This Is England ’86

The eighties have more to tell us than their ongoing revival (which has, by now, lasted longer than the original decade) would suggest. Surging unemployment, wholesale destruction of the public sphere, asinine and inescapable pop-culture: Slavoj Zizek’s recent suggestion that the 00s, bracketed by 9/11 and the international financial crisis represent the most visible surfacing yet of the neurotic mechanisms of neo-liberal capitalism chime with Shane Meadows’ portrait of the first moment of the system’s triumph. There are moments in This is England ’86, which recently finished its four-episode run on Channel Four, that spit signals across the decade: around the anniversary of the end of the Falklands adventure, the English and Argentine teams clash in the 1986 World Cup; Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), son of a marine dead in the Manilas, is confronted with former skinhead Combo (Stephen Graham), a surrogate father to Shaun back in Shane Meadows’ original 2006 film, back on the other side of Live Aid and the miners’ strike, of the apparent victory of monetarism and militarism. Archive footage of the end of the Falklands conflict haunts Shaun’s dreams, taunting this moment of alleged peace when all energy seems to have been drained from the characters’ lives, into the dun surfaces and leaden skies of the East Midlands towns Meadows knows and shot so acutely.

In This is England, subculture was a protective skin(head) for Shaun, an assertion of working-class autonomy written on the body, in a country that no longer worked, a shield against a state that swallowed boys like him whole. Three years later, and the new order is set in stone. The lack of political contextualisation in the first two episodes reminds the viewer of just how naturalised the situation felt by then: no more questions; no more war, in the south Atlantic or in south Yorkshire. The imagery of the royal wedding seems as if beamed in from some other country; the high-spending glamour-culture of the 80s most recently canonised in Ashes To Ashes is nowhere to be seen, a reminder that the boom’s benefits were never exported beyond the Isle of Dogs. The overlapping plots of the series are driven by the inertia and fragmentation of the skins’ group in this new age: Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and Lol’s (Vicky McClure) apparently unshakeable romance stumbles at the altar, foundering on the reality principle (in the form of Woody’s job), and leaving Lol to take comfort in her other childhood sweetheart, Milky (Andrew Shim) – and even her blonde quiff, the single greatest hairstyle on TV this year, seems a forlorn remnant of a vanished age; Gadget is lured away by the dubious charms of Trudy (Hannah Walters); even Meggy’s heart attack at the first episode’s wedding feels almost heavy-handedly symbolic. The double return at the climax of the third episode – of Combo, whose mother is dying, and Lol’s estranged father (Johnny Harris), who, having abused her as a child, in a queasily authentic scene rapes her fellow skin Trev (Danielle Watson) – seems like a reckoning with civil ghosts, and the move that shifts the series out of the relative autopilot of the first two episodes, grabbing its loose strands together. As in C4’s other great entrail-reading of the 80s, Red Riding, the violence feels less like a box-ticking exercise in Grim Realism than a poetic and visceral refraction of the political crises of the time. (Pointedly, Lol’s father, seething with frustrations, is an example of that suddenly invisible type, the unemployed blue-collar worker.)

Though it’s hard to call This is England ’86 a total success – it’s difficult to give a damn about some of the characters’ plights in the first two episodes, and the series suffers from the lack of Meadows’ directorial energy – the wider scope of the ensemble drama adds richness to the brutal and fixated world of the film, aided by some of the fine performances. Turgoose is excellent as the disillusioned and slyly gormless teenager, his resurrected dalliance with Smell played sweetly coy; Harris creates a brilliant portrait of misogyny and frustrated machismo, hiding behind his Grizzly Adams beard; Graham plays Combo with a grim sense of emptied-out personality, a man whose life can only be restored by flinging it away, by taking on another’s responsibilities. The sense of harrowing inevitability to the climax, tying together the fates of this tiny community, comes in part from Graham’s desperate performance, as well as the deft plotting of Meadows: an alchemic conversion of sin to new life. It’s he who allows the characters to carry on, into a future we remember all too well: another moment when conservative misanthropy hides as necessity and peace.
_This Is England ’86 is still available to watch on 4OD_


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