Two heavily-hyped British media events – this TV series and the film ‘Made in Dagenham’ – link economics and social reproduction with sharply contrasting uses of nostalgia.
Ghosts of Crisis Past. Television review – Tom Jennings
Shown on Channel 4 in September, the four-part This Is England ’86 reconstitutes the cast of Shane Meadows’ 2006 film (see Freedom, 30th June/14th July 2007), depicting its characters’ continuing misadventures three years later. The skinhead subculture whose ambivalences the earlier work unpicked – here echoing only in fading NF graffiti – has diluted further into post-punk, goth, mod and casual crossovers – a stylistic promiscuity mirroring diverse fortunes among the misfit members of the gang who, nevertheless, retain the fierce loyalty Meadows sees as emblematic of the times in the depressed post-industrial contexts he excavates so convincingly. And although again structured by the involvement of Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) with his old mates, the original semi-autobiographical focus loosens, allowing a more fully-realised ensemble to grapple with the challenges of young working-class adulthood when prospects are dire and dubious certainties of the past disappear in the austerity and hopelessness inflicted by rampant Tories.
In such inauspicious circumstances the ‘imagined community’ of nation coheres no better than the England football team at World Cups then or now. This Is England ‘86 renders the concrete damage to the social fabric under Thatcher most explicit in a gamut of family stresses and dysfunctions which friendship networks struggle to support, ameliorate or redeem – beginning and ending with failed attempts by Woody (Joe Gilgun) and Lol (Vicky McClure), whose relationship always was the group’s centre of gravity, to get married. Their cheap and cheerful ceremonials fall foul, however, of material, social and historical stumbling blocks which threaten to foreclose on any future together. His promotion to foreman at work risks turning him into a facsimile of his father, thus bringing her abused background intolerably into conscious relief in a transfixing narrative strand escalating towards unlikely resolution. Skilfully melding the mildly comic, sympathetically grotesque and downright horrific without ever detracting from serious concern, the script furthermore sketches comparably tangled personal tensions and pressures across the board in a compelling portrait of a desolate generation bodging their own coming of age.
Switching format seems natural, given Meadows’ cinematic inspiration – 1970s/80s social realism by Alan Clarke, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh which couldn’t get film funding – and for the discipline of television production he enlisted co-writer Jack Thorne, with the first two slightly disjointed episodes directed by Tom Harper. The trademark collaborative practice with a superb cast shines through, improvising everything from dialogue to design and costume, placing a premium on the awkward naturalism of time, place and interaction rather than slavish devotion to seamless superficial simulation. This approach favours narratives weaving together multiple characters without relegating subsidiary roles as mere props for conflicted heroes – which previous work, including This Is England, did. This augurs well for emphasising the open-endedness of real communities with potential for resilience, autonomous agency and creativity as well as regression, submission and malice. Look out for This Is England ‘90 next – another World Cup, more shifts in youth culture – in a marvellously resonant saga of recent UK history.
This Is England ‘86 is now available on DVD.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 23, December 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: