"Three years on from his Bafta-winning film This is England, Shane Meadows has breathed life into his characters again – for the small screen. They've been growing up, in real time. Or in parallel real time in the past, because we've moved on from 1983 to This is England '86 (Channel 4). Somewhere, a long way away, a World Cup is going on.
There's a lot more hair about the place. Woody seems to have gone from skinhead to mod and even has a job, which is more than most people had in 1986. He's still with Lol (poor Lol – unaware that in 20 years or so her name will become an irritating acronym people use on something called the internet). They are getting married, though it kind of falls apart at the last hurdle, Woody frozen at "I do". Meggy doesn't help by having a heart attack in the loo of the scuzzy register office.
Shaun, peripheral to the gang, is just leaving school, cast adrift into the grey doldrums of mid-80s Britain. I don't think his exam results are going to be doing him any favours. Life is crap, but it's OK if you've got mates – that's one of the messages going on here. Shaun's problem is that he doesn't have mates at the minute. Or a job. Or a scooter. Or anything much, except for a bleeding head from a cut above his eye. I hope for his sake he's readopted by the others. They're better off – they have each other, at least. "I fookin' luv yer I do" they say to each other, and then toast their love with a can or a cuddle.
This doesn't have the skinhead culture focus of the movie. Or the hard edge – yet. There are three more episodes, so this may come later with the reintroduction of Combo. Remember, the racist one? But it's still bleak, as you'd expect. At times touching, at others funny. I like Gadget stealing the flowers for the wedding from a mourner at the cemetery. And Meggy, recovering in hospital, using his piss bag for the I-fookin'-luv-you-all toast because he hasn't got a can. A wheelchair race is less funny and goes on too long. Sometimes I get the impression the actors are just told to get into character and to get on with it. There's a certain lack of direction – both the sort that directors do, and the sort that indicates where something is going. But I don't think that true Meadows fans will be disappointed."
Tom Sutcliffe, The Independent
"Shane Meadows stitched together the end of his film This Is England and its television sequel This Is England '86 with a shot of his character Shaun in the rain – hand out to test the water. And it wasn't very long before you could tell that the temperature had changed significantly in the three years that had elapsed between the first drenching and the second. This Is England ended in a mood of chilly bleakness – with violence and disillusionment. But now life is looking up for Shaun, not least because he's just finished his CSEs and has no intention of continuing the desultory imitation of the academic life that led up to them. "You're in for quite a shock young man," said one of his teachers, looking disdainfully at his exam paper. "I think you'll find that it's me that's doing the shocking, love," replied Shaun, and the remark was eager, not embittered. "How did it go?" asked his mother, meeting him in a café for an exam post-mortem. "It went," said Shaun, "end of."
Most of this first episode was concerned not with Shaun but with Woody and Lol, the skinhead couple who took Shaun under their wing and first gave him a sense of family. Woody and Lol are about to get married, a social occasion that doesn't involve a lot of frills. Meggy and Banjo are travelling to the ceremony on the bus – clutching a Tupperware box full of home-made vol-au-vents – while Gadget and his mate are in the local cemetery, stalking a visitor in the hope of nicking some fresh flowers. The mood and style is Ken Loach at his lightest, so when Gadget makes a rush for the bouquet there's no emotion more scarring than wild indignation from his victim. And as more friends pile up – filling the top and launching into a raucous chorus of "Daisy, Daisy" – it's easy enough to decide to go for the ride with them. It's an ancient strain in British entertainment this – running from the Cheapside scenes in Henry IV to Shameless – the charm of other people's joyous fecklessness.
For the moment, Shaun is outside this convivial gang again, exiled by his own choice and a loner ripe for exploitation by the local bully, Flip, who enlists him into a stupefyingly dimwitted plan to romance a local beauty. Shaun is to insult her at which point Flip will defend her honour. And if this strikes you as a slightly strained moment of picaresque, it's still pretty funny, and rescued by an interlude of awkward silence, when Flip and his sidekick, Iggy, stare in bemusement at the interior décor of a lower-middle class house straining for higher altitude. "That's got it's own rug," said Flip, pointing to the doily under a vase on the coffee table.
