TV Review: THIS IS ENGLAND '86 - Part One

Shane Meadows's BAFTA-winning This Is England was a witty and intriguing look at 1980s skinheads who essentially adopted 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), then later found their gang's camaraderie manipulated into racism by bigoted adult Combo (Stephen Graham). The four-part TV sequel This Is England '86 picks up the story three years later: former-skinhead and gang leader Woody (Joe Gilgun) is getting married to his fiancé Lol (Vicky McClure); while Shaun has turned his back on his old buddies, flunked his end-of-school exams, and become a target for local bullies. There are a number of things that impress about This Is England '86; primarily the cinematic production design and filming techniques (directed by Tom Harper), that perfectly compliment the original film. If you didn't know better, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a theatrical sequel, in terms of its aesthetic and attention to detail. Secondly, the fact this four-part drama was made with Meadows's close involvement (he co-wrote this opener with Jack Thorne) and has reassembled the original's cast means it's impossible to treat TIE86 as a cash-in trading on a brand name -- it's a fully-fledged sequel, simply transferred to the smallscreen and slicing a new four-hour story into 60-minute chunks. Unfortunately, while it's beautiful to look at and comes packaged with plenty of memorable characters and wonderful verisimilitude, there was one key ingredient missing from this opening episode: a dark underbelly. The beauty of the movie was watching the story play with audience expectations (the skinheads were a genuinely positive force in Shaun's life, not violent racists), before some of them were brainwashed into prejudice by British Nationalist hardliner Combo. There's none of that dark tinge here (although I'm sure it's on the way), and the hour felt a little too light and unremarkable as a result. It was more like an '80s-set Skins, which isn't surprising given how co-writer Thorne works on that contemporary teen-drama. Even a turning-point scene with Shaun being bullied by a bike gang essentially played for laughs -- with Shaun pressured into calling the leader's girlfriend a "fat cow" in her presence, so her boyfriend could defend her honour. It was all played at a comedic level you wouldn't expect from Grange Hill, which undercut the seriousness I think was intended from the fact Shaun's ensuing head cut needed hospital treatment. I'd have liked to feel concerned about Shaun's situation as an aimless school-leaver who's flushing his life away, beset by bullies who take advantage of his quiet demeanour, but I didn't. The bullies were oddly too sympathetic, partly because they got the hour's funniest scene -- pondering why an ornament on a coffee table has its own "rug" (a doily), and who's expected to sit in a tiny whicker chair perched on top of a TV set. As a knockabout piece of teenage whimsy designed to spark nostalgia in viewers who lived through the '80s, This Is England '86 was definitely a success. The intense make-up, the coiffured hair, the ugly dresses, the bad suits, even the drizzly-grey ambience of the north with its concreted buildings, everything was perfectly calibrated to fling your mind back 25 years. There's something very potent when you mix the bleakness of this location with the gaudy vibrancy of '80s fashions; it's like the people themselves are trying to breath some life into the world through self-expression. Overall, This Is England '86 got off to a resolutely adequate start because there just wasn't much drama to grab you by the scruff of the neck. Despite having a whole prequel movie to set-up the characters, I don't feel enough of a connection to Woody to make his registry office wedding's catastrophe land a punch, and the heart attack suffered in a toilet cubicle by Meggy (Perry Benson) was likewise a bit hollow because I have no particular attachment to that second tier character. I was more prepared to dive into this world as seen through Shaun's eyes, but his storyline was too thin and clichéd to get wrapped up in. But to end on a positive; I fully expect screws to tighten and the story to get more interesting once Shaun's inevitably reunited with Woody's cronies, and the fearsome Combo makes his return. I just hope This Is England '86 will have something new to say when those pieces align, without simply following the emotional arc of the 2006 movie in the guise of a 2010 TV drama.
WRITERS: Shane Meadows & Jack Thorne DIRECTOR: Tom Harper CAST: Thomas Turgoose, Rosamund Hanson, Joe Gilgun, Vicky McClure, Andrew Ellis, Andrew Shim, Stephen Graham, Perry Benson, George Newton, Jo Hartley, Johnny Harris, Kriss Dosanjh, Danielle Watson, Joe Dempsie, Chanel Cresswell, Michael Socha, Hannah Walters, Katherine Dow Blyton & Perry Fitzpatrick TRANSMISSION: 7 September 2010 €“ CHANNEL 4/HD, 10PM
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