Described by Shane Meadows as “A truly British Christmas; an anti-climax. A bit nice, with some horrible shit mixed in” This is England ’88 is a fantastic mix of true to life comedy and brutally honest heartbreak. The times and troubles of this ragtag bunch of good-for-nothings have become Meadow’s love letter to the England he knows so well. It’s Christmas, 1988 in Nottingham and the gang we’ve come to love, from being misguided skin-heads, to misfit ‘80s punks, are all having to face the realities of adult life. It’s 1988 and, even for this lot, life isn’t all fun and games. Sean Fields (Turgoose), the twelve year-old protagonist of Shane Meadow’s semi-autobiographical feature, is now seventeen and, despite persisting self-confidence issues, he’s preparing for a drama recital. He’s still with Smell (Rosamund Hanson) but he has a wandering eye and, as he gets older, he could be outgrowing his delinquent friends.
As the story of This is England has organically grown out over the years, Sean has become part of the larger ensemble around the epic love story of Woody (Gilgun) and Lol (McClure). These two tattooed scoundrels captured the hearts of the viewing public and really became the central emotional climax of this three part series. Gilgun and McClure have both given such astonishing performances of this idiosyncratic midlands romance that there was no way it couldn’t rise to the fore.
Meadows took such advantage of Woody’s emotional immaturity and Gilgun’s acute perception of character that the pivotal scene of the series was shot in one take, without Gilgun knowing his fellow actors were on set until they burst out of a chip shop in front of him on camera. The spontaneity of the scene is incomparable (forget John Hurt in Alien). The actors had been kept separate for weeks leading up to his moment and you can feel the intensity between them. Truly expert drama.
The ’88 instalment genuinely brings the This is England franchise into the TV drama major leagues. In terms of quality it sits alongside The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and The Wire. It wasn’t instantaneous, however. This is England ’86 actually felt like a slightly clumsy spin off-cum-sequel, plodding through improvisations of bleaker than bleak ‘grim up north’ rape, murder, etc. ’86, however, is essential viewing if ’88 is to be properly enjoyed.
Meadow’s dedication to improvising and using non-actors is handled much better this time round. The less strong, though integral, actors have found their niches, whilst McClure and Gilgun steal the show. Without doubt, the whole franchise has been a deeply personal affair and this much is clear, just based on some of the awe-inspiring line deliveries in episode three. With every instalment, the music, the cars and the clothes are so evocative of a time and place that most people would probably think better forgotten. And now that This is England ’90 is in development, this series is ensured a place in the history books.
The ratio of killer to filler is a rare treat on these extras. Warp and 4DVD have gone the ‘extra’ mile, with some nice menus and slight variations on classic TIE88 music. The audio commentary from the stars Joe Gilgun and Vicky McClure highlights that which sets This is England apart from the rest of UK TV drama (actual acting). There are a couple of nice interview montages, which show the level of dedication involved and also peer into Meadows’ wonderful directing methods. Other extras include deleted scenes and footage from the cast’s mobile phones in between takes.
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