There are hints too that the warmth of these opening passages may be a lulling strategy, designed to get an audience far enough in to be able to withstand the darker realities that Meadows often admits to his dramas. Woody and Lol's wedding does not pass off well, with some comic misadventure (Meggy has a non-fatal heart attack while sitting on the lavatory) and a more poignant reversal, as Woody loses his nerve and can't bring himself to utter his vows. Lol, beautifully played by Vicky McClure, isn't just the victim here, but emerges as a character in her own right... one who, a long wordless final scene suggests, might have a more troubling back-story. For the moment, This Is England '86 could be accused of straining a little too hard to be likeable, something it would achieve anyway. But the quiet gaps between the mischief and the capering promise something far more involving than that."
Ceri Radford, Daily Telegraph
For anyone who sniffs that television is a dumb or trivial medium, Shane Meadows has provided the perfect riposte. This is England '86, his four-part Channel 4 follow-up to the acclaimed 2006 film This is England, is – to judge from the first episode – astonishingly good. It is artistically captivating, funny, melancholic and affecting, all in one tightly plotted package that makes the shift from the big screen to the small appear effortless.
The original film told the story of Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a troubled 12 year-old who fell in with a group of apolitical teenaged skinheads in 1983. Their happy-go-lucky world collapsed when Combo, an older gang member, returned from jail, bringing racist violence with him. Set three years on, the TV series picked up as if the characters had been growing up quietly in the background, with most of the original cast reprising their roles. It’s now 1986, the World Cup is on in Mexico, unemployment is above 3 million and the unforgettable group of friends face a difficult journey into adulthood.
Meadows marked the transition in time with typical adroitness. Last night’s episode opened with Shaun, physically unchanged, sitting in Combo’s car – a scene which was presumably an out take from the original film. There were blood stains on the tatty back seat; it was clear that this scene took place shortly after the attack which brought the original film to its blistering finale. We then saw the twelve-year-old Shaun standing in the rain, feeling the drops burst on his palms, before the camera panned up to show him as a 16 year-old, running through a downpour to sit his CSEs. His face had changed, touchingly, but the constant in his life was rain: cold, drab and prosaic.
Meadows is the master of that creative writing mantra, “show don’t tell”, lacing this programme with images which communicated far more than many a laboured bit of dialogue. As well as the rain and the heart-breaking shabbiness of blood drying on frayed nylon we saw other telling vignettes: a “coal not dole” pin badge; the likeable Woody (Joe Gilgun) sat on a bus on the way to his wedding, frowning out of the window just one instant too long.
If the cinematography was impressive, the acting and the script itself were equally so. Turgoose, who made such a memorable debut as Shaun in the original film, was utterly convincing as a mouthy 16 year-old who had shed some of his baby fat and bewilderment but not yet found a sense of purpose. As a couple, Woody and Lol (Vicky McClure) captured that twentysomething teetering between rebellion and respectability. “You’re turning into your father,” Lol said accusingly, and you could see from the contempt in her eloquent eyes how much that thought repelled her.
This opener felt more light-hearted than the film, and contained several lines that made me snigger. “You’re an adult,” Shaun's mother chided him, before treating him like a child. “Your appointment [with the job centre] is at three and you’d better go because I’ll check up on you.” Also possessing a comical lack of self-awareness was a nasty little oik who made Shaun knock on a girl’s door and insult her so that he could rush to her defence – if Shaun refused, he would beat him up. “She thinks I’m a bully,” he justified himself. “This will show her I’m sensitive.”
As ever with Meadows, the humour was underscored with sadness: this was TV tragicomedy. How else to describe a wedding day during which the bride’s mother didn’t show up, the groom neglected to say “I do”, the bride realised she may have chosen the wrong man and one of the guests had a heart attack, rallying later in hospital to toast his friends’ happiness by raising his catheter bag? As the series develops – Meadows has said he wants to “to take the story of the gang broader and deeper” – it will be interesting to see whether the prevailing tone is of bitterness or hope. In episode one alone, though, he has created something that is sentimental without being naïve, funny without being forced and a genuinely moving experience to watch. Beat that, cinema."
This is England '86, Tuesdays, Channel 4, 10:00pm for 4 weeks