by Richard Hart
The spin off TV show is an old TV concept, tracing its roots back to the nineteen fifties. It’s not been a medium that has been overly successful and even less so here in England. So it was something of a surprise when outstanding indie movie director Shane Meadows decided to take his hit movie “This is England” to the small screen.
Meadows stated that he felt these characters still had a story to tell and that he wanted to keep telling them. And thus “This is England 86” was born. Now this series is a follow up to a movie that you should have seen. If you haven’t, well, you should go and watch it right now.
Summing up the original movie it is based on; “This is England” follows the life of young Shaun, played by first time actor Thomas Turgoose. He is a lonely little boy whose father was killed in the Falklands war. He becomes friends with a group of non racist skinheads and befriends the groups leader, “Woody”, until the arrival of the white-Nationalist “Combo”, played by the superb Stephen Graham.
In the series we catch up these characters three years later. This review will contain spoilers to the original movie but I’ll try to keep the main review spoiler free for the series itself. Shaun is now in his last year at secondary school and about to join the “working world”. But in the depths of high unemployment he finds the search for work to be difficult.
The backdrop of poverty, unemployment and violence is contrasted with the bright and colourful cast of characters, many of whom return from the original series. “Woody” and “Lol” are our lead characters this time around and both are very good. Lol is still a “skinhead” and the mature but self destructive leader of the girls. Woody is as charismatic and likeable as ever but has now “grown up” into a working man at a local factory.
Also reprising their turns from the original movie are the supporting cast. Familiar faces return like old friends (both good and bad). They include perennial loser Gadget, Meggy, Kel, Trev, Smell and of course Milky. “Milky” is prominent in the series as Woody’s best friend but it all gets very complicated.
The attention to detail for 80’s clothing, TV and wardrobe is pretty good. Generally speaking everything looks just as horrible as it did at the time and the cast fit into an eighties landscape quite nicely. There are a few lines of dialogue where people speak in a fairly modern manner (As if? I think that was a nineties expression) but generally the tone is about right.
Of course Shane Meadows movies always feature his grim sense of humour, usually expressed through the characters sense of fun. The characters often joke and fool around in a larger than life fashion. Most of the time it fits in nicely and Woody, played by Joe Gilgun, is especially good at the comedy beats. The dark comedy is a relief as the storyline is quite grim in places, reaching a fierce crescendo at the end of the 3rd episode.
Another hallmark of Shane Meadows is his intense visual style, where shots are bright and shining despite the dingy backgrounds. Meadows eye for an ironic shot is here too and often his characters discuss important things whilst in incredibly mundane locations. Some of the shots in this series remind me a little of Coppola’s work, especially in Rumblefish and The Outsiders.
Whilst the “gang motif” of the original series is still here, its not as much about gang identity as the original movie was. There is a rival gang this time but their involvement in the story is never fully explored. Loyalty and violence are ever present in the story.
The violent and sexual content in the series is pretty sharp in places but in others its done for comic effect. Meadows always knows which tone he’s aiming for and the funny moments generally all hit their marks, even if the sense of humour is quite bleak.
But the darkest moments come later on and are horrific in tone. The series has a central theme about “damage” that is done and how long it lingers. Meadows doesn’t shy away from this aspect at all, referencing the darker moments in the movie as well as his other works like “Dead Mans Shoes”.
The series is only four episodes long but each one has a hefty punch. The emotional weight falls with a hammer blow in the conclusions of episodes 2-4 and its a struggle to watch them all back to back. The pace is a little bit uneven in places and some characters are not as well explored or developed as they might have been.
Some may also find the tone to be difficult, with switches between bleak urban violence and kitchen sink realism to the off the wall comedy to be somewhat jarring. But its this juxtaposition that helps make the series work. When things are as grim as that, you have to find what joy you can.
There is a correlation between comedy, especially satire, and with that of economic depression. In the eighties when this country was in the grip of the dark days of Thatcher, the Miners Strikes and rising unemployment there was the humour of the “Young Ones”, “French And Saunders” and even Ben Elton (when he still had something resembling an edge). Where we are now equally requires a sense of humour to make it through each day without wanting to drown your sorrows.
For those who lived through this stormy period, there will be lots of period details for you to enjoy and the soundtrack and ambience will be a nice time capsule. For those who were lucky enough to miss the eighties, then you can see a little bit of what you missed and can help to put down the ideas of an eighties revival.
The series is followed up by two more: This is England 1988 and This is England 1990 (which at the time of writing this is yet to air). So for those that appreciated the show and the movie, there are more episodes in the life and times of Woody, Milky, Lol, Smell, Combo and Stephen.