This Is England: Another Failed Attempt To Reflect Working Class Lives

With Shane Meadows' This is England '88 on TV tonight, we look back at This is England '86 and assess just how realistic this series actually was.
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Much as I admire Shane Meadow's commitment to showing working class lives in a neo-realist, engaging manner, the trailer for This Is England 86 makes me wonder if Meadows' East Midlands home turf was stuck in some late 70s sub-cultural chasm. The original TIE was set in 1983 and this tv follow up sees the main characters 3 years later still sporting the skinhead/suedehead and punky tailoring of the first film, which itself seemed to be lagging three or four years behind what was happening on the streets of urban Britain.

As the film was autobiographic I can only assume that the skinhead look continued in East Midlands for longer than most areas. That's not to say that on the dot of 1982 everyone suddenly appeared in Fila Bjs and Nike Wimbledons but most towns, even those tucked away in between the big inner cities, had latched onto the 'casual' look by 83 and certainly by 86 there was only a rump of die hard skins still around.

If this sounds a tad pedantic then so be it. The one thing that really pisses me off about British cinema is its inability to reflect working class lives and attitudes with any degree of accuracy or sophistication. This is usually the fault of the directors, the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach can sneer and patronise as much as they like with films as contrived and unconvincing as Life Is Sweet and Looking For Eric (not to mention all their other 'slice of life' melodramas) but I expected more from Meadows.

From 'Smalltime' on, I've watched his career with interest as both his working methods (shooting on a small budget with a small cast of trusted actors) and his subject matter (the everyday lives of ordinary people shattered by acts of terrible violence, usually) have produced two materpieces; A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man's Shoes and a string of lesser but still watchable movies (24/7, This Is England, Somers Town) with only the big budget fiasco of Once Upon A Time In The Midlands and the sketch stretched to breaking point Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee blotting his rep as one of the most promsiing young(ish) directors of the past 15 years.

There's a rule of thumb that any film about 'the working class' or 'the underclass' must be squalid and/or violent as if the fractured and frustrated lives depicted in say Andrea Arnold's 'Red Road' and 'Fishtank' to give two recent examples, are the only kind of lives people who live in council estates and high rise flats lead. Ofcourse this applies also to similar films about the French or American underclass as depicted in La Haine or any number of US ghetto odysseys. The quiet films, the films about the mundane emotional and everyday experiences of 'normal people' all seem centred on the professional middle classes, those who are sophisicated enough to carry such psychological baggage around with them.

"As the film was autobiographic I can only assume that the skinhead look continued in East Midlands for longer than most areas."

What we got with This is England was a slight plot with some great performances spolied by a kind of generic 'northern' setting with scouse, Lancastrian, Humberside and East Midland accents melding together to present a set of characters who at no point could have grown up together. This may seem like a small point but how many films have been ruined by poor casting decisions, with actors attempting to pull off regional accents they're uncomfortable with? It's bad enough when this happens in the fantasy inner world of soap where Salford and Bethnal Green are shown as idealistic old fashioned 'communities' where every issue is rolled out into one long cliche and all families have interchangeable accents and often heads. Meadows has committed similar sins most obviously with the casting of Bob Hoskins in 24/7 and the hybrid northern casts of almost all his films.

I love the East Midlands accent, it's a unique dialect that's never really been identified on any film, TV or radio show and the Nottingham/Derby accents particularly are very difficult to emulate (even Manchester's Albert Finney as Nottingham's Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night & Sunday Morning was basically just 'northern'). Perhaps that's why in Meadows films the actors tend to stick to their own accents leaving it up to viewer to wonder how these disperate characters came together in these largely unidentified, 'midlands' towns.

This Is England 86 seems to have left the brutal racist attack which serves as the films predictable denouement in the air. The BNP/NF contingent are reconciled with the non-racist skins, the girls are dancing to The Smiths instead of The Maytals and what appear to be token b-boy and casual fashions appear on Thomas Turgoose and the fat kid. This is all set against a backdrop of the  1986 Mexico world cup, the 'Hand of God' and all that. I remember it well. I'd gone to watch the England v Argentina match at a local pub with my mates and after the game, they proceeded to smash the place up, glass innocent bystanders, batter anyone who stood in their way and generally go about as mental as I'd ever seen a gang of lads go.

We made a sharp exit when the sirens sounded and five or six of them got chased, caught  and sent down. The level of violence was horrific, the cause was typical; football defeat, excessive alcohol and young male bravado. It would've made a great Shane Meadows film but the fact is that such incidents happen every week across any town or city and it doesn't tell you anything you didn't already know about how we live our lives now or in 1986.

One of the most moving and thoughtful films I've seen in the past few years was the Swedish vampire film, 'Let The Right One In' not because its central theme of lonliness and friendship hadn't been covered many, many times before but because the setting, on a wintry Stockholm tenement estate in the 70s gave the movie a sense of time and place utterly at odds with the usual gothic cliches of the genre. I'm not saying An American Werewolf In Widnes would be an improvement on This Is England but the point is that we've become as tired by third rate Nil By Mouths  as by fourth rate 'Cockney Gangster' flicks.

It'd be a massive shame if Shane Meadows doesn't progress further than the self-imposed geographical and cultural limitations he's placed upon himself. Dead Man's Shoes proved that he can handle suspense and go beyond the usual 'neo-realist' cliches. There a milllion stories in the big city, if only we heard a handful of them.

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