In a pivotal scene in Shane Meadows’ 2006 film This is England, the skinhead Combo, recently released from prison, summons the other members of his erstwhile gang. In a blistering speech, he attempts to recruit them to the cause of the extreme right-wing political party, the National Front. Discovering that the youngest member, Shaun, had a father who was killed in the Falklands War, he explodes:
That’s what this nation has been built on, proud men. Proud fucking warriors! Two thousand years this little tiny fucking island has been raped and pillaged, by people… two fucking world wars! Men have laid down their lives for this. For this… and for what? So people can stick their fucking flag in the ground and say yeah! This is England. And this is England, and this is England.
As he says these last words, Combo gestures first to the ground, then to his heart and finally to his head. England, he claims, is not just a physical place, a country: it also lives in our hearts, and in our minds.
In a later scene, when Combo brings his ‘troops’ (as he calls them) to attend a National Front meeting, it is clear how this resurgent idea of England is being taken up in the interests of violent racism. It is this racism that subsequently leads them to terrorise the Asians in the local neighbourhood; and it is invoked by Combo in his almost fatal attack on Milky, the one black member of the gang, that takes place at the culmination of the film.
As its title suggests, This is England is to some extent a ‘state of the nation’ film, yet it is highly ambivalent about the very idea of nationhood. The story is set in 1983, in a town apparently in the East Midlands, in the heart of England (albeit one with a coastline). Yet the action is introduced and interspersed with montages of news footage, which locate it not only within the popular culture of the time, but also in relation to wider political developments – not least the Falklands War itself, with which it begins and ends. In fact, the film reflects a wider sense of crisis in English (or British) national identity during a period of significant economic and social transformation.
And yet This is England is also a ‘coming of age’ story, which is partly based on the autobiography of its director and writer Shane Meadows. The central character is twelve-year-old Shaun Fields (a thinly-veiled pseudonym for Meadows himself), who is played by Thomas Turgoose. Shaun is bullied by his school-mates, and is still grieving for the loss of his father, when he is taken under the wing of a skinhead gang led by the affable Woody (Joseph Gilgun). When Combo (Stephen Graham) returns to the neighbourhood, he challenges Woody’s leadership, and the gang splits, with Shaun choosing to follow Combo. Combo becomes a kind of alternative father figure, tutoring Shaun in how to commit racist intimidation; but when he batters Milky, Combo’s psychopathic tendencies eventually get out of control.
The film concludes with a disillusioned Shaun hurling the St. George’s flag – a present from Combo, and a symbol of the National Front’s racist version of Englishness – into the sea. In the closing shot, Shaun looks straight into the camera, in a self-conscious echo of the end of Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959), a much earlier film about a child coming of age. Like the look of Truffaut’s hero, Shaun’s look is almost defiant: he will survive, it seems to say, but whatever happens to him in the future is unlikely to be easy.
Like Truffaut, Meadows went on to follow his hero’s uneven progress to adulthood – and that of his other characters – in his subsequent work. The film was followed by three television mini-series made for Channel Four: This is England ’86 (four 45-minute episodes, broadcast in 2010), ’88 (three episodes, 2011) and ’90 (four episodes, including a feature-length finale, 2015) – a total of nine hours of television. The film won numerous accolades, notably at the British Independent Film Awards, while the TV series have gained several BAFTAs. The film has been much the most successful of Meadows’ nine features to date, while the TV series gained healthy ratings of around 3-4 million.
This is England is especially relevant to my concerns in Growing Up Modern, in several ways. Made a quarter of a century after the period in which they are set, the various installments in the story clearly offer a particular interpretation of the past. The historical setting is by no means merely a backdrop, let alone a picturesque or nostalgic one. This is England speaks to popular memories, and in some respects attempts to create them; yet as it looks back and attempts to understand the massive social transformations that took place under Margaret Thatcher, it also reflects the concerns of contemporary Britain, the Britain of Tony Blair and David Cameron.
The focus, of course, is specifically on the implications of those transformations for the working class; and to this extent, This is England needs to be understood in relation to a longer tradition of social realism in British cinema and television. In the original film, the interpretation is quite sharply political; but the TV series also provide powerful, multi-dimensional stories of working class lives that in many respects go beyond the limitations of earlier film and television representations.
At the same time, the film and the series that followed it are precisely to do with growing up. As in several of Meadows’ other films, children and young people are central to the narrative – although this is not essentially a film for children. (Meadows was apparently outraged by the British Board of Film Classification giving the film an ‘18’ certificate – although considering its violence and ‘bad’ language, he can hardly have been surprised.) Shaun’s ‘coming of age’ in the film is followed through in the three subsequent series; but we also see many of the older characters transition, however unevenly and painfully, to some kind of adulthood. While the male characters of the film remain in view, it is increasingly the female characters – especially Woody’s girlfriend Lol, who appears somewhat marginally in the film – who come to occupy centre stage. In this continuing narrative of maturation, the serial form of television plays a particularly important role, as we revisit the characters after two-year breaks between series.
This is England has a certain documentary realism, but it is by no means a merely sociological account. It has a powerful and distinctive aesthetic style, which is evident in Meadows’ other films, and is especially apparent in the editing, the camerawork and the use of music. It is also profoundly emotional to watch. Themes of loss, regret, abandonment and even spirituality increasingly come to the fore as the three series proceed – and they operate in ways that, here again, seem unique to ‘long form’ serial television. However, This is England is not some kind of extended ‘misery memoir’ either: it is often very funny, and sometimes wildly celebratory. It moves between these different elements in ways that are sometimes awkward, but often moving and insightful.