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This Is England - Shane Meadows interview

This Is England

Compiled by Jack Foley

AFTER his 2004 revenge drama Dead Man’s Shoes, British director Shane Meadows returns with his boldest film yet, This is England.

Already the winner of the Best British Independent Film at the BIFA awards, this 1983-set tale of one boy’s induction into a gang of skinheads is anything but a nostalgia trip.

Seen through the eyes of 11 year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), whose own father has been killed in the Falklands conflict, This is England is a poignant state-of-the-nation address that shows Meadows at his most mature. Below, he talks about how he drew from his own experiences for the film.

Q: This is England is yet another film made outside of London. Is it difficult to continue doing this?
A: I suppose the dream was always about existing outside of London. Obviously the film world 10 years ago, when I first kicked off, was a very different landscape. Meeting anyone for a job on the crew, and on the cast, always meant a trip to London for me. But it’s changed quite dramatically. You can’t completely exist outside of what’s down there, but things have changed massively.

On a technical level, I can edit at home. Computers, compared to what they were then… you don’t have to hire a big system in London. And on a casting level, now I have five films behind me, I have this team of people I can rely on and work with again and again. Obviously, you don’t give a person a part they’re not perfect for, but we’re starting to build this assembly of people. And it was a big moment when I met Mark Herbert from Warp Films, because his idea was to make their base in Sheffield. So I found a kindred spirit in Mark. Then there are relationships like the one I’ve had with Andrew [Shim] and Vicky [McClure]…but if you check the names on all my films you’ll notice people cropping up in and out of them throughout the course of my career.

Q: So it’s changed for the better for you, as you’ve become more independent?
A: Completely. I’m obviously first and foremost a British filmmaker on a global scale, but when it comes to narrowing it down, I really feel like my voice is in the Midlands and outside of London.

Obviously, when you’re raising money, you have to go down there and play the game. But it feels quite different. You do feel independent. In London, there must be thousands of people in the business of making films, whereas in Nottingham or Sheffield, you’re probably talking about below a hundred. So there aren’t thousands of people scrapping for the same money and for the same jobs. I went out in Nottingham the other night and there’s a really beautiful community of people who are really supportive. It’s not this back-stabbing thing, high-rent, high-cost, high-tension. Up here we are independent filmmakers and there’s a lovely sense of camaraderie.

Q: But do you think This is England is a specifically East Midlands story?
A: Probably more than any of films to date it’s the hardest to place anywhere. I’d made three Nottingham films, but This Is England and Dead Man’s Shoes have become less specific and less identifiable. This is England, just in the title, is a much bolder film. Though to make any film with big issues, it’s still the characters that draw you in. I knew there’d be big themes running through this, but I couldn’t lose the characterisation that’s gone through all my other films. I did know right from the beginning that this would be a step-up. It’s not that microcosm anymore. This was about the people from all around. It’s probably the closest thing I’ll ever make to a political film.

Q: Certainly the inclusion of the Falklands War shows that. Did that make a great impression on you when you were young?
A: Well, it still carries on today. As an adult, I look back at who led the country up to that point. But when you started going through this footage from the 1980s, [Margaret] Thatcher was the first to be media savvy. Turning up on working class estates, going into a classroom of kids and playing on a computer… I don’t seem to remember anyone before doing that. She did embrace that.

This thing of the Falklands, and when you look at the footage, and see the campaign as the unemployment figures hit 3½ million, it does make you incredibly suspicious as to what paratroopers were doing fighting 16-year-old kids from Argentina. It was an incredibly suspicious war, in the same way America and the UK got involved in Iraq. People can see that now.

Obviously, there were more people against going into Iraq than there were going into the Falklands… but the shame I carry as a British resident, was that it was a war handled in the media as if it were a World Cup summer. Like when England go into the World Cup, there are Union Jacks on the papers, and you can look at headlines from the time and it sounded just like that. Ultimately, I was privy to footage from ITN archives – that wasn’t shown on television – of the people we were fighting, and it was shameful. It was bullying. It was really horrible. How could we have been proud of winning that?

It was the equivalent of putting Mike Tyson in the ring with a seven-year-old kid from an infant school. So that was always running in the back of this film – the root level of that horrible racism, that bullying and violence that exists in someone can also be inherent in a nation without us knowing it.

