In the four years since his film of This Is England, Shane Meadows has been a busy, if relatively marginal filmmaker.
There was 2008’s Somers Town – a slight piece with its origins as a promotional piece for the Eurostar – and his mock rock doc from last year, Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee. Initially, then, it could seem strange that his latest work isn’t a new high profile movie but a four-part television series for Channel 4 that finds Meadows revisiting the core characters from This Is England.
In fact, television might prove to be a natural home for Meadows. Two of Channel 4’s most successful series – Shameless and Skins –owe some debt to Meadows’ movies. Shameless is a tragic-comic celebration of working class Northern life that chimes particularly with Meadows’ debut, Small Time, and threads in and out of his later work. Skins, meanwhile, feels spiritually close to This Is England; basically, it’s kids getting into scrapes. It comes as little surprise, then, that This Is England 86 is written in collaboration with Jack Thorne, a veteran of both shows.
Certainly, Meadows and his characters make a smooth transition to television. In this country, we’re familiar with TV directors like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears and Danny Boyle making the step up to film making rather than the other way round, a practise that seems to be pretty regular in, say, America – where established movie makers like David Lynch, Kathryn Bigelow and Martin Scorsese have crossed comfortably back and forth between media.
In this instance, it’s interesting to see how Meadows handles the episodic nature of TV drama. The first episode is a scene-setter, with Meadows and Thorne conspiring – via a wedding, a beating and a heart attack – to reunite Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) with his former gang, broken up at the end of the original film by the horrific acts of violence perpetrated by Combo (Stephen Graham). It feels very much like a Meadows film – the warmth he has for his characters, the naturalism of the performances, the balance between humour and pathos are all, pleasingly, in place. And it’s pleasant enough to revisit Shaun, Woody, Lol and Milky. When we first meet up with them here, they’re in that difficult, shifting period between adolescence and adulthood, striving to be grown up yet still capable of extremely childish behaviour.
The episode arc is, principally, Woody and Lol’s wedding day, with the bride and groom travelling by bus to what looks like a grim school hall that doubles as a registry office. But Woody realises, perhaps too late, that he doesn’t want he and Lol to end up like his parents; Lol, meanwhile, hasn’t even invited hers to the ceremony. Future episodes promise to explore the fall out from this, and how Woody and Lol’s relationship impacts on other gang members. Just as significantly, this first episode also introduces Lol’s estranged father, Mick (Johnny Harris) who we might deduce will fulfil the kind of role traditionally played by Paddy Considine in Meadows films. And then there’s Combo, such a terrifying and disruptive presence in the original film, whose return in future episodes you could presume is inevitable.
You might wonder, of course, why Meadows has chosen to revisit these characters. In the production notes handed out at the screening of episode 1, he says, “Audiences seemed to really respond to the characters… Not only did I want to take the story of the gang broader and deeper, I also saw in the experiences of the young in 1986 many resonances to now – recession, lack of jobs, sense of the world at a turning point.” Certainly, This Is England 86 is being set up as one of the big guns in Channel 4’s Autumn drama season, and it’s easy enough to see why. At the risk of sounding snobbish, Channel 4’s over-reliance in recent years on American imports and reality shows feel like they’ve undermined its early promise as home of great, home-grown drama like Walter, GBH, A Very British Coup and Traffik. These were series that worked brilliantly as both entertainment and also had space to provide greater social, political and economic comment. A function, clearly, Meadows sees This Is England 86 also performing.
This Is England ’86 airs on Channel 4 on 7th September and is available to own on DVD from 11th October 2010 courtesy of 4DVD.