Following the success of the film This Is England and a television series This Is England ’86, Shane Meadows is back with a three-part TV update of the saga set in 1988.
Meadows originally planned to go from This Is England ’86 to This Is England ’90 – a series in which he plans to look at the early days of the British rave culture. However, after the dramatic events of the final episodes of ’86, he decided that something was needed to bridge the gap between ’86 and ’90. Starting as a Christmas special, it evolved into this three-parter.
The story still revolves around Christmas – in fact, it is the only instalment to focus on solely on the continuing lives of the This Is England crew and follow their experiences during the festive season. Aside from a few references to Thatcher’s government, a couple of football matches and some fairly memorable Eastenders plot lines, the opening episode is far less overtly intertwined with social and political events of the era than previous This Is England ventures. Meadows himself describes This Is England ’88 as “a broken nativity play”, and the opening episode can certainly been seen to capture a truly British Christmas.
One of the areas in which the series looks like it will excel is in its ability to perfectly evoke the anti-climactic atmosphere which often surrounds the traditional festive hype, while continuing to make for thoroughly compelling viewing. Visits to the Woodfords’ (Woody’s parents’ house) provide the perfect opportunity for Meadows and Jack Thorne, who collaborated once again in scripting this production, to generate recognisable scenes of awkward family dynamics, offering some of the episode’s more comic moments.
The consequences of the events which took place in ’86 quickly become evident during this latest venture into the world of Lol (Vicky McClure), Woody (Joe Gilgun) and the rest of the once-skinheaded gang. It’s something of a rarity to see characters who have remained quite so captivating over the years, and this may well be attributed, at least in part, to this continuous course of development to which viewers have been privy. While it was Thomas Turgoose’s Shaun that appeared to have come the furthest between the film and initial episodes of ’86, the focus has shifted somewhat since then, allowing other characters to fully establish themselves on screen.
Of course, it is not quite the group it once was. Meadows has explained that Lol and Woody, in particular, are now “living on the outside of the gang which they created”, and this is something which comes to light within the first episode of ’88. The dynamic is entirely different between the characters, yet there is also a sense of nothing having changed at all. Whilst the film portrayed the skinhead subculture, and ’86 went on to explore the revival of the mod scene, ’88 takes something of a different stance when it comes to style – this time around, the priority lies soley in highlighting the character developments that we’ve missed over the latest 18 months. Instead, it is within the narrative format itself that we see a more adventurous range of stylistic choices, with the most daring moments perfectly executed to great effect.
This Is England seems to have settled into its purpose as a small screen production, and appears to have gained confidence by using the format to its own advantage. The introduction of new characters, such as the girlfriend of Harvey (Michael Socha), feels much more subtle than in ’86, whilst the script in general seems to have taken a step away from ’86‘s Skins-esque tendency to ‘be cool’, in favour of something altogether more truthful, if not a little on the bleak side.
Of course, what is arguably Shane Meadows’ finest creation has become wonderfully familiar. The soundtrack continues to be effective in invoking not only a sense of atmosphere but also one of nostalgia, meanwhile the fashion has come to serve as an essential representation of character, rather than purely era. Whilst the plot may remain (wonderfully) unpredictable, Meadows has stated that ’88 is “classic This Is England, but there is something positive which comes out of it”. However the events of the series might eventually unfold, This Is England ’88 looks like it will deliver a refreshingly unsentimental option when it comes to this year’s Christmas telly, with a series which promises to be both gritty and endearing in equal measure.
This Is England ’88 airs at 10pm, Channel 4, 13th, 14th and 15th December.