You know what you get with a Shane Meadows film; more certainly than even Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, his name on the credits tells you what you’re in for: a Midlands-set working-class drama scattered with moments of real comedy and genuinely disturbing flashes of violence. Although he is still to have a commercial hit (even the ‘star-studded’ Once Upon a Time in the Midlands flopped) Shane Meadows is becoming one of this country’s major filmmakers (South Bank Show special coming soon) and he has found his own niche in British cinema. Although he is very much part of the social realist element that has run from John Grierson and the GPO (via the kitchen sink to Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke) through to Trainspotting and The Full Monty, his is a distinct voice (even his adverts for McDonalds have this feel). The main difference between Shane Meadows and this tradition is his closeness to his subject matter. Unlike Loach and Clarke, Meadows is not a middle-class filmmaker looking in. A self-taught, seemingly ‘natural’ filmmaker, he is depicting something he understands on a more instinctive level. His working-class characters are more varied and complex, often contradictory, individuals driven less by their economic situation than by their inner (often Freudian) desires.
This Is England is Shane Meadows’ fifth proper feature film and his first period ‘costume’ drama (albeit skinheads in the 1980s) and perhaps he is treading over the same ground and themes (same people just shorter hair and bigger boots) but, unlike Calverton Colliery, there’s plenty more coal in this mine. This Is England marks a return, stylistically and thematically, to his earlier films, particularly A Room for Romeo Brass (not that he’d moved very far away). It features many unknown and unprofessional actors including many Meadows alumni such as Andrew Shim and Vicky McClure, the child stars of Romeo Brass.
Like that film it is another semi-autobiographical morality tale. At times it seems like an After School Special or a Play for Today to warn children against playing with racists. But it is far more complex. The chief racist, Combo (Stephen Graham), is himself mixed-race and at times a caring and appealing character. The racists aren’t demonised and the film is all the stronger for making them more human, less mindless; and the racism all the more disturbing. However, it is the racist swearing that has, somewhat controversially, earned the film its 18 certificate.
Although based on Shane Meadows’ own experiences growing up in Uttoxeter, it is set in a nameless provincial town complete with a mixture of regional, Midlands and Northern, accents. The film was largely shot in St Ann’s in Nottingham with a few incongruous visits to the Grimsby ‘seaside’. The main character, ‘cryptically’ called Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), is a 13-year-old who becomes a mascot-like figure to a gang of older skinheads. It is a bildungsroman or rites-of-passage film in a similar vein to Franí§ois Truffaut’s 400 Blows or Lasse Hallstrí¶m’s My Life as a Dog but of course very British. The child’s point of view device is used to similar effect. We allow the character more mistakes; even misguided racism is forgivable. But it also gives the viewer an outsider’s perspective. It is through this that we can see the desirable aspects of being a skinhead, of belonging to a gang.
This Is England shows a much greater understanding of skinhead culture than Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (perhaps the only other well-known skinhead film). Most importantly it shows the sense of belonging that comes with being part of a gang, which Clarke’s film ignores. We see the skinheads through their shared identity and with all the contradictions that that entails. Combo claims to be an original skinhead from the late 60s and the soundtrack is packed with old ska tunes, mostly Toots and the Maytals. It is this paradox, how a culture based on black Jamaican music could embrace the National Front, that is central to the subculture. The late 70s and early 80s skinhead revival was based on a mixture of ska and oi punk. It is oi (well the oi-ish UK Subs) which plays as they drive off to the NF meeting in Combo’s car (complete with L-plates). At one point the contradictions seem to go too far; the scene in which Woody’s gang put on ridiculous fancy-dress costumes to go ‘hunting’ just doesn’t ring true. Do skinheads really behave like this? But then, I almost trust Shane Meadows enough to believe that it really happened – he’s such an honest filmmaker.
The film starts with a montage of 1980s iconography, a two-minute version of I love 1983, featuring Margaret Thatcher, Roland Rat, the Rubik’s Cube and the Falklands War. The footage largely comes from the ITN archives (it somehow seems fitting that Shane Meadows remembers the 80s through ITN and not the BBC). The period detail is exact and constant throughout (Ford Escorts, Grifter bikes) but without dominating the drama or playing for laughs as in Life On Mars. The period detail even stretches to attitudes. Combo asks Milky whether he feels English or Jamaican – his own version of Norman Tebbit’s cricket test. But perhaps what is most surprising is how little some things have changed, and not just the St Ann’s council estate location (not a satellite dish in sight). We have come from the Falklands War to the Iraq War, from skinheads to hoodies and from the wrong trousers (flares in 1983!) to the wrong trainers or the wrong phone. Perhaps that’s why it’s called This Is England.
It is a film full of great performances: first-time actor (in anything – including school plays) Thomas Turgoose holds the entire film together; Rosamund Hanson as Smell is hilarious and Stephen Graham deserves the skinhead equivalent of a BAFTA (an Oi! perhaps). It if wasn’t for the pleading acoustic guitars emphasising those introspective moments This Is England could be my favourite British film of the noughties and the eighties. Still, this is another great Shane Meadows film, and maybe his best so far.