Growing up on telly

The three mini-series that subsequently took up the story of This is England appeared over a period of six years. These series share some common ground with other long-running Channel Four drama serials, especially Shameless (which is set in a similar working-class community) and the youth drama Skins – and in fact some of the writers and directors of both shows also worked on This is England. Nevertheless, This is England ‘86, ‘88 and ‘90 are perhaps better seen as special, one-off ‘event dramas’ – and as David Rolinson and Faye Woods have described, this was primarily how they were packaged and promoted by Channel Four. Yet, as in Shameless and Skins, and indeed more mainstream TV serials, we follow the same cast of characters across an extended period of time. Unlike the film, which focuses largely on Shaun’s perspective, this is an ensemble drama, with around a dozen major characters. Numerous minor characters from the film are developed more fully, and some new ones are introduced, especially parents and older adults.

As in a typical drama serial, there are several main storylines that are interwoven across the episodes. Perhaps the least interesting of these (in my view at least) is that of Shaun, the central character of the film. This is England ’86 begins with him sitting his final examination at school: not coincidentally, the subject is history. Across the following episodes we see him finding work and then attending college, firstly as a drama student, and eventually on a photography course. His mother starts a relationship with Mr. Sandu, the Asian shopkeeper whom Shaun had terrorized in the film; Shaun is disgusted to find them having sex one day, and leaves home for a while, only to return eventually. His relationship with ‘Smell’ (Michelle), the girl he took up with in the film, is rekindled in the first series; but we later see him get together with another girl on his drama course, and he breaks up with Smell. By the end of the final series, he has found another girl, a fellow student on his photography course. By this point, Shaun has moved to the margins, and becomes more of an observer and a member of the wider group than a leading character.

As the first two series proceed, it is Woody and his girlfriend Lol who come to occupy the central roles. In the first episode, most of the characters convene for Woody and Lol’s wedding, but Woody proves unable to go through with it. His uncertainty is not to do with Lol herself, but with his unwillingness to make the transition to being a conventional adult: when his parents turn up unexpectedly, it is ‘a reminder of what we could end up being’. As Woody explains, it was in order to escape this fate that he became a skinhead; and we later learn that his father used to be a ‘mod’ as a young man, before turning to safe, unfashionable respectability. Woody has a job at a factory, and is gradually being set up to replace the manager, but here again he is less than willing, and eventually fails to take up the opportunity. He does set up home with Lol, renovating a decrepit council flat, but they eventually separate and Woody returns to his parents’ home (we later learn that he has attempted suicide). The pair are finally married, but not until the end of the third series, by which time a great deal more has happened…

In fact it is Lol – a relatively minor character in the film – who becomes the main focus of the narrative, especially in the second series. In the first episode of series one, her father Mick returns to the family home after a long absence; and the narrative that then unfolds reveals the details of his abuse of her as a child. When Lol discovers that Mick has raped another member of the gang, Trev, she turns up at the house armed with a hammer; and when he attacks her and tries to rape her, she batters him to death – although ultimately it is the returning Combo who voluntarily takes the rap. The second series focuses on the traumatic fall-out of these events. We rediscover Lol as a single mother, having given birth to a child fathered not by Woody but by Milky, with whom she had a brief affair while on the rebound in the first series. Lol is still haunted by her father, and eventually attempts to take her own life. It is only at the very end of this series that she is reunited with Woody. By the third series, Lol has faded a little, but she has also taken on a maturity and authority that makes her a kind of moral centre for the group as a whole. Meanwhile, the focus of the abuse storyline has shifted to Lol’s younger sister Kelly, who eventually takes to heroin as she discovers the full horror of her father’s behaviour.

Running through these storylines is the narrative of Combo, who returns unexpectedly late in series one, having heard that his mother is dying. In the following episode, Combo appears at Lol’s family home just as she has killed her father. He proceeds to frame himself for the murder, almost as a kind of atonement for his attack on Milky in the film – ‘let me do a good thing’, he says. Combo is imprisoned, and doesn’t reappear until the middle of series two, again at a critical moment: Lol goes to visit him in prison, and her sense of guilt – not so much over murdering her father, but over Combo taking the blame – partly feeds into her suicide attempt. Combo is eventually released in series three, a reformed and redeemed character; although the past eventually catches up with him, as Milky carries through a promise he had made to revenge Combo’s near-fatal attack on him in the film.

Amid these four main stories are those of several minor characters. For example, ‘Gadget’ (Gary), a member of the gang, is seduced by Trudy, whom we first saw in the film as a shop assistant attempting to dissuade Shaun from buying Doctor Martens boots. Their relationship is played for laughs, as she gets him to perform as Blake Carrington from Dynasty and then as Clark Gable, while engaging in various uncomfortable (for him) sexual practices. Meanwhile, Trudy has a son who is frequently described as being the spitting image of another minor character, Meggy, who almost dies after having a heart attack on the toilet at Woody and Lol’s abortive wedding. These stories in some respects provide light relief from the main narrative strands: the shifts between comedy and tragedy are occasionally rather awkward, but there are also some striking parallels and painful ironies in the juxtapositions between them. Episodes frequently conclude with montage sequences cutting across the whole range of characters; and there are also more celebratory moments where most, if not all, of the group come back together – to watch or play football, to attend a karaoke night or a music festival, or for the two weddings.

