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This Is England '86 - Complete Season Review

This Is England '86

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

DESPITE a shaky start, This Is England ‘86 turned out to be one of the British TV events of the year.

By turns powerful, moving, hilarious and harrowing, this Shane Meadows series was, in many ways, an instant masterpiece.

Having first introduced us to his characters in the film This Is England, Meadows and co-director Tom Harper revisited them by way of a four-part series, setting the action in 1986 during the height of England’s World Cup campaign.

As he did with the film, things began lightly, as characters were re-introduced to each other and a sense of camaraderie built that allowed the audience to fully participate in the emotional journeys that lay ahead.

Hence, the emphasis was more on the ensemble experience rather than any one character, with Thomas Turgoose’s Shaun no longer the focal point. He still had a massive part to play, of course, but the dramatic heavy-lifting was left more to Vicky McClure’s Lol.

Indeed, it was her problems – both emotional and physical – that carried the heaviest dramatic wallop. First of all, there were her mixed feelings for live-in boyfriend and jovial screw-up Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and his best friend and her potential other love interest Milky (Andrew Shim).

More potently, however, were the ghosts of her past, turned into a living nightmare by the re-appearance of her violent and sexually abusive father Mick (Johnny Harris), which sent her on a downward spiral of despair and self-loathing.

Navigating their own lives around them, meanwhile, were the likes of Shaun, still coming to terms with the loss of his father in the Falklands War and his mother’s decision to move on; Smell (Rosamund Hanson), who still carries a torch for Shaun; Trev (Danielle Watson), a teenager finding her own way in the world, and Gadget (Andrew Ellis), a man-child who finds himself in an unwanted relationship with a desperate older woman.

Initially, This Is England ‘86 played like a joyous – and often very funny – reunion party, with the first episode in particular given over to Lol and Woody’s disastrous ‘wedding’ and its repercussions. At times, it felt more like Shameless than This Is England.

But gradually, the mood turned darker… as feelings became more complicated and tensions between certain characters rose.

The final moments of the third episode were particularly disturbing, culminating in a brutal rape scene that left viewers feeling cold and shattered. It was a sobering way to launch the explosive finale, in which certain characters got their comeuppance and others attempted to put their lives back on track.

Yet for all its power to shock, Meadows and Harper never lost sight of the characters and their emotions, ensuring that audiences lived through every high and low and every laugh and tear.

And the performances from his young and largely unknown cast were, without exception, incredible.

Admittedly, McClure deserves special mention for her devastating portrayal of Lol, whose plight was truly heartbreaking. She didn’t always endear herself to audiences, but you never gave up rooting for her to find happiness.

Shim, too, shone in his scenes with both McClure and best friend woody, tugging at the heart-strings as he frequently put his own feelings to one side for the greater good of the group.

And Turgoose, as we’ve now come to expect, was typically endearing as the mixed up Shaun – again, not always likeable in his mood swings, but always endearing and with a laugh to melt the hardest heart.

Praise, too, deserves to go to Johnny Harris for the bravery of his performance – a warts and all depiction of a violent, despicable man, who somehow retained a sense of humanity (as he wrestled with his own feelings of disgust), even though his actions could never, ever be condoned or even sympathised with. He was one of the most chilling villains to have emerged on the small screen for some time.

And it was good to see Stephen Graham make a belated – yet no less memorable – return as Combo, the main ‘villain’ from the original movie, whose comeback offered an unlikely redemption for another troubled character. The scenes between him and Shaun particularly resonated.

Yet another of This Is England’s apparently effortless skills was in toying with your emotions and sending you on a rollercoaster ride throughout its last three episodes in particular.

Backed by a simple, but oh-so effective piano-based score, this was a series that retained a consistent ability to have you laughing, crying or gasping in an instant.

It was proof positive that TV is every bit as good as cinema when it sets its mind to it, and truly rewarding. One can only now hope that based on the overwhelmingly positive response to the series Meadows and company decide to revisit these special characters again soon.

Even after four episodes, life seems poorer for being without them.

Certificate: 18
Running time: 107mins
UK DVD Release: August 23, 2010