Meadows, please come back to the future

This Is England 86 confirms that the 1980s are now the most mythologised decade of the twentieth century.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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It was advertised as a gritty drama freckled with humour, but Shane Meadows’ made-for-TV update of This Is England was more like I Love 1986 meets Friends.

I say that with a heavy heart. I love Meadows. His original cinematic This Is England (2006) was half-brilliant-romp / half-psycho-movie, almost (though not quite) as good as his masterpiece Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and his first film Twenty Four Seven (1997). But This Is England 86 (Channel 4, Tuesday) felt forced, was way too zany, and confirmed that the 1980s have been completely suctioned of every molecule of complex reality and transformed instead into the mise en scène for working out the personal crises of today’s thirty- and fortysomethings.

In the first episode (of four) we caught up with the good skinheads from the original film. The film was set in 1983, against a backdrop of the aftermath of the Falklands War, racial tensions and sherbet spaceships; the TV series is set in 1986, against a backdrop of the Mexico World Cup, unemployment and wham bars. Good skin Woody (whose affability has tipped over the edge into annoyance) is marrying sexy skin Lol, surrounded by their now way-too-clichéd friends: Gadget the misbehaver; Smell the super-punkish thick girl; Milky, the only black member of the gang, who is Wise and Serious because of the awful thing he experienced in the original film.

The two main characters from the movie – lost kid Shaun and bad skinhead Combo – only skulked on the sidelines of this first episode. The Meadows-based character Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), fatherless thanks to the Falklands, was a wayward and bullied 12-year-old when he was adopted and transformed by the good skins in the original This Is England, before later being corrupted by Combo. Now 16, he’s estranged from the skins, is failing his exams, faces a future of unemployment, and, like all 16-year-old boys, has a mortifying mum. Combo didn’t appear at all in the first episode, but his presence could be felt through the scars he left on Milky’s face. Presumably he’s in the nick. But he’ll be back before the series is out. And the prospect of seeing the brilliant Stephen Graham (my favourite Liverpudlian Stevie G) resurrecting his demented skinhead role is the one thing making me want to tune in again next week.

Some of the film’s annoying traits were given free rein in the first outing of the TV follow-up. First there was the unreal depiction of the 1980s. It’s as if the research and costume departments limited themselves to watching episodes of that annoyingly nostalgic, celeb-talking-head-fest I Love the 1980s. I physically cringed when Lol and Milky reminisced about swimming as kids and Lol said: ‘And afterwards we would buy a wham bar and a can of Panda cola.’ If she had added ‘while wearing leg warmers and listening to Aztec Camera on bulky walkmans’, she would have successfully ticked off every item on TV-land’s List Of Clunking Clichés From The Nineteen-Eighties.

As a consequence of this reduction of an historical period to a simplistic backdrop, the people in This Is England 86 came across less like characters and more like ciphers, designed to communicate some message rather than simply to be. The casuals were the most embarrassing. To a man they wore super-colourful Sergio Tacchini tracksuits, sported extreme wedge side-partings, and spoke in the most stupid voices heard on TV since Robert Peston took over as the BBC’s business editor. Because they’re uncouth, you see; they are symbols of the less interesting, non-skinhead sections of Britain’s working-class youth. The good skins are tactile and multicultural; the casuals are gruff and vulgar. I almost switched off after the 900th time the casuals commented on the colour of Shaun’s pubic hair while bullying him (‘Oi, ginger pubes!’, ‘Oi, orange pubes!’, etc etc etc).

Good-skin Woody’s parents – looking like extras escaped from Rising Damp – were wheeled on as mere symbols of what Woody fears becoming. (Though Woody had a good line about not wanting to end up like his dad, ‘wearing a suit during the week and jumpers at the weekend’.) This one glimpse of Woody’s parents was meant to be explanation enough for why Woody later failed to say ‘I do’ at his wedding to Lol, causing ruptures in the good-skins gang.

Characters in the original story crafted by Meadows are in danger of becoming message boards in an allegorical setting dreamt up by Meadows. Of course, this tendency was there in the original movie, where the problems of 1980s Britain were almost entirely reduced to ones of tribal loyalty. Racism was simplistically depicted as the product of hotheaded working-class blokes getting pissed off with their circumstances and turning into bad skinheads, while the solution to racism was apparently to be nice and calm and multicultural, like the good skins with their interest in Jamaican food and black music.

The toing and froing of the character of Shaun in the film – who flirted with the good skins but fell in with the bad ones – spoke to a view of certain sections of Britain as always being on the cusp of descending into NF hell or being elevated with caring guidance into CRE heaven. Meadows clearly projected contemporary prejudices on to the 1980s (to his credit, he admitted as much, saying the film was ‘as much about England in 2007 as it [was] about England in 1983’). But it didn’t matter that much, because the film’s characters had depth, the script was alive and witty, and the tension was ratcheted up brilliantly in the final Combo-vs-Milky scenes. In the TV series, however, the contemporary barges in far too heavy-handedly, turning some of the characters into cardboard cutouts surrounded by no-longer-available sweets and songs from Now That’s What I Call Music 8.

One of the most striking things about the first episode is how people-free the settings were. This was most clear in the scenes in the hospital, where a friend of the good skins is rushed after having a heart attack at Woody and Lol’s wedding. Utterly bereft of other patients, doctors and nurses, the hospital becomes a playground for the good skins to muck around in (having a wheelchair race to the strains of The Housemartins’ ‘Happy Hour’) or to resolve their personal differences in (in scenes that could have been lifted straight from the hospital-based Rachel-Ross-Joey love triangle in Friends). I still can’t believe none of the production staff or cast said to each other: ‘Hold on, this hospital needs some people in it!’ Its emptiness made it look like a dream sequence, which in a way was fitting. Because that hospital, like the 1980s themselves, was really little more than a stage on which the nostalgic thirtysomething commissioners and makers of this series were trying to work out their own present-day crises of identity. These days, that is England.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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