Q: Ironically, it’s Combo, the film’s racist figure, who expresses these views against the war in the film. He’s certainly not a stereotypical skinhead…
A: Like a lot of those people, Combo is affected and damaged by his own life. What tends to happen with characters is that they’re not fleshed out, but in my films people tend to bring their own stories to the film. Stephen Graham, who plays Combo, he has a mixed race heritage. He has a Swedish grandmother, a fully Jamaican grandfather and brothers who look black, but Stephen is just very fair skinned. So when I offered him the part, he rang me one night at one o’clock in the morning, and he was beside himself. He said: “You’ve asked me to play this extreme right-wing character. But I need to tell you that my Dad’s black.” And I didn’t have a clue.

Q: You had no idea at the time?
A: I had no idea. So because he wasn’t as dark skinned as his brothers, he was never quite sure if he fitted in. And I thought it was very brave of him to bring it forward and use that complication for his character. So if you watch that scene with him and Milky at the end, knowing that, that that’s what he was thinking, you can see jealousy in his eyes – he’s jealous the guy is black.

Q: Before I saw it, I was expecting a Romper Stomper-style Neo Nazi film…
A: Yeah, everyone was expecting “The Football Factory meets Romper Stomper“. The violence in the film isn’t down to them being skinheads. The violence at the end is about personal torture. Ultimately, the skinhead side of the film is what I wanted it to be, which is to show skinheads as they really were and as I saw it from the inside.

Basically as a Ska-Trojan-Reggae embracing culture that through the course of the 1980s moved from Oi! music to bands like Screwdriver, that took on that white power mantle. So you could see how easy it was for kids to slip through… people who became skinheads didn’t understand where it came from. They thought it was always a racist thing. The Eighties was still a time when the skinheads I hung around with understood where they were from. They knew they were second wave skinheads and they knew they weren’t original 1969 skinheads but they wanted to be true to that. It was always a working class thing. There were no middle class skinheads where I came from.

Everyone thought the working classes were fucked, but we were really proud of being working class and were going to wear the equivalent of work-boots, jeans, a white shirt and some braces, which we can all afford, and are going to create an image of something so powerful. So as a kid I was very drawn to that idea and was made to feel very proud of working class. It was political but it was never extreme, one way or the other. Some would be left or right wing – as in terms of labour or conservative rather than militant or fascist – and the bands were much the same.

Q: Did you find it was still an era of racial intolerance back then?
A: Then, there was very little in the way of ethnic minorities. There might have been one family running a Chinese restaurant, and one Asian or black family… even on the newspapers or on TV, things were very different. I can’t even say the words that were being used on TV. If you say one of those words now, in any city centre, and you’ll be lucky if you get away with it.

Q: Did you have a Milky in your life back then?
A: Not until I was a bit older. I met a fantastic black guy called Lenny, who really educated me. He was a fantastic friend. I came from this crappy working class predominantly white town, and I was saying things like, ‘Coloured people’ and was getting it all wrong. This was a guy who pulled me up and said, ‘I know you don’t mean it, but if I’m coloured then so are you. You ain’t white – you’re pink and I’m not black, I’m brown. If you’re white, I’m black.’ I thought ‘coloured’ was the PC word, but he was really upset by it. So I learnt a lot.

Q: Were you also, like Shaun in the film, hanging around with a gang who were older than you?
A: Oh, completely. My sister, who was older than me, was going out with a skinhead who was older than her. I was 11, she was 14 and her boyfriend was 16 – and all of his mates were older than him. So I was always the youngest person. I got sent up the garden with a girl called Smell, because I was doing everyone’s head in. Everyone was snogging, and getting off with each other, and I was like: “Where’s my girl?”

She was a bit too developed and experienced for me, but it seemed to work for a bit. All of those things happened. I went hunting with them. There was a lad called Gadget who was one of me best friends, and we were always competing against each other because we were the youngest. It’s totally biographical.

Q: So it’s probably the most personal film you’ve made then?
A: Completely. It’s a prequel to everything. A Room For Romeo Brass happened after that process. I went from being this scruffy haired kid and was literally transformed. I remember being given my first Ben Sherman by a guy called Woody, which was way to big for me. And someone else gave me a Crombie that wouldn’t fit a two-year-old child, so I had this massive shirt and this tiny Crombie! But it was part of the uniform. I still have the cross tattoo – on the same hand and the same finger as Shaun. It really as close to the bone as you can get. But at the same time, you have to make a film and make it interesting, so you can’t have a shot of you cleaning your teeth just because you did that. It’s boring!

Q: Have you any idea why there’s a sudden nostalgia for the 1980s?
A: If you look back on the period, the 1980s has never been seen as cool. You think of the music, and it always has a kitsch quality to it because everyone looks so ridiculous. Even the Nineties, with The Stone Roses and other bands, was cool before the Eighties. It really missed the boat! The Sixties was always cool, even then. That was my Dad’s era and I was always jealous of that. But now, as an adult, looking back, we were part of this mental time. It was the most enormous amount of tribes that could have ever existed in one place.

