch. His ensemble cast works brilliantly in these instances, giving a rough and ready naturalness to the exchanges, their adlibbed nature capturing perfectly the cadences of piss taking. Nowhere is this barely suppressed euphoria more striking than in the ‘hunting’ scenes where Shaun joins Woody and his cohorts on a merry rampage around a derelict housing estate. In Meadows’ hands, a grim urban wasteland is not an occasion for handwringing, but for humour and lyricism.
With the entrance of Combo, however, the film changes tack. He is a skinhead and a neo-Nazi, a signed-up member of the National Front and looking for recruits. He blames Thatcher and her ‘phoney war’ for sending ‘proud fighting men’ to their deaths, and immigrants for just about everything from housing shortages to unemployment. Disgusted, Woody leaves, but Shaun, wanting a father figure, much as Combo wants a fatherland, is suitably impressed.
The problem with the second half of the film is that the attempt to understand why the skinhead movement was corrupted by neo-Nazis, and more broadly why a racist nationalism could be fostered in the way that it was, is conducted within an inadequate framework. Meadows’ acute feeling for the emotional terrain of individuals’ interrelations, in other words the strength of the first part of the film, simply disintegrates when he tries to grasp larger social groupings and identities in the same way. Seeing society simply as a larger version of interpersonal relations replete with similar tensions, he might as well be arguing that just as some people feel left out at school, so some feel excluded from the body politic. He reduces racism to an emotional maladjustment born of exclusion, an inadequacy aggressively transfigured, a frustration inappropriately channelled. The result, unfortunately, is less an enlightening realism than a crass socio-pathology. No amount of spliced footage of the Falklands War can provide the depth it craves. In fact, using such a visual analogy instead of establishing a genuine dramatic connection just reinforces a sense of superficiality.
Moreover, if Combo embodies maladjusted tribalism, a longing for cultural identity warped by deprivation, then the tolerant skinheads of Woody’s ilk are its positive counterpoint. Indeed, during a stoned conversation between Combo and Milky, the only black member of the gang, we get a potted history of skinhead culture, with even Combo admitting that the original skinheads mixed freely with their West Indian brothers. As Meadows himself argues, the original skinhead spirit of 1969 was ‘inherently multicultural’ (2). The implication is clear. Fostering identities that exploit others’ exclusion, and the frustration engendered, is dangerous. One needs to tolerate competing cultural identities. Strange as it might seem, This is England is not so much a celebration of skinhead culture as a paean to multiculturalism.
Tim Black is a regular film and TV reviewer for spiked