Tuesday, April 24, 2007

This Is England: A Summer Of Tainted Love, Buckaroo and The National Front

Shane Meadows is not a Rock’n’Roll Years director, so it’s surprising to see him open his skinhead odyssey with a montage of nostalgia. To a soundtrack of Toots and the Maytals singing the early reggae hit 54-46 That’s My Number, the screen hosts a nightmarish boot-sale of 1980s’ memories. Roland Rat rubs padded shoulders with Margaret Thatcher, the Greenham Common women meet Duran Duran, an aerobics workout runs into the marriage of Princess Diana. As the reel progresses and the images sink in, other thoughts occur. Was Space Invaders an arcade version of the Cold War? Possibly. And look, there’s Ronald Reagan, the original B-Movie president, from a time when it was possible to laugh at the presence of a cowboy in the White House.
The effect, to viewers old enough to remember these things, will be chastening – how long ago it was, how recent it seems, and how funny it all looks. To those who do not remember – most of the audience – only the last reaction will pertain.
This is England is set in July 1983, in a depressed working class coastal town. The action begins on the last day of school, on which pupils are allowed to wear their own clothes. For 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) – a character based on the adolescent Shane Meadows – this is a problem. A kid who is small for his age, he is also condemned to suffer abuse because of his lack of style. “You look like Keith Chegwin’s son,” he is told. “I were picked on three times today,” he laments, “and all because of me trousers.”
Shane soon falls under the influence of a skinhead gang, led by the benign and funny Woody (Joe Gilgun). The gang is destructive, but its misdeeds are largely against property. They characterise their vandalism sprees as hunting, and don fancy dress (Davy Crockett hats, chinoiserie, snorkels) for the purpose. The pecking order is minutely observed. The charming Woody is looked up to, just as the fat kid Gadget (Andrew Ellis) is a magnet for condescension.
Shaun, a precocious kid with a squirrel design on his jumper, is clearly too young to be involved in such activity, but he does not seem to be in danger. His need to obtain the correct skinhead gear is a matter of comedy. In the shoe shop, his mother conspires with the sales assistant to persuade him to accept boots which are not Dr Marten’s. The replacements are just as good, the boy is assured, because they are “from London”. The trauma of “no uniform day” is excised only when Shaun is fully togged out skinhead gear, with drainpipe jeans, Ben Sherman shirt, and braces.
All of this is a harmless, almost wistful examination of a teenage summer; of tower blocks and Tainted Love, of Buckaroo and Culture Club, and graffiti on the Church of Christ reading “