Warning: this review contains spoilers.
“Well, we got a year of happiness”. Even the characters in This Is England ’90 seem to know that the comedown’s on its way. The final shots of episode two—Combo looking towards freedom, Kelly’s face gazing blankly out of the car window—were like warships appearing on the horizon.
Summer, with its loosely structured combination of a new age gathering and a family barbeque (feat. the return of Evelyn the Irish nurse), won’t have endeared anyone who came away from Spring disappointed by the lack of narrative. It was similarly meandering, more scene-setting than storytelling.
For the most part though, the scene being set is irresistible in its unpretentiousness. Period drama (there might not be bonnets and barouches, but this counts) has a tendency to glamorise the past. Not This Is England. It’s refreshingly free of posturing. We know that in not everyone in the seventies was riding into Studio 54 on horseback, and not everyone in the eighties was doing coke with Steve Strange at the Blitz, but TV and film has a tendency to gloss over that in its reconstructions.
By showing Harvey, Gadge and co. not loved up at Spike Island but lost in a knackered Vauxhall Cavalier and gate-crashing a sparsely attended pagan festival, This Is England ’90 documents the failure and truth of our pasts. The pathos of Gadge daydreaming about being swept up in the rave’s current and ending up days later on a foreign yacht, but in reality waking up in a dewy English field cuddling a hirsute hippy, was perfect.
Because whose youth was really spent at the epicentre of the scene? Most of us grew up at bus shelters, in flats that sucked days out of your life and in cars juddering with the weight of too many teenage bodies going nowhere. Wherever it was happening wasn’t where we were. Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne aren’t telling the lie of it, they’re conjuring up their unmannered version of the truth, from pissed family barbeques tinnily soundtracked by single cassette decks to getting lost with your mates on country roads.
If that seems to lack substance, then Kelly’s struggles and Combo’s imminent return promise to provide drama in the remaining episodes. Summer’s tale of two parties showcased two soon-to-be-broken things: first, the brotherly bond between Woody and Milky, which is unlikely to survive the man who put the latter in hospital moving in with his best mate; and second, Kelly, traumatised by the events of her dad’s murder and on a self-destructive path.
Up until now, Chanel Cresswell’s Kelly has been one of This Is England’s supporting players, a member of the gang whose reaction to her family’s story of abuse, murder and suicide we were never shown. This episode bought the character—who still keeps a photo of her dad in her wallet—to the fore, singling her out as a casualty of her family’s past.
Where Lol’s traumatic past left her isolated in ‘88, Kelly’s has thrown her into into a life of drinking, class As, promiscuity and self-loathing. She may have said she consented to what happened in that caravan scene (“I just do what I fucking want, Gadge. That’s the fucking problem”), but as high as she was, it felt like watching abuse. Cutting in memories of her dad to the group sex scene showed how addled her mind is. Kelly’s searching out oblivion by abusing her own body, and letting others abuse it too.
The real surprise of the episode was Andrew Ellis as Gadge in that tender dawn conversation with Kelly—a scene that had its own ideas on what England is: a peaceful, bucolic, pre-industrial landscape borrowed from a Gainsborough painting. Gadge appeared to be an entirely different character there from the dim-witted bully we met in the film and the milksop we saw Trudy leading around by the er, nose in ’86. Loving, protective and empathetic, this Gadge was grown-up, even if he can’t yet read a map.
Shaun, inversely, was more like the young boy we met back in 2006. Shouting at his mum and weeping over his dad, Shaun’s experience of the new-age festival appeared to be cathartic, but how much of that will stick once his system’s clean we don’t know. There’s always a morning after and a contemplative drive home, this episode reminds us.
There’s been a discernible sense of idling in This Is England 90’s first two instalments. It’s as if the series is reluctant to let whatever’s coming arrive, and trying to keep its much-loved characters protected in a bubble of comedy and triviality, hence the repeat appearances from clown duo, Flip and Higgy. By the time Combo has returned and Kelly keeps unravelling, though, who knows? We might well end up grateful for this respite.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Spring, here.
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