This Is England '86: a frankly miserable project

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Last night saw the conclusion of Shane Meadows's four-part mini-series, This Is England '86, aired on Channel 4 in the UK. It brought an end to a frankly miserable project for the director.

Following Meadows's 2006 film This Is England, the series, set against the backdrop of the 1986 World Cup – its promotional campaign began during the 2010 World Cup and the final episode interlaces its fictional narrative with archival footage of Maradona's 'Hand of God' – continues to observe the lives of young Shaun, Woody, Lol, Milky and the rest of their gang: Gadget, Banjo, Meggy and Shaun's old girlfriend Smell. Relegated almost to a secondary role, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) has since the end of the original film lost touch with the others, though in the first episode is reunited with them after an unexpected visit to the hospital.

More central to the series is the relationship between Woody (Joe Gilgun) and Lol (Vicky McLure): in the first episode, their planned wedding is scrapped when attendee Meggy suffers a heart-attack that coincides with Woody's cold-footed silence at the important moment. After moving in with Woody despite the set-back, Lol discovers that her father, Mick (Johnny Harris), has returned after years of absence. Lol is concerned for her younger sister Kelly, who is unaware that their father sexually abused Lol years before. As Woody attempts to balance his social life and domestic obligations with a factory job, Lol turns to Milky (Andrew Shim) for comfort.

Shim reprises his role as the black skinhead who, at the end of This Is England, was badly beaten by Combo, the violent white nationalist portrayed with some complexity by Stephen Graham, who provided much tension to the 2006 film. A recently released ex-convict who to youngster Shaun appears as a timely father figure, Combo was an insidious yet somehow vulnerable character who felt very real indeed.

The father/son element took on contemporary resonance in the earlier work: its exposition made clear that Shaun was fatherless due to his father being killed whilst serving in the Falklands War, and though grossly misguided, Combo's anti-war rant to Shaun provokes a great anger and frustration in the youngster because of its essential truths – that the war itself was being fought under false pretences, fed to tame the same working classes that Margaret Thatcher had openly waged war on. The film's release, at a time in which the UK was once again involved in an escalating imperialist war – this time in both Iraq and Afghanistan – gave it an extra political edge.

This material, even in the hands of a limited cinematic storyteller such as Shane Meadows, proved quite powerful at points. Meadows himself apparently saw much further potential in the work: "When I finished This Is England, I had a wealth of material and unused ideas that I felt very keen to take further," he said in August 2009. "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. Whereas the film told part of the story, the TV serial will tell the rest."

Though these sentiments ring true for the film, the mini-series, we should say before anything else, is a mostly vacant work, with no significant attention paid to a recession, to unemployment, to a sense of political and social upheaval. If the central relationship between Combo and Shaun offered a potentially rich examination of political disillusionment amongst the young in both the England of the Eighties and of the present day, its television follow-up, co-scripted with Meadows by Jack Thorne, makes an industry out of fashionable miserablism, forced humour and a moral viewpoint that can only be described as confused at best.

Meadows has by now an immediately recognisable film-making style. That is not to say it is a particularly strong one. Having made his name with rather ugly dramas TwentyFourSeven (1997), A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) and Dead Man's Shoes (2004), the director at this stage of his career seems content to allow his actors to improvise, to write into a scene a comic element that makes the viewer wince all the more when juxtaposed with unflinching portrayals of violence.

His best film, This Is England, is a product of this same approach, but has to its credit an impressive actor in Stephen Graham; when not onscreen in that film, Graham's absence is strongly felt. Similarly, the strongest scenes in both A Room for Romeo Brass and Dead Man's Shoes are those containing Paddy Considine, a fine actor whose absence in Meadows's Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) due to studio interference was that film's ultimate downfall, and whose presence in Meadows's 2009 comedy Le Donk + Scor-zay-zee carries the film. The latter example is almost a feature-length experiment of improvisation, one that without Considine would most likely have fallen flat; Stephen Graham, on the other hand, plays menacing, violent characters very well. Between them, in short, these actors have given Meadows his best moments.

Herein, perhaps, lies This Is England '86's most obvious problem. Operating on the same approach as Meadows's other work, the attempted naturalism that improvisation is meant to offer is undone for the most part by poor acting and a fundamentally wanting script.

The first two episodes of the quartet were directed by Tom Harper, who made 2009's The Scouting Book for Boys (written by Meadows's co-writer Jack Thorne and starring Thomas Turgoose). Both episodes are mostly weak. The series opening in particular was insufficient in terms of plot, character development and any sense of urgency or life; the second part offered not much more.

