On the council estates of this our glorious nation the remnants of Britain’s working class, beaten down by Thatcher’s economic ‘miracle’ of the 80s, live unglamorous lives. The vast majority of them are decent people: mothers struggling to bring up their kids in the right way, fathers battling to hold down a decent job, and the kids, doing what kids do, being bright and sparky, running around in gangs, experimenting with drugs and sex before the harsh realities of adult life intervene. Then there is the damage: relationships stretched beyond breaking point, the boredom of everyday existence on the breadline, dreams broken through lack of opportunity, violence engineered from frustration. In the 1960s the British New Wave made films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey which told us of the lives of the people who lived in what were then pit-towns and centres of industry. Later, directors such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh documented the corrosive effect of Thatcherism on those communities. Now the mantle has passed to Shane Meadows.
This four-DVD box set includes all of Meadows’ major works to date bar the poorly received Once Upon A Time in the Midlands, the one occasion where he departed from his habit of using little-known actors in favour of an all-star cast that included Robert Carlyle, Rhys Ifans, Kathy Burke, Shirley Henderson and Ricky Tomlinson. The first of Meadows’ feature-length films TwentyFourSeven (1997) did, however, star Bob Hoskins as Darcy, a washed-up football coach who opens a boxing club in an attempt to wean the local delinquent youth off their self-destructive lifestyle of drink, drugs and casual violence. Shot in black and white, the film eloquently expresses the frustrations and low self-esteem of the town’s young men, eager to cling to the opportunity offered to them against a backdrop of unemployment and empty days. Hoskins puts in a bravura performance as the dreamer who has to earn the respect of the boys and, if the characters of the would-be-pugilists themselves aren’t as well developed, the relationship of one with his scornful, violent father is the real emotional heart of the movie. Clearly shot on a budget of no money whatsoever, the sheer story-telling talent of Meadows carries the film home.
Meadows’ next film was the rites-of-passage tale A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), the story of two school kids, Romeo and Gavin, who befriend a peculiar young man called Morell (Paddy Considine) after he saves them from bullies. The seemingly simple Morell develops an infatuation with Romeo’s sister Ladine (Vicky McClure) and for a while the film seems like a light-hearted comedy as he clumsily attempts to woo her. Abruptly though, we discover a darker, psychotic side to Morell’s character and the relationship between this grown-up child and the youngsters takes on a disturbing edge that is emphasised when Ladine narrowly escapes a sexual assault at his hands. Meadows is again strongest on issues of fatherhood – Romeo’s father is absent and Morell fulfils the role of surrogate in much the same way as Hoskins does to his boxing charges in TwentyFourSeven, while Morell’s damaged psychology is partly explained by a violent relationship with his own father. Like all of Meadows’ films A Room for Romeo Brass manages to be funny, sad and disturbing by turns. Just like real life in fact.
Considine turns up again in Dead Man’s Shoes (2005), for which he also shares a co-writing credit. Here he plays a paratrooper returning to a small Midlands town with his simpleton brother Anthony to take a terrible revenge on a gang of small-time villains. By re-styling his usual social realism as revenge movie Meadows plays with the conventions of the genre. The gang are shown more as bored slackers escaping the mundanity of small-town life through drugs and crime, while we never see the actions of Considine’s psychotic paratrooper, just the devastating results. Considine gives an excellent performance in what could have been a one-dimensional role in other hands, and the shocking revelation that hits us towards the end of the movie provides a brilliant twist that throws the entire film into a more ghostly, poignant light. Production values are low, perhaps deliberately so, but once again Meadows demonstrates that inventiveness and ingenuity are the important ingredients in what is probably his best movie to date.
The release of This Is England (2007) came earlier this year to much acclaim. Set in 1983, it tells the story of an 11-year old kid, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), whose father has died in the Falklands War. His search for belonging leads him into the arms of the local skinhead fraternity, a benign, multi-racial bunch led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and his girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure again) who help dress Shaun in the regulation uniform of Ben Sherman, braces and boots. The idyll is shattered by the return from jail of Combo (Stephen Graham), a former member of the gang who now espouses the manifesto of the National Front. Shaun is susceptible to Combo’s arguments and, seeking a father-figure, joins up with him. Much as in A Room for Romeo Brass the film deals with the relationship of a vulnerable young person taken under the wing of a damaged older man, and again Meadows attempts to define the cause behind that damage, rather than simply portraying the character as a monster. It’s intelligent, complex and brave directing. The film fizzes with energy and, as with all of Meadows’ films, the use of music is exemplary, a potent mixture of reggae, ska, punk and 80s pop.
A decade on from TwentyFourSeven Shane Meadows has established himself as one of Britain’s brightest talents with a series of films that address the reality of life for the working classes in the UK. It’s further proof of his skill that these films are also brilliantly entertaining. While he is by no means a complete filmmaker (his female characters, although often stronger and more stable than their male counterparts, come across as under-developed) his films have a rare naturalness and an emotional truth that guards his work against dourness. As far from condescending stereotypes and facile miserabilism as can be, this box set is an electrifying blast of real life.