England in 88, according to Meadows in 2011
The second follow-up to This is England looks back at the Eighties through the prism of clichés.
I believe it was the poet Tom Raworth who claimed that the ‘present tense is surrounded by the ringing of the –ings’. Great art is difficult to produce in the moment: you’re always too busy doing, thinking, going, to-ing, fro-ing. Writing in the past tense is always supposed to enable a broader palette: a sense of direction, of things having ended.
What then to make of This Is England ’88? The Shane Meadows drama returned for its second series this week, screened over three consecutive nights. This is a show, remember, which began life as the excellent and insightful portrait of the National Front to the backdrop of the post-Falklands Eighties in the feature film This Is England. It then morphed into a TV mini-series, This is England ’86, which caught up with the film’s characters three years on. There are apparently plans for a This Is England ’90, but only if writer and director Meadows can (in the words of one of the show’s stars, Joe Gilgun) ‘cut his dick off’ to stop him getting distracted from raising a family.
As such, there is a fascinating experiment at work here: Meadows, who was certainly one of the most interesting and talented young British directors of the Noughties, using the series to explore his own 1980s Sheffield upbringing and to reflect on the recent influential past while facing a race to keep up with his own present. Coupled with his fondness for improvisation with a young and unknown cast of amateurs, when set against tightly-scripted US shows such as Mad Men or the repetitive cycling of long-running UK soaps, This Is England has a thrilling free-wheeling quality. Who knows where it will go next?
Except, sadly, we already sort of feel like we do know. The novelist Philip Hensher, while working on his own lauded Sheffield-set Eighties epic, The Northern Clemency, noted the destructive tendency of recent historical work to lay on the period-specific cultural references with an implausible self-consciousness, and it is unnecessarily thick here. Everyone listens to The Smiths, watches Dirty Den on Eastenders and goes around talking about it being 1988. It’s certainly true that the Eighties had a self-awareness lacking from today’s self-referentialism, but not even the show’s die-hard fans seem to think that this was what it was exactly like.
Then, of course, we have the plot. Following on from the tumultuous events of the previous series, beautiful and tragic Lol is struggling to come to terms with murdering her abusive stepfather, mourning her relationship with affable Woody, and raising her child after a grief-stricken liaison with Milky (beaten to a pulp in the film, if you remember). Unfortunately for her, she’s become a struggling single mother to a mixed-race child in exactly the decade when Thatcher, Thatcher, milk-snatcher was in power. I bet she can’t wait for the Poll Tax riots to bring The Iron Lady down in two years’ time.
Okay, it’s not quite as bad as that. Yet, from Woody settling down into stifling lower middle-class family life with a woman he’s not quite in love with to cheeky tearaway Shaun being introduced to olives at his posh schoolfriend’s house, there is a sense that Meadows has produced a Noughties version of a 1980s Mike Leigh film. Like Gus van Sant’s famous shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, you can only ask yourself for what purpose.
This is a crushing shame, since the primary appeal of Meadows’ early work was its gift for surprise. His first film, Twenty Four Seven, dealt with an eccentric Bob Hoskins setting up a community boxing club in a run-down estate, with inspiring – but not exactly intended – results. In A Room For Romeo Brass a lonely 11-year-old befriended a dangerously unhinged loner… and it had a heart-warming ending. Even dark revenge fantasy Dead Man’s Shoes balanced bloodthirsty violence with a whimsical sense of comedy. Meadows gift was always for understanding and portraying the subtle social interactions of male friendships: sometimes difficult to explain, baffling for an outsider and impossible to draw easy distinctions around.
Indeed, This Is England’s original charm lay in how it took familiar narratives – economic gloom, post-Falklands jingoism and mass immigration combined with weakened and fragile communities already beaten by early Thatcherite policies – and threw in difficult details forgotten by cliché: the multi-racial basis of early skinheads or the simple pleasures of being a bored teenager with no community centre to go to. These were little flashes of light which undercut the smug complacency of New Labour’s politics of multiculturalism and victimisation.
Flashes of this still remain in This Is England ’88, not least in Shaun’s agonising stint as an aspiring actor and teen lothario. Yet while this may all be a useful therapeutic exercise for Meadows, there’s little new or insightful about revisiting a much-studied decade in this fashion. The acting is still fine although there is the increasingly strong reminder that while Meadows originally cast these unknown amateurs and bit-part actors precisely because they were outside the usual cast, now the likes of Vicky McClure, Joe Gilgun and Rosamund Hanson are bright and upcoming starlets in their own right.
Meanwhile, Meadows’ one-time star performer Paddy Considine has gone on to uncreatively direct a gritty portrayal of working-class misery in this year’s Tyrannosaur.
Ultimately, watching This Is England ’88, you are left feeling like perennial outsider Meadows has finally become part of the establishment of British filmmaking. Sadly, however, he has lost a lot of his originality along the way.
David Bowden is spiked‘s TV columnist.