There are simply too many plot holes, improbabilities and contrivances to list here. Needless to say, it doesn't take long for the laziness of Meadows and Thorne's script to become apparent. At several points in the series, dramatic incidents are juxtaposed so as to magnify one another's gravity, but the writers do this with a casual disregard for fundamental believability: in the series opening, a key character's heart attack coincides with the already-doomed wedding he is attending, while in the third episode a rape occurs while everybody else is having tremendous fun elsewhere – and Meadows cuts back and forth and back again to make us all aware of this heightened tension he has made every effort to attain. It's quite mechanical.

Many things are played for laughs here. Meggy, the bespectacled adult member of Shaun's gang, for instance, has a son he is unaware of, whose resemblance to his father is striking because of his spectacles alone; if Woody had a benign humanity to him in the original film, here his portrayal is less sympathetic than merely backward; new character Flip (Perry Fitzpatrick) has scenes in the opening and penultimate episodes that are simply awkward in their comedy.

The problem isn't the inclusion of humour – life is often absurd even in its darkest moments – but that the humour itself is so juvenile so as to appear nostalgic. Neither Meadows nor Thorne can decide whether or not these characters and their situations are meant to be past-tense caricatures in a once-vivid reality; as a result, many scenes feel forced and their cartoonishness, such as that when dominatrix Trudy throws out teenage lover Gadget whilst tearfully revealing he is the only one of her many lovers to have made her living room wall framed, adds nothing.

Taking over from Tom Harper for the latter two episodes of the series, Meadows brings more directorial experience for apparently weightier material. But just as his writing cannot quite decorate otherwise lifeless characters in a humour resembling anything other than farce, his directorial approach isn't quite compelling enough to lift this shapeless material out of the depths of shorthand misery.

Early in the third episode, for instance, Johnny Harris, who plays Lol's dad Mick, erupts into a burst of rage. It's exactly the kind of scene for which Meadows's other films, regardless of their overall weaknesses, are remembered. Indeed, it seems Meadows as a film-maker is most comfortable when simply showing angry men about to boil over and affect those in the immediate vicinity. When Mick grabs his daughter by the throat and yells in her face, the series comes suddenly to life before sinking back into limpness.

The same episode concludes with a rape scene. If the scene is unsettling, it is not only due to the act of viewing this rarely seen of incidents on television, but due to the added exploitation on Meadows's part: not only does the camera linger in slow-motion, but a blandly sorrowful piano score accompanies both these images and the party scenes juxtaposed against them. It's obvious artistry to say the least – patronising, even. Moreover, in moral terms, it helps to reduce the potentially compelling character of Mick into one more easily dismissable as 'evil'; rapist or not, Mick's single-mindedness rings hollow given the brief context we have been given of him.

In the series finale, Trev (Danielle Watson), the girl who Mick raped – she is his daughters' friend – tells Lol what has happened. As if aware of how mundane the dialogue leading up to this revelation has been, Meadows decides to drown out the actual moment by the usual piano, revs up his slow-motion once more. Whether due to confidence or laziness or anything else, the omission, of sorts, is telling: when an actually challenging emotional investment, one beyond an eruption of anger, is required of him, Meadows seeks the comfort of aesthetic overkill.

Similarly, there's little if anything to be had concerning a specificity to the period setting. It should go without saying that token archive footage of Gary Lineker scoring for England accompanied by Margaret Thatcher soundbites does not amount to social context. Given this, the final scene of the series might be the biggest insult of all.

Other problems persist. Some are curious, moral problems: Stephen Graham's return as Combo at the end of the third episode, in order to become the villain redeemed by the end of the fourth, seems a gratuitous indulgence to say the least. Other problems seem budgetary as well as artistic: there are very few extras in the scenes, which makes it feel lifeless on many levels; there is very often the feeling that 'cinematic' photography has been utilised to give the work a maturity its script very obviously lacks. 

This Is England '86 found funding through a new Channel 4 initiative in the wake of Big Brother's demise, that seeks to divert an extra £20m a year into new creative dramas. Meadows himself has a technical approach and artistic interest that makes him a natural figure to lend both name and expertise to a project quite obviously filling a slot left by Shameless, a show to which even This Is England '86 compares unfavourably.

Whether or not Meadows or anybody else will do a second series is not yet certain. Whatever the case, the quartet of episodes that comprised This Is England '86 have only been the latest examples of an ongoing crisis in British television, one that borrows the most glaring weaknesses currently on display in the cinema and turns them into trivial, cynical and complacent products ready for mass consumption.