As this brief account implies, the series’ central preoccupation is to do with the relation between the present and the past. This is, of course, partly about ‘growing up’: over time, we see the characters (and indeed the actors who play them) grow up and change. However, it also entails a broader concern with memory, and with the passing of time itself. The past is sometimes viewed with nostalgia, but sometimes with regret and a sense of loss, and sometimes with horror.

Thus, on one level, the narrative is structured in terms of a familiar dynamic of ‘lost and found’. When we discover Shaun at the start of series one, he has lost contact with the gang; and the others eventually gather together to invite him back, serenading him from the street outside his bedroom window in the middle of the night. The gang (or group) represents values of friendship, loyalty and solidarity that are frequently invoked by the characters at moments of crisis. Meanwhile, the narrative of Woody and Lol is also one of love lost and found: Woody’s attempt to re-run their wedding at the end of series one is overtaken by events (the murder of Mick), and the couple are estranged throughout series two until the very end, where Woody appears at the hospital after Lol’s suicide attempt. As he hobbles unsteadily into the room, he tells her, ‘I’ve got a mental idea, me. Why don’t we fucking grow up?’

On the other hand, there are other events from the past – Mick’s abuse of his daughters, Combo’s attack on Milky – that persist into the present, in ways that prove traumatic and destructive. The past contains roads that were not taken, problems that were not resolved, and things that were not said; it includes events that we should remember, but others we would prefer to forget. Forgiveness sometimes proves impossible to achieve. Especially in the second season, where Lol seeks help from a religious nurse (who prays for her), and eventually seeks refuge in a church, these issues take on an almost spiritual dimension, accentuated by the use of a range of religious music. Likewise, there is a different kind of ‘lost and found’ movement in the departure and return of Combo: by the very end, he has become an almost saintly figure, but his attempts to atone for his past cannot succeed, and he must be sacrificed.

The fact that the narrative is interrupted – there are gaps of two years in story time between the installments, and an even longer gap in real time between the second (screened in 2011) and the third (in 2015) – accentuates the significance of this theme. We rediscover the familiar characters at the start of each new series, albeit with a mixture of anxiety and pleasure. Finding out what has become of them is sometimes an occasion for comedy, sometimes for surprise, but it can also provoke a sense of loss or regret. Some of these changes are superficial, although they reflect more significant life transitions. Between the end of the film and the start of the TV series, for example, Shaun has changed from a small child to a lumpy adolescent, while Woody has abandoned his skinhead look in favour of a kind of mod hairstyle. Other changes seem more radical, and establish questions that we look to the ensuing narrative to explain. Early in series two, for example, we find the charismatic former gang leader Woody back living with his parents in their middle-class semi-detached home, along with a new, decidedly conventional girlfriend: despite the mod haircut, he appears to be turning into his father, although he is still resisting the prospect. At the start of series three, we discover that several of the female characters have become dinner ladies in the local school; and some of the male characters are there, cadging free meals – and as one of them says (with an implicit reference to the appeal of the series itself), ‘it’s about the nostalgia, innit, that’s why we come here’. Indeed, as the three series proceed, we find that change is never absolute, and that the past will always return in some form.

Memory here is less a matter of popular or social memory – although the episodes do frequently begin with montage sequences of historical material, like the one that opens the film. Rather, memory is more a matter of individual psychology; and even the montage sequences seem carefully selected to match the emotions and experiences of the characters, or to reflect ironically upon them. This is also the case with other historical material that is used in passing: in season two, for example, Lol is seen watching the Christmas episode of the soap EastEnders, in which the character of Pauline Fowler visits the villain ‘Dirty Den’ in prison, just before Lol herself goes to visit Combo. This use of historical material is thus rather more than a means of evoking nostalgia, or simply providing contemporary context; but it is also somewhat less politically pointed than in the film. Even in the final episode, where the montage takes us back to the racist politics of the early 1980s and to sequences from the original film, this seems less a matter of depicting the ‘state of the nation’ than reminding us of the motivation that leads to Milky’s final killing of Combo. (He doesn’t do the deed himself, and clearly regrets it, thereby retaining our sympathy. But in keeping with the broader themes, it appears that he had made a promise to his family at the time of the original attack that he would seek revenge. Here again, it seems that the past cannot easily be forgotten or forgiven.)

This theme finds its most harrowing manifestation in Lol’s story, which dominates the first two seasons. Lol’s father Mick – with his wheezing breath and moist beard – becomes an almost demonic presence, even a kind of bogeyman. Lol’s attempt to seek refuge in religion fails, when he appears in the church pew behind her. In the montage that accompanies the pumping out of her stomach (after her suicide attempt), we see a collection of images, some of which are quite abstract and horrific, but most of which represent memories of events that we ourselves have seen in earlier scenes. Only once the memories are purged (or even exorcised) is she reunited with Woody. If the second series represents Lol’s attempts to re-negotiate her memories, it offers a similar function for the viewer.

While the film of This is England can be seen as a kind of ‘coming of age’ story, therefore, the three TV series offer a more complex, multi-faceted set of reflections on the passing of time, and the experience of young people growing into adulthood. Of course, these differences partly reflect the differences between the respective media. At an hour and a half, the film is a fairly economical narrative, focused on one main character. The nine hours of the television series allow it to be much more diverse and even sprawling – although on repeat viewing, I have been struck by how tightly and carefully constructed it is. As I’ll argue below, these differences also have implications in terms of the social and political dimensions of both the film and the TV series.


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