Last night I decided to start watching the trilogy of films by director Shane Meadows (“Once Upon A Time In The Midlands”, “Dead Man’s Shoes”) which starts with 2006’s “This Is England”.
Meadows also wrote the film, and based it on his own experiences of being an 11 year old kid growing up in the England of 1983, as he discussed in an article for the Guardian.
Next up for viewing will be “This Is England ’86” and “This Is England ’88”, both of which were serialised on Channel 4 television – though I gather that a fourth instalment, “This Is England ’90”, should be released sometime later this year.
In the film 12 year old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose – “Eden Lake”, “Somers Town”) endures his last day of term at school before the summer holidays start. He gets into a fight with another pupil when an offensive joke is made about his father who died in the previous year’s Falklands War. He is also the butt of jokes about his flared trousers and has an argument with a shopkeeper who throws him out of the shop.
On his way home he gets caught up with a gang of older skinhead lads, led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun – “Pride”). Woody feels sorry for Shaun and invites him to tag along with his gang.
Soon Shaun starts to feel at home with his new friends in the gang, has his hair cut into skinhead style by Woody’s girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure – “Redemption”, “Line Of Duty”) and adopts the dress code of the gang.
The group is a harmonious mix of boys and girls, which includes the new romantic Smell (Rosamund Hanson – “We Are The Freaks”), Pukey (Jack O’Connell – “’71”, “Tower Block”) and the gang’s only black member Milky (Andrew Shim – “Dead Man’s Shoes”) who like to kick back, have a drink and a smoke and enjoy themselves.
When Woody’s old friend Andrew “Combo” Gascoigne (Stephen Graham – “Blood”, “Snatch”) returns from serving a prison sentence, with another man called Banjo (George Newton – “Control”) in tow, he begins to infect the group with his extreme nationalist and racist views – leading to a split in the group as a few, including Shaun and Pukey, side with Combo over Woody’s non-confrontational stance.
Combo appears to understand the pain that Shaun feels over the loss of his father, and becomes the person that Shaun looks up to – even accompanying Combo and his followers to a National Front meeting being held by a Jaguar driving businessman named Lenny (Frank Harper – “St. George’s Day”, “Victim”).
Events begin to spiral out of control after Lol rebufs Combo’s advances and, having turned to Milky for a supply of cannabis, Combo finds himself becoming jealous when Milky shares stories of his big family and happy home life…
I think I was in some way inspired to watch this by the recent General Election here, and the parallels that can be found between society in England now and 32 years ago in July 1983, when the film is set and when the Conservative party had just won a general election even more convincingly than this year.
Certainly there are echoes now of themes in this film – resentment of immigrants over jobs, anti-Conservative feeling amongst the poorer parts of society, and young kids and teenagers actually spending time and doing things together instead of having virtual friends over the internet from their individual bedrooms.
I was relatively lucky back in the early 80s. I was at secondary school, just like Shaun. Unlike him, however, I had a complete family unit and, although I remember the St. Pauls Riot and the subsequent unease that I often felt whenever in that area (the Salvation Army I used to attend was situated on the edges of St. Pauls) I personally didn’t live in an area of depravation and crime. As a result, I didn’t encounter the issues raised in this film – and I am truthfully somewhat embarrassed by my lack awareness of how life was for many at that time.
Whilst my wife wasn’t overly enthusiastic about watching with me, fearing that the film would be too dark and violent, she was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the movie and it’s tone. There is violence and there is darkness, of course there is, but it is offset to a degree as there is also the portrayal of a sense of community and belonging depicted.
Special praise must be made of the performances of Turgoose and Graham. Turgoose was just 14 when this film was made, and it was his first film role. He is absolutely brilliant as the young Shaun trying to find his way in life without his father. Graham too is excellent. Granted he had been acting for a fair while by the time “This Is England” was made, but his portrayal of the dangerous Combo is chilling yet also has a sense of vulnerability – particularly in his scenes with Lol and also with Milky.
Make no mistake, this is not a happy film, but it feels incredibly real and is all the more disturbing and thought provoking as a result…