I’m still of the view that the evidence suggests there to have been enough material for two or three episodes of this show, rather than four, and the first two-thirds of this final episode rather confirmed that. The lengthy musical montages were superfluous enough, but the pace had slowed almost to a standstill. Yes, I know I’ve repeatedly praised Mad Men for exactly the same thing, but This Is England ’86, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
But then there was a gruelling, almost unwatchably violent scene, preceded by a remarkable – improvised? – dialogue between Lol (Vicky McClure, magnificent again) and Mick (Johnny Harris, who deserves considerable praise for creating such a repellent character). It looked more or less unfeigned, and can’t have been easy to film. But by the end Lol had, possibly, just the glimmerings of closure, Mick had what he deserved, and, improbably, Combo had some redemption.
As for the series as a whole? It belonged to McClure, of course, and while I’m not wholly convinced that it was quite as good as some are claiming, parts of it were very good indeed, and it was never less than watchable. With any luck viewing figures were solid enough to allow Shane Meadows to follow through on his desire to make another series.
This Is England ’86 remained, this week, an uneasy mixture of the comedic and the serious. There’s nothing at all wrong with trying to combine the two – in fact, you’ll need to look hard to find any greater fans of the dramedy than Unpopcult – but the funny half isn’t working so well, exemplified by the appalling Gadget/Trudie relationship. Dramatically, though, the show remains strong. There was a pertinent reminder of how part of the cost of war is children growing up without fathers. As relevant today as it was in 1986, of course; unfortunately, that truth is one we never really get a chance to forget about. But once again the episode belonged to Lol (the outstanding Vicky McClure), who is pinballing between Milky (Andrew Shim) and Woody (Joseph Gilgun): this is given just a dash of additional spice by the fact that McClure previously dated Shim and is presently with Gilgun. Ooh! And Combo’s back in time for next week’s finale.
I’m still not prepared to call This Is England ’86 an unqualified success: there remains a feeling that some of the material is overstretched. But there are now three or four good plotlines running, and the best of those features the superb Vicky McClure as Lol, dealing with the return of an abusive parent and the possible disintegration of her relationship with Woody.
The title of the original film suggested that what Shane Meadows was aiming for was nothing less than a state-of-the-nation address, using the characters (particularly Thomas Turgoose’s Shaun) to arrive at a summary of where England was at in 1982. The title’s been kept, but so far the TV series has, largely, kept the turmoil on the level of the acutely personal, although as 1986 saw the Thatcher revolution at its height it’s sometimes difficult to separate the personal from the political. At the moment, though, it doesn’t look as if it’s going to end particularly well for anyone.
Providing further confirmation that TV is the new cinema, Shane Meadows has chosen to follow up his extravagantly praised – somewhat over-praised, in my view – 2006 film This Is England with a four-part TV series, in which the action has moved on four years from the Falklands-and-skins backdrop of the original. The 2006 cast has returned, including stand-outs Thomas Turgoose as Shaun and Joe Gilgun as Woody.
And when we first see Shaun he’s largely back where he was at the start of the film: apparently friendless and drifting, getting bullied. The dreadful assault by Combo on Milky, which he witnessed and feels guilty about not doing more to prevent, seems to have caused him to sever links with the skinhead gang which was his support network. Meantime some of the skins have moved on themselves – Woody’s got a job and much of this episode revolves around his wedding to Lol. Not surprisingly, events bring Shaun back into the gang’s orbit.
It’s good in parts, although some of the material feels over-stretched: one too many musical montages and a few scenes which feel like filler (the wheelchair race?). It also has a lightness of touch which the original didn’t have, although occasionally I felt the comedy lapsing uncomfortably into caricature, with some of the acting following suit: Vicky McClure as Lol notably rising above it all to turn in a terrific, nuanced performance. However, there was a definite feeling that, with the characters and their new status in life established, there is a lot of room for the drama to take a darker turn should Meadows be so inclined. It’s certainly worth watching to see what happens next.