In the Sixties, it was mods and rockers, and hippies and casuals, whereas in the early Eighties, there was Goths, punks, mods, skinheads, New Romantics, casuals, metal heads… the streets looked completely different. You go into town now and you can’t tell one kid from another – you don’t know what they’re into. You can sort of tell a skateboard kid because his trousers are half way down his legs, but that’s about it.

Back then, people wore their hearts on their sleeves. It was a really bold time. CDs were being made, video recorders were coming in…the landscape was changing. No one knew if they had a future. It’s not like now. There was no satellite. Kids were still out on the streets playing all the time. For me, it was the last great hurrah! People don’t take those chances anymore. Everyone’s far too reserved. Men look like women, women look like men.

Q: The National Front scene feels very authentic. Did you ever witness something like that?
A: Yes, I did witness something like that. I actually went to a meeting, in a house. I never signed up to join. I was like Shaun – I got it but at the same time I was thinking: “Why haven’t I got a comfortable chair? My back’s hurting!” So I wasn’t really mesmerised by it. But the thing that stayed with me was that it wasn’t just skinheads. It was local farmers who came. That’s what I hate about people’s selective memory. They think the National Front was just skinheads, but it wasn’t. It was much more widespread than that. I tried to relate that on the screen.

Q: In many ways, the film is a surrogate father-son story, with Combo and Shaun. Is that the emotional core of the story?
A: Yeah. I think it was about that idea. Every kid comes to a point in his life, where you listen to your Dad, but then you go into the street and you start listening to the views of other people. You’re looking for role models. It’s like that moment when you step out.

Obviously, Shaun is more invested in looking for a father figure because he’s lost his own father. The core of the film is Shaun by himself, beginning and end, and then in the middle with these two very strong and very different people. Woody has a really good heart and Combo has a massively complicated heart. As much as he wants to help this kid, he’s far too fucked up himself to be able to do it. And he ends up damning him.

Q: Did the script change much over writing it?
A: I don’t place much emphasis on scripts. I write a script because I have to – I knew the story in my head but it was a very rough guideline. But initially there were probably a few more obvious defining skinhead fights at discos that, once I got onto making it, I weeded out and put far more personal details in there. It was the same with the music. When I first wrote it, I was going back through the soundtrack, and there was far more Oi! and aggressive punk music written into the script. But as it evolved, the music turned out to be far more subtle and sensitive.

Q: One person we haven’t talked about is Thomas Turgoose, who plays Shaun. How did you find him?
A: It was one of those situations where we were getting quite close to the wire, and we’d been all over the place – Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham. And we’d found all of the cast except him, which was quite worrying. I rehearsed over three or four months with people trying different things, but during the last ten per cent of that we were still looking. We ended up getting a specialist casting director, Des Hamilton, who had cast the kid in Ratcatcher, and had this technique of working where he went into community centres, council estates, arcades, shopping centres, and would go and find the roughest, most real kids. He finds kids who’d sat around the streets smoking and drinking and had no interest in being in a film, though the result of that search turned out to be the most fruitful thing that could’ve happened. He is the film, after all.

Q: So how was Thomas to work with?
A: He’s pretty much flawless. As a director, your job can range from having to lean on someone to get a performance out of them, to someone being so built for the part that all you have to do is make them feel confident and comfortable and assured of what they’re actually doing, and you just wind them up and watch them go.

The only thing I had to do with Tommo, was make him believe. Like he hated wearing all the really wank clothes at the beginning, as there were girls standing around watching and on a personal level he found it really embarrassing. So I had to chat to him saying, ‘For the transformation to work, you have to look like a dweeb!’ So bizarrely it was the most different actor-director relationship I’ve ever had. It was basically like working with myself at that age. He was in school a lot less when we first started, so he had a lot of things to overcome. He went from doing an hour or two a day in school to 12 hours a day on the film-set where he was in every scene bar three.

Q: Does he have a background similar to Shaun’s?
A: Yeah. He was estranged from his father at the time – his Mum and Dad had split up when he was young and two brothers lived with his Dad while he and his eldest brother had lived with his Mum. So there were a lot of similarities, which is probably why he was so comfortable with the part.

Q: Do you have another feature film in mind?
A: I’ve got six! But I always wanted to do King of the Gypsies, which is my boxing film. But I do need a certain amount of money. People think I’m putting it off but I’m not. If This is England went massive, I might be able to turn around to Channel 4 saying: “I want £10 million but I don’t want any famous people in it.” Which is not a good equation for them!

Read our review of This Is England