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TV Review: THIS IS ENGLAND '86 - Part Two

Forget Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows should be rightly heralded as the new figure-head of modern, gritty realist film-making, which shares a great deal with the original artistic and ideological manifesto of the relatively short-lived British New Wave of the 1950s and 60s and its heir apparent the later Kitchen Sink Realist movement that Leigh still subscribes to in his work. As I stated in my article on the depiction of the British working class earlier this year:

Lately Meadows has been the king of such films, using the rich tapestry of characters supposedly created by the working class to create wonderful character-lead visions like €˜This Is England€˜, €˜A Room for Romeo Brass€™ and €˜Somers Town€™, where the focus is always predominantly on the relationships between characters but where class concerns are never far from the surface.

And so it goes with the excellent This Is England 86, now into the second of its four parts, and developing into a compelling drama series with the usual touch of Meadows humour mixed in with the grit. Few working directors have the range or the directorial integrity to pull off tragi-comedy with such success, and it seems that rather than the unnecessary TV sequel to the original story that some may have suspected, '86 is a meaningful and worthwhile piece of film-making in its own right.

It is my esteemed pleasure to be taking over the reigns for reviewing the remaining three episodes of this hotly anticipated mini-series from Dan Owen now that the first episode is out of the way. Follow the leap to read my views on the second... (and you can also read Dan's own review of episode two at his excellent Media Digest)...

The second episode delves further into Lol (Vicky McClure) and Woody's (Joe Gilgun) relationship, thanks to some uncomfortable revellations concerning Lol's past and her relationship with her abusive father, who her mother has invited back into her life, announcing that he has changed. One thing that Meadows is well-versed in and manages to manipulate impressively for his audience is the notion of the toxic relationship, and the damaging effect that people with more power can have over those who idolise or love them.

The subplot dealing with Lol's abusive father readdressed the issue of the lack of darkness that was perceived of the first episode- the humour remained, as is typically expected of Meadows' work, but adding a genuinely affecting, dark undercurrent brings back that extra level of richness that makes Meadows' body of work transcend beyond being just nailed-on intricate portraits of life with a humorous touch.

I have seen other reviews mentioning a lack of the racism that underpinned the original movie as a conspicuous absence from the TV series, but that sort of misses the point. Far from the notion of institutionalised racism, This Is England was a portrait of control and destructive influence - primarily on the part of Combo and his militant racist companions - and how the teenagers, themselves the products of broken or dysfunctional homes and a wider community that doesn't value are more susceptible to radicalised ideas like the doctrine of hate that Combo preaches. The series, set some three years later, is about how the group have developed beyond Combo's destructive influence, while also fleshing each out with more of a back-story that goes some way to explaining why they were so easily influenced to becoming skin-heads in the first place. That approach also explains why Meadows and co-writer Jack Thorne have chosen an ensemble approach to the narrative, rather than choosing one character to follow more closely in the same vein that the movie followed Thomas Turgoose's Shaun.

The major plot-strands of episode two all deal with the fundamental dysfunction that marks every one of the family environments that the characters are products of - from Shaun's mother's clandestine affair with his new boss, Lol's father's shadowy past, the hilarious budding relationship between Gadget (Andrew Lewis Peter Ellis) and Crystal (and his subsequent rather insensitive assertion to her child over breakfast that he isn't his new dad). Even when played for humour, the relationships are portrayed beautifully, providing the foundation for Woody's fears from episode one that he would become his father if he didn't resist, and the circumstances that conspire to force his bride to be Lol into Milky's arms. These relationships are where Meadows really shines in his writing: his intricate observations of 80s Britain are perfectionist in their vision, but it is in the minutiae of human relationships that his observational sense kicks into over-drive. We are really able to feel for Lol, and for Woody, and there is a real sense that Lol's betrayal in the arms of his best friend will have severe repercussions.

As with the first episode, there is little overt comment on the wider socio-political condition of Britain, it may be the background to every event, but Meadows sees no need to make it manifest through laboured dialogue. Instead everything is implied, small details and delicate touches that hint at the wider historical period. But jesus, the 80s authenticity is out of this world- I thought Ashes to Ashes was a nailed on portrait, but This Is England makes it look like a fake nostalgic parody, sort of like one of those insistent 90s bars that are beginning to crop up all over the place. Everything looks and feels so real- though I'd have probably preferred some more insight into the musical scene of the period- and there is an incredible amount of pleasure in watching just how well observed the series is.

How easy it would have been for Meadows and Thorne to introduce characters as allegories for the wider concerns of the period, especially considering the loaded historical events that were happening in line with the narrative, and the fact that they didn't shows enormous restraint and dedication to the humanist concerns of the narrative above all else. But really, Meadows isn't about shock value- especially not with This Is England '86- just look at the way Lol's abuse was handled on-screen; nothing was ever explicitly seen or said, it was instead presented as a spectre that was tearing the family apart. The series' unwillingness to articulate the most gruesome details mimicked the claustrophobic tension that Lol feels when neither her family nor her fiance give her the support she needs when her father reappears in her life.

The acting is still excellent: Joe Gilgun and Vicky McClure in particular are the definite highlights, with McClure in particular showing her range in her explosive exchanges with her family and the tender, vulnerability that she shows when alone. Andrew Lewis Peter Ellis manfully takes on the major load of the comic responsibilities, and his awkward, hilarious sex-scene with Crystal - complete with her Dynasty fantasy- is undoubtedly the comic highpoint of the episode. In comparison with Combo, the current villain of the piece Flip (Perry Fitzpatrick) feels a little insignificant and is more slightly menacing comic relief than real machiavellian threat like Combo, but he does provide in both episodes so far the best imitation of A Room For Romeo Brass /Dead Man Walking style Paddy Considine you could ever imagine.

Stylistically, the episode continues in the same rich form as the first, combining the high-production values that Meadows has brought along from his film career, and retaining the muted pallet aesthetic that the original film established. Director Tom Harper has slotted so easily into the Meadows universe, that it is easy to imagine that it is Meadows himself behind the camera- the shooting techniques involved are just brilliant, and add a gloss that you just wouldn't expect of a TV mini-series- though to be fair the insurpassable Red Riding Trilogy set a precedent for quasi-cinematical British mini-series that will hopefully mean more high quality shows in the near future.

Even with the added depth that the additional story-lines have added to the first episode, I can't quite shake the feeling that everything that happens before the return of Combo, and the consequent chaos and friction that will cause is just an extended prologue. The moment that Stephen Graham reappears will be the huge pay-off that will make This Is England '86 step up to the same level that the original movie achieved.

Personally, I am enjoying the mini-series enormously; the time I am spending in the company of his characters and in his intimately drawn universe is enriching my opinion of Shane Meadows even further. May it continue even further into the last two episodes.

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: 14th September 2010 €“ CHANNEL 4/HD, 10PM

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