Prior to the airing of the first episode of ‘This is England ‘88’, the continuity announcer on Channel 4 warned viewers of upsetting archive footage. Within moments Margret Thatcher was outside Downing Street signalling the start of another harrowing ride at the hands of Shane Meadows.
As with the film that started the ‘This is England’ story, a montage of clips from the era sets the scene, this time to The Smiths ‘What Difference Does It Make’. And as with all Meadows’ previous work, music is once again a star, not just setting the mood, but also integral in this series in defining the era, as much as it was in the film in establishing the identity of a group of reggae and ska loving youngsters.
Now in 1988 and two years on from where the last television series ended, the group have found life to be continually complicated.
Woody, who instinctively shied away from the prospect of a mundane life at the start of ‘This is England ‘86’, is now having his future shaped by a promotion into middle-management that offers an endless supply of 2-4-1 pub grub vouchers, while getting his kicks from the prospect of a special family meal. Meanwhile Lol is a single-mother, Shaun is at college, Milky is trying to mend broken bridges and Gadge has testicular problems.
But these things are all played out in the shadow of the violent events of the past. A regular feature in Meadows’ work, including the first two instalments of the This is England franchise, is the looming presence of a dark and dangerous character; in this third series though, the menacing figure is a ghost, a beast of burden of what has gone before.
Meadows used a ghost to stunning effect in ‘Dead Man Walking’, and it is another feature of glorious direction here as well. In addition to the haunting, flitting figure of fear and the strong soundtrack, another Meadows feature is the shots of almost still photography as he sets a scene, particularly useful in a period piece.
It is an excellent piece of work. But it is arguable there is one flaw with ‘This is England ‘88’. It is not the slight historical inaccuracies of past instalments (the use of the St George’s Flag rather than a Union Flag, the unbelievable lip-service apology from Combo ahead of racist language, and the kick-off times in the 1986 World Cup), but the timescale of the recent back-story, which feels rushed.
Milky has been away and Woody has withdrawn from the wider group in the two months that precede the story being taken up two days before Christmas Day 1988, but those two months are made out to seem like a lifetime. So much happens in the three days of the story that is perhaps conceivable that the characters are living in comparative dog years, but the original idea of a third instalment was ‘This is England ‘90’, which may have made the pace of changing lives and circumstances more realistic.
The upside of this instalment being set in 1988 rather than 1990, is, as will surely have been clear to Channel 4, is that a fourth instalment can now be set in 1990, when we can expect a soundtrack of The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, with images of Thatcher leaving Downing Street and Gazza doing a Cryuff turn against the Dutch.
With a strong cast and crew of which Meadows has spoken about being a solid unit he enjoys working with, he can keep developing stories around a core set of characters in an England of the not too distant past. Using television rather than cinema there is more space for characters and plot to grow, which ‘This is England ‘86’ showed in particular, even allowing time for a sizeable portion of comedy.
And there is plenty of scope for development. Both the film and the series set in 1986 touched on the aftermath of the Falklands war. An annual episode as the group goes through the nineties, with new characters emerging, could be something for Channel 4 to hang their hat on for the next few years: an ‘Our Friends in The Midlands’ of thirtysomethings that are interesting and down to earth.
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