This Is England ’86 episode 1 review

Set three years after Shane Meadows’ original This Is England film comes a four-part drama, but is this transition to the small screen a backwards step?

Television series based on successful films are usually the reserve of shameless cash-ins. Often, finding they do not have the budget or the cast for a sequel, the studio is left with only a brand name and put that into a poor man’s imitation that fails to recapture the essence or the scale of the movie that fathered it.

This Is England ’86  is not that series. Although not unchanged after jumping mediums, the first episode is less the shameless addendum of Teen Wolf: The Series and its ilk and more the atmosphere of the City Of God televisual follow-up, City Of Men.

The predecessors of both were hard-hitting, violent coming-of-age dramas that told the story of young boy’s falling in with a bad crowd in the midst of a very particular place and time, whereas their respective series offer a more leisurely, soap opera-type narrative that allows for a naïveté and moments of comedy that would have seemed alien in their counterparts.

But, while it’s tempting to get wrapped up speaking in dualities, if ‘86 is to be labelled a success, it has to be on its own merits rather than through any comparison.

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Now that three years have passed, Shaun has become the clichéd underachiever. Lacking the smarts to finish high school with any aplomb or the physicality to impress his peers, his only virtue seems to be that same quaint chivalry that won Smell’s heart all those years ago and even this only serves to get him in trouble with the slapstick local scooter ‘gang’.

Interestingly, when his path happens to cross with Gadge and another familiar face (the pair fresh from stealing a wreath from the graveyard), he deliberately ducks them and watches as his sometime friends pass him by.

When the two catch-up with the rest of the gang, we see the flowers have been procured for Lol and Woody’s imminent wedding, and they all travel to a modest community centre on the top of a double-decker bus. During the service, family members who are supposed to attend don’t, while parents who weren’t do, and just as Woody falters on that all important ‘I do’, a member of the congregation collapses with a heart attack and they all rush to the hospital, coincidentally, just as Shaun too finds himself in need of medical attention after a disagreement with the bullying leader of the scooter gang.

As already stated, ’86 is funny, genuinely belly-laugh funny, and it’s such a relief going in to this series, with the knowledge of previous events, and finding a warm, humorous narrative that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

In a nice touch, it begins with what appears to be a deleted scene of the young Thomas Turgoose standing in the rain and this serves to both remind us of the young actor’s sweet performance and bridge the gap of the three-year jump cut.

With the fate of Milky hanging heavy over the series (the eagle-eyed may have, in fact, spotted him on the many posters in circulation) it’s fantastic how organically the plot unravels, as Shaun does not immediately rush in to the inevitable consolation with Milky after his youthful sin of leaving his friend at the mercy of the psychotic Combo, and, while Lol and Woody clearly have a lot to deal with after the mishap over their marital vows, the issue hangs over for future episodes to cover.

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Forgive the cascade of various character’s names, as this is symptomatic of how quickly the series invokes anew in you the names and histories of characters you didn’t realise how closely you held in your heart.

While it’s great to see so much of the original cast return and again deliver such believable, amiable performances, there are also some fantastic inclusions in the way of the Skins veterans playing the scooter gang leader and his right-hand henchman, and the now less cute Turgoose matured into a proficient straight man to their various pratfalls.

All said, this first episode is a great foundation for the next three in the series. There is something contradictory about the style, as it manages Thatcherite-era Britain with reflections on its similarities to youth today (the Skins regulars being a clear touchstone), balancing anarchic, uncouth humour with an oddly wholesome ‘family’ drama rarely seen since the time of its setting.

It walks this line without faltering, and it’s refreshing to see a well made British drama that doesn’t rely on this nation’s pre-occupation with a staple diet of supernatural and crime dramas (that is, beyond the petty crimes of graveyard thievery).

Meadows has suggested that future episodes will orbit closer to Lol than Shaun, and this would be a wise choice, as it seems that the logical progression from his coming-of-age is her struggle with dealing what it means to now be a ‘grown-up’.

The mini-series may be only a fleeting glimpse of what the boundary to adulthood means for these old faces, but it’s a reprise that this episode proves should be very welcome to those who enjoyed the film and inspires trust that no-one involved is about to let the narrative stagnate just for the sake of cashing in.

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This Is England ’86 airs on Tuesdays at 10:00pm on Channel 4.