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This is a piece in celebration of Shane Meadows’s This Is England ’86. It finished earlier tonight in terrific style.
It’s interesting to consider how film directors take to working in television, an obviously different context for a familiar medium. Here, for example, themes that run throughout Meadows’s work, as well as characters first introduced in his film This is England (2006), must both be developed as he picks up the narrative three years on and also reconfigured – restructured – for a way of telling that breaks the story into four discreet one hour sections, themselves, when first aired, subdivided into four. It seems that Meadows and Jack Thorne (the writers) answered this formal demand by making each of the episodes connect, using the same characters and continuing the larger narrative, while also remaining self-contained in their emotional structure. Episodes three and four are arguably the most satisfying television because, while they bring the grand narrative to a conclusion, they have a clearer internal structure than episodes one and two, each moving from tongue-in-cheek comedy to a powerful emotional climax. I felt something building in the first two episodes – the larger narrative of ’86 – but they both felt a little wooly. They each played like a quarter of a film, rather than a television episode. That my father could watch and engage with episode three in isolation, having missed not only the previous two but the film as well, perhaps indicates what I mean. (This is no knock on Tom Harper, who directed episodes one and two.)
Despite certain reservations about the structure of the first two episodes, my favourite song from the series comes at the end of the second. It’s Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful Berlin Song. The pianist’s haunting compositions provide another, more emotionally driven, means of connecting the series together. Used extensively throughout, his songs often occur at the most engaging and challenging moments. For example, at the end of episode three, Meadows uses Einaudi’s Solo as the non-diegetic accompaniment to the violent raping of Trev (Danielle Watson) by Mick (Johnny Harris). This montage is really something. (The term’s used here in two senses: the more general description of a selection of shots accompanied by music and the stricter definition of the combined effect achieved through the juxtaposition of these shots.)
Four scenes are involved. There is the rape, using a staggeringly still camera, reminiscent of Kubrick’s portrayal of violence in A Clockwork Orange (1971). There are moments of joyous friendship, as Milky (Andrew Shim) mounts Gadget (Andrew Ellis) to celebrate an England goal. The football is also celebrated in the pub, in the toilet of which Lol (Vicky McClure) drunkenly ponders. Finally, there is the shock of Combo (Stephen Graham) falling through Shaun’s (Thomas Turgoose) window. The combined effect of the images is complex: for example, the action of thrusting is played out in a minor key by Mick but counterpointed in a major by the elated Milky; Lol’s isolated sadness is matched only a room away by the happiness of her sister Kelly (Chanel Cresswell), surrounded by the rest of the group; a close up of Trev’s hand gripping the sofa makes the wide shot in which she is confined to the left third of the frame, buried in said sofa, feel all the more empty. Einaudi’s piece is combined with two strands of diegetic sound: the football commentary, including the memorable line ‘you can only stand and stare at English joy’, and Mick incessantly grunting ‘Fuck you’. It’s a powerful and poetic end.
Poetic is right: this montage is highly crafted, at once tragic, sickening and, it must be admitted, in some senses beautiful. Einaudi’s composition, an important part of the effect, is in the minor key but no less beautiful for being sad. In the final episode, Meadows moves even further towards carefully wrought visual poetry, throwing his gritty subject matter into a new and challenging light. At a larger level, he swirls narratives of different scales together: while the individual stories of Lol, Shaun, Milky and all the others are at the centre of ’86, Meadows demonstrates how connected they all are; he also hints at lives once remembered, as characters central to the plot of the film only nudge their way into the series; the 1986 World Cup – watched by a nation following a national team – gently frames these individuals but only ever obscurely stands for the broader social feelings of the time; in turn, to a certain extent, still raw international tensions are revealed and played out in miniature by England and Argentina on the football pitch. We are brought once again to the individual level, when we remember that Shaun’s dad died in the Falklands War.
Artful in structure at a number of levels, this series is nonetheless emotionally powerful. The performances are super and the dialogue feels wonderfully natural in its funny moments and devastatingly sparse in the tragic. When, I wonder, will we see something like this on television again?