Much has been made of the inconsistent cultural references of This is England, but as someone who grew up in a small Midlands town in the 80s I don’t really see that as a stick to beat Shane Meadows with. I was 10 in 88, hanging round on the local park with 16-year-old Heavy Metallers with pink hair and Guns n’ Roses T-shirts, 14-year-olds wearing NFL shirts and all other ages and styles imaginable. This isn’t just England, this is life. For every pack of up-to-the-minute generational wild ones, there will be a gang of Bash Street Kids lurking not too far away.
While not his finest film, This Is England was a decent portrayal of the era rendered much more than the sum of its parts by two standout acting performances, from Stephen Graham as Combo and Thomas Turgoose as Shaun. Because they were so real, the cartoonish nature of the other characters didn’t infringe too much on the quality and they offered occasional relief while Graham and Turgoose mined the emotional depths.
And therein lies the problem with the first episode of This is England 88. With Graham only seen fleetingly last night and Turgoose now, and let’s be honest here, just a miserable ugly teenager playing a miserable ugly teenager, we’re required to invest in the shared depression of Woody and Lol for the deep and meaningfuls while the cartoon element ham it up on karaoke. It doesn’t wash.
In the film, Lol was just a bit miserable, feisty and androgynously sexy. We didn’t find out about her Father’s abuse until TIE 86, by which time her character was cemented. I’d like to think this was always meant to happen, but the cynic in me can’t help but believe that it had to be shoehorned in some way to add weight to that installment.
The misplaced muse of a once shining light of British drama is much sadder than a gurning fuckwit stood on his moped.
And what about Woody? For people just after a quick laugh, I suppose he’s fine. Except he’s about as funny as a Doc Marten to the forehead and seems to have got the method acting bit wrong, in that it would seem he’s consumed 7 grams of Pink Champagne before every episode and is allowed to mug, gurn, roll his eyes and generally do what the fuck he likes to carry the long scenes before we are given snapshots, some half-funny, some half-gritty, of working class lives.
The pair of them dominated proceedings so much last night that, in all honesty, it would have probably worked better as a two-hander with an invisible supporting cast. Lol’s got post-natal depression, Woody is clearly not over here and being suffocated by the banality of his life and that, really, was it. Now I’m not deriding post-natal depression or unrequited love here, but as a spin-off of a film that explored racism, the loss of a parent and innumerate other issues that scarred the 80s, is watching Eastenders with the lights off and looking through a pub window while pulling faces really enough?
All of Meadows’ finest work has featured a strong male lead, whether the peerless Paddy Considine or the aforementioned Graham and Turgoose, and without them he has no-one to really kick things into life in between the snapshots. There is no character interesting or believable enough to make this any better than Shameless after it had gone off the boil.
Meadows apologists will say that this was still better than anything else on British TV, but is that really a barometer anymore? When the US constantly pumps out dramatic brilliance and the Italians (Romanzo Criminale) and the French (Bracquo) have caught up on a smaller scale, should Meadows be feted for dialing in something that is said to better than Spooks?
You may think I’m being unnecessarily harsh here, and if you’re after the odd decent one-liner, a couple of belly laughs, a flash of tit here and there and the sight of a fat lad with bollock-ache sporting tramlines and a perm, then This Is England 88’ will probably be right up your street. And there is, of course, nothing wrong with a semi-enjoyable nostalgia fest, the problem is is that Shane Meadows is, or was, capable of much better. And, in that sense, the misplaced muse of a once shining light of British drama is much sadder than a gurning fuckwit stood on his moped.
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