Try a bit of mental calculation: how many punches in total would you say you’ve seen thrown on screen? Bloodied faces? Kicks to the head? Unless you’ve kept your TV and film intake to a strict diet of family animation (and even then…), that total is likely to be swirling around the thousands.
Now, think of the number of times an on-screen attack has stopped your breath in your chest. When each kick has landed with nauseating weight and filled you not with ringside exhilaration but with dread. In short, how often have you been made to really care about an act of on-screen violence?
That was Shane Meadows’ aim in This Is England, the 2006 feature film that introduced the world to Shaun, Woody, Lol, Combo, Milky and the rest of the Midlands gang that’s since lived on in two, soon to be three, TV dramas.
“I remember watching Romper Stomper and within the first ten minutes forty people had been beaten up. I couldn’t give a shit about any single one of them. The same with American History X.” Meadows told Film 4 in this interview. “I think what people like about my films is a kind of simplistic human depth, and the ambition with This Is England was to make people care about one beating.”
Ambition met, and then some. Meadows’ film is the fulfilment of critic Roger Ebert’s unimprovable line about the movies being “like a machine that generates empathy”. This Is England and its television spin-offs co-written by Jack Thorne generate empathy like the sun generates heat.
The film takes us inside the world of Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a twelve-year-old who lost his father in the Falklands conflict, picked on at school for wearing outmoded gear on non-uniform day. Meadows and Turgoose convey Shaun’s isolation and frustration with the same unshowy realism as his environment is established. His paint-stripped, undecorated bedroom tells the story of his absent dad, and his lonely stomps through the estate’s alleys, underpasses and scrubland position him in a specific historical time and place: 1983, Thatcher’s Britain.
Shaun’s young, alone, and desperate for two things: to make his dad proud, and for the world to stop picking on him. Without playing any metaphorical violins, Meadows makes your heart go out to Shaun, so much that when he makes the wrong decisions, choosing as a role model National Front-supporting ex-con Combo (Stephen Graham), we understand why and stick by him.
That’s no small feat. Encouraging an audience to see past the labels—thug, racist, skinhead—plastered on a kid like Shaun and through to the person underneath is generous, warm-hearted storytelling. Even more of a revelation is the empathy the film generates for Combo.
Without a hint of apology for his reprehensible attitudes and actions, Combo isn’t presented as a simple villain. We’re told almost nothing about his childhood (while filming, Graham devised an unofficial backstory for the character based on his own mixed-race heritage), but Combo’s behaviour seems to embody the psychological truism quoted in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed? that “all violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem”.
The beating Meadows refers to above happens towards the end of the film, when Combo violently turns on British Afro-Caribbean Milky (Andrew Shim). It’s sickening to watch, impossible to shake from memory and lends any subsequent viewings a horrible inevitability, as if Combo’s first entrance causes the film to slowly tip up on its axis making a slurry of conflict and tension slide gradually down to submerge them all in that unavoidable final attack.
The impression isn’t just made by the ferocity of the beating, which left audiences in the dark as to whether or not Milky had survived, but because we could feel the devastation it left on each character. On the victim, whose trust in people was as shattered as his body. On witness, Shaun, whose new father figure had let him down from a great height. And finally on Combo, whose unforgiveable act felt like the last throe of a life ruled by violence.
It wasn’t the last throe, not for Combo or Milky or the rest of them. In one of the rare instances that a feature film is cracked open to reveal a perfectly formed TV drama folded inside, This Is England returned.
First in 2010, for a four-episode story of operatic highs and lows, next in 2011 for a sombre, Christmas-set three-episode tale about damage and finding peace, and now for a final four episodes due to finish the characters’ stories for good. (That’s what Meadows says, but it’s hard to imagine the cast not jumping at the chance to return should he change his mind further down the line.)
When This Is England moved to television, it was turned from a coming-of-age, state-of-the-nation story to an ensemble drama. It got funnier. It got darker. It took on big storylines, moving some characters back and pushing others forward.The spotlight came off Shaun and Combo and shone onto Lol and Woody (Vicky McClure and Joe Gilgun), the couple who’d played a quasi-parental role to the rest of the young skinhead gang in the film.
Watch the pair of them and it’s easy to see why. Gilgun is simply one of the most charismatic actors around. As Woody, he’s funny, quick, expressive, surprising… a physical comedian as much as a stand-up, his steady patter of mostly improvised nonsense finding its way up, under, over and between other characters’ words like a stream running over rocks. Put Gilgun in a scene and it’s hard to watch anyone else.
Unless, it so happens, that anyone else is Vicky McClure.
From the crown of her crop to the soles of her Doc Martens, Lol is the defiant, desperate, brave, terrified heart of This Is England on TV. Beautiful and tragic, wrapped noose-tight in a black overcoat, her candle-bright peroxide hair illuminated her face like a halo in ‘86. In ‘88, she was a religious icon; Dreyer’s Joan of Arc in bovver boots.
Three in particular of McClure’s scenes reveal her power in the role, all two-handers with another actor. The first is Lol’s confrontation with Mick (Johnny Harris), her skin-crawling, mouth-breathing, abusive dad in ‘86, the second and third are in ’88, her visit to Combo in prison and heart-rendingly understated confession to a nurse that she thinks she’s “a little bit poorly”. In the first, McClure vibrates with anger, in the second, she’s thawed with tenderness, and in the third she is totally broken. In all three, she’s mesmerising.
Aside from McClure’s brutally strong performance, what’s extraordinary about Lol’s tragic story of childhood sexual abuse, rape and attempted suicide is that it’s told in consort with farce and bawdiness. Successfully.
It’s rare enough on TV to see as harrowing a depiction of sexual violence as Mick and Lol’s final scene in ’86, but for tragedy to come hand in hand with subplots where sex and violence are played for broad comedy is almost unheard of. (On TV at least, the gravedigger in Hamlet, King Lear’s fool and Cleopatra’s fig-delivering clown might say otherwise.) This Is England recognises the need for a gulp of air while the bleakness descends, and over the course of its episodes, somehow pulls off the balance.
More of the cast than just Gilgun and McClure deserve praise. Rosamund Hanson is brilliantly funny as the deadpan Smell, an old head on young shoulders wrapped in a fur stole, vintage corset and net skirts. Michael Socha is a natural as Shaun’s loudmouth bully Harvey, imported to the gang for TV. Jo Hartley is similarly so as Shaun’s wonderful mum, Cynthia. As for Shaun himself, the day a thirteen-year-old Thomas Turgoose was picked out of a Lincolnshire youth club to be This Is England’s non-actor lead was a good day for British acting.
If Meadows and Thorne’s series is a machine that generates empathy, then it also produces something almost as powerful: nostalgia. Both the gleeful ‘I used to wear that’ recognition of something shared variety, and the other sense of nostalgia: the feeling of pain at returning home.
Leapfrogging two years with each return, This Is England takes Shaun and co. from 1983 to 1990, a period most viewers will have lived through some if not all of. Each series starts with a montage of political and cultural moments, establishing both the atmosphere of the time, and the dramas’ ability to fold tragedy in with banality and laughs. Coal not dole. World Cup 86. Loadsamoney. The Belgrano. Famine in Ethiopia. Roland Rat. Margaret Thatcher.
From the music to the fashion to the programmes playing on their TVs, if you were there, it’s impossible not to feel moved by the memories jogged.
That’s This Is England’s power summed up. It’s TV drama that makes you feel something. Whatever 1990 brings to Lol, Woody and the gang, you can be guaranteed we’ll be made to care about it.
This Is England ’90 starts on Channel 4 on Sunday the 13th of September.
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