This is England ’88
Channel 4
13th, 14th and 15th December 2011

When you see “This is England ”˜88” in the festive Radio Times, you realise quite quickly that it probably has little in common with anything else on television over the Christmas period. Particularly when you consider where it’s previous series “This is England ”˜86” left off, which saw Lol take light relief from an affair with Milky, the best friend of her fiancé Woody, to murder her serial rapist father. With the last series creating some of the most harrowing television of the last decade, director and writer Shane Meadows takes us two years forward to 1988.

It would be easy for Meadows to make ’88 comfortable viewing, revelling in the rich tapestry of characters he has crafted and immersing the programme in nostalgia and an audience friendly 80’s soundtrack. Alas, that is not Meadows’ style, and in no way is This is England ’88 comfortable viewing.

The opening montage, as it was in the film which spawned the saga, is a series of archive footage from around 1988, this time against a sonic backdrop of The Smiths’ ”˜What Difference Does It Make’ – having never sounded so haunting.
The footage resonates strikingly with 2011; strikes, riots, Colonel Gaddafi ”“ often it takes the past to tell us much about our present. As ever, the soundtrack is highly important to ”˜This is England’s authenticity, and the understated piano intro to the Smiths’ ”˜Asleep’ closes the third episode with heartbreaking effect. What This is England always understands is that a drama from a certain year does not have to feature music exclusively from that year and acknowledges that a rich variety of music soundtracks our lives, note the beautiful airing of Johnny Nash’s ”˜Guava Jelly’ during the wedding scene in This is England ’86.

It’s clear from the offset that things have changed within the gang. Lol is mother to Milky’s child, Woody has a ”˜posh’ girlfriend and a stifling job and Shaun is experiencing boredom and frustration in his relationship with Smell. The gang is disunited and the playful charm that the earlier series and film owed much to is notably absent. Instead of dwelling too much on the events between ’86 and ’88, Meadows hints at the heartache that has taken the characters to where they are now, and in this instalment we really see the characters on the brink. Woody is in internal anguish, held captive by his boring job, his safe girlfriend and his protective parents ”“ once the loveable gangleader, now firmly apart from the gang after the betrayal of his best friend. The excellent Thomas Turgoose triumphs again as Shaun; perpetually tattered, tangled and torn in youthful confusion.

The character of Lol is thrust through mental torture as she grapples with motherhood, isolation, guilt and the demons of her childhood abuse at the hands of her father. Throughout the three part series we see Lol haunted by visions of her father, played by the horrifically unsettling Johnny Harris, and the climax of this is a few minutes of the most torturous, physically affecting viewing you’re likely to see on British television.

The series is not without its light points though. The attempts at ”˜banter’ between Woody and his boss are executed with superb comic timing and anyone can relate to that awkwardness with an unpleasant boss. Meadows’ highly improvised style, and Meadows’ unique eye for detail, manages to tap into the dynamic that exists between mates with an element of realism that just doesn’t exist on television normally. People don’t speak in soundbytes, most people aren’t very funny and drunken fights usually look pathetic, and the series does not insult this reality. Sometimes this improvisation doesn’t work perfectly, I’m not too sure how common phrases such as ”˜in a bit’ and ”˜shit the bed’ were in the 1980’s, but that in no way stilts the excellent dialogue.

The third instalment of Shane Meadow’s semi-autobiographical epic focuses more on the emotional aftermath of the numerous bombshells of the earlier series, and with this space it is allowed to breathe into probably the finest part of the saga.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Loved it. Pretty bleak, pretty disheartening, little redemption at the end. But ain’t that life?
    The Lol character has became the central focus since the movie, Woody a bit more of a peripheral figure. I thought that some of his (Woody) dialogue was genius, though. The way he’s at heart a joker and jack the lad, struggling with his crumbling life whilst still desperately holding on to his previous life role was really well done indeed.
    Great review, btw….

  2. Excellent series – I thought Shane Meadows was brave to head off at storytelling tangents rather than playing it safe. The Lol and Combo scene in prison was moving. Meadows doesn’t moralize and makes all the characters human, warts and all. Set up perfectly to find out what happens with Shaun and Smell. Funny, bleak, full of feeling and real. More please!…

  3. “Scorpio, nineteen hundred and thirty three cubic centimetres of raw power that”. I can’t remember the last time I watched a t.v. programme or film that had every emotion in it. Brilliant, harsh, bleak, real, fun, sad, ugly, beautiful emotional television.

  4. Absolutely fantastic viewing. I loved every minute of it. Growing up in the eighties, I loved the nostalgia but in no way did it deviate your attention away from what was going on. Woody, Lol & Shaun done an amazing job which was supported well by the rest of the cast. Everything about it seemed so real. It was real gripping television and what a brilliant ending. So emotional and really moving.

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