Brutal Britain in the '80s

This is England (2006)
Written and directed by Shane Meadows
Rated MA 15+, 100 minutes
4 stars

Shane Meadows’ best films are always about something that happened to him as a kid. Come to think of it, all his films are about something that happened to him as a kid.

He grew up on a housing estate at Uttoxeter near Nottingham in the English midlands, the son of a long-distance lorry driver. At 10 he wanted to be a career criminal, but he kept getting caught when he nicked things. At 12 he was the youngest member of his town’s skinhead gang – and that’s the experience that he dramatises in This is England, a profoundly moving and disturbing film about the loneliness of a small boy.

Meadows seems to grow as an artist with each film, but the constant in his films is a sense of regret and sadness. Each film, from Twenty Four Seven, to A Room for Romeo Brass to Dead Man’s Shoes, has a betrayal at the centre, usually leading to an act of violence. Except for Once Upon A Time in the Midlands, the only film he seems to regret making, each story has a strongly autobiographical element – none more so than This is England.

This is not the case with the other English directors he’s most often compared to – Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, whose stories come from research into, and political identification with, the working classes. Meadows’ only research tool appears to be his memory, which is constantly sifting through his regrets, focussing particularly on the powerless, the bullied, the mentally weak – a succession of forgotten waifs and strays. If you want to know what becomes of the broken-hearted, you’ll find many of them in a Shane Meadows film.

In an on-stage interview at the British Film Institute’s Southbank theatre in April this year, Meadows talked about his upbringing. ‘Yeah, every moment of joy in my life usually stunk of sadness. Every time I was just about to get somewhere someone stuck a dart up my arse. That’s how I remember growing up in Uttoxeter. When things were at their shittest, people seemed to be at their best and when things were at their best, people seemed to be at their worst… and that’s Uttoxeter, you know – it’s a nowhere place and an everywhere place.’

This is England is set near the coast at Grimsby, about two hours northeast of Uttoxeter – possibly because that’s where the main young actor comes from. Thomas Turgoose plays Shaun, whose dad has recently been killed in the Falklands war. The film begins with a montage of what was happening in 1983 – Maggie Thatcher, a soldier with his leg blown off in the South Atlantic, Greenham Common demos, Lady Diana, the National Front and the arrival of the compact disc. This is accompanied by reggae music as Shaun drags himself from his pebblecrete council house to the school where he’s bullied for wearing flares, on the last day of term.

Shaun has a sad, slightly wonky-featured face, but Meadows makes him instantly likeable when he launches himself in the schoolyard at an older and much bigger boy who slags off his dad. The headmaster thrashes both of them, because corporal punishment in state schools is still the norm. Indeed, that’s part of the film’s substrate: violence is as English as warm beer and crap weather in this film – from the playground to the battleground.

On his way home, Shaun encounters a gang of five skinheads in a pedestrian underpass. Their leader Woody (Joseph Gilgun) takes an immediate shine to him. Shaun becomes the newest member of the gang, but these skinheads are not like the racist bovver boys of later years. One of them is black, for a start. They’re mostly misfits and losers, banding together for support. Woody is charismatic and intelligent, with a sharp tongue and firm but benevolent control. Milky, the black one (Andrew Shim) is his deputy. The others have names like Pukey (Jack O’Connell), Gadget (Andrew Ellis) and Kes (Kieran Hardcastle). There is also a posse of girls with weird haircuts and make-up who treat Shaun like an adorable mascot. Woody’s girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure) shaves his head for him, and Smelly (Rosamund Hanson) gives him his first lesson in kissing.

Shaun feels immediately at home. These people look out for him and do wildly exciting things like vandalising new unoccupied houses, smoking dope and listening to great black music. Yes, that’s right: these are the original skins – the tail end of the movement that began in the late 60’s when the Mods in London started going to reggae clubs. Meadows says the skinheads were working class blokes who were into black music and distinctive fashions – a bit tough, but not the racist National Front supporters that the movement would become.

The balance shifts with the return of Combo (Stephen Graham), who has just done three and a half years in prison. Combo is the kind of psycho character that Meadows often has in his films (usually played by Paddy Considine). He’s tattooed and dangerous, driven by a host of demons. He wants war on the ‘Pakis’ and the blacks, the ‘scum that’s taking our jobs’. He makes speeches about the warrior culture of Britain, the need to stand together and the time for action. After one of these, he spits on the floor and draws a line with his boot, demanding to know who’s with him. Woody stands and leads half of them away. He wants no part in the racism. Shaun, Pukey and Gadget – the youngest, dumbest and most impressionable – decide to stay. Combo begins his campaign of terror.

What’s so impressive about This Is England, and the reason it’s such a powerful tragedy, is that it’s built with such clarity and inexorable logic. What happens here to these characters is what would happen. Meadows makes them all so transparent and so vulnerable to manipulation, so desperate for something and someone to believe in. When the National Front comes recruiting, Combo’s sad stormtroopers are ready to be impressed. No-one else has ever bothered with them.

With this film, Meadows connects the small-time drama to a wider sense of the society in a way he hasn’t really done before – hence the title. That’s a sign that his ambition and talent are growing, catching up with his already acute sense of compassion and eye for character. The film is a knockout.

Postscript: Ten years later, this seems very prescient about what was coming in Britain. If you want to understand the Brexit vote, this is a good place to start. The film won a BAFTA for best British film, and spawned a number of sequels and series for television.