THIS IS ENGLAND (2006)
Written and directed by: Shane Meadows
Produced by: Mark Herbert
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Vicky McClure, Joseph Gilgun, Stephen Graham, Andrew Shim, Stephen Graham, Andrew Ellis, Jack O’Connell, Rosamund Hanson, Danielle James, Kriss Dosanjh, Chanel Cresswell etc.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Music by: Ludovico Einaudi
I remember the early 1980’s for: Thatcher, miners’ strikes, racism, teacher strikes, Shergar, penny sweets, Wham, bicycle tyres round lamp posts, white dog-shit, the IRA, hating school, riots, racism, heatwaves, Spitting Image, Duran Duran, caravan holidays in Canvey Island, Sergio Tacchini tracksuits, Bjorn Borg, bombs, the Falklands War, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), sherbet, cap-guns, Spurs winning the FA Cup, Fred Perry, glue-sniffing, school bullies and much, much more.
The early 1980’s were the primary years of awakening for me. I was ten when they started and grew into my teens as they drifted along. I was at a school I hated and was just becoming fully aware of what life and the world around me was about. It seemed to me, for various reasons, a place full of wonder but also injustice, fear and negativity. I grew up on a concrete Battersea council estate full of ruffians, stray dogs, sunshine, cold winters and family dysfunction.
Tapping into such emotions and memories is Shane Meadows’ gritty slice-of-life drama, This is England (2006). Set in the Midlands, it centres on twelve-year-old Shaun, portrayed by newcomer, Thomas Turgoose. Shaun and his mum are grieving the loss of his father; a soldier killed during the Falklands War. Shaun is angry, confused and an outsider at school. But he finds community when he meets Woody, Lol, Milky, Michelle, Gadget and other members of a group of skinheads. They are non-violent and into the music, fashion and generally fending off boredom together.
The first forty minutes of the show are politically infused but relatively light compared to the last hour. When Stephen Graham’s dominant alpha-male, Combo, is released from jail, the narrative dynamic changes and goes very dark. Combo is a bitter racist and angry at the world, blaming, like many ignorant people the influx of people from outside England of diluting the heritage of the nation. Meadows, through the character of Shaun, shows both sides of the impact of skinhead culture. Similar to the film, Platoon (1986), a younger, naive character becomes torn between two surrogate fathers. In this case the violent Combo and the passive, happy-go-lucky, Woody (Joseph Gilgun).
The film has no easy answers and what starts as a reasonably pleasant nostalgia trip backed by a superb soundtrack of punk, ska and reggae music, ends violently and in despair. The socio-political reflections of society through Shaun’s character arc finds a young boy even more lost in this forgotten Midland town by the end. The damning image of this lad chucking an English flag into the sea haunted me.
Shane Meadows, on a relatively low budget, has created a British film masterpiece worthy of the likes of Alan Clarke, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. He captures the look, feel, sounds and even smell of the era so evocatively. As a rites of passage film it works as an antithesis to the shiny Hollywood films with tightly wrapped happy endings. It’s a brutal exploration of identity, politics and racism which lingers long in the heart and mind. In Turgoose’ debut acting performance we get echoes of Englands’ innocence lost forever.
Lastly, the cast are incredible. This film has some familiar faces, all who would become pretty famous. They include: Stephen Graham, Vicky McClure, Joe Gilgun, Jo Hartley and a very young Jack O’Connell. Such actors would go on to bigger things but, collectively, they are never better than in this amazing film. It’s a true and proper drama which spawned an equally memorable and dramatically impressive television series. But, more about that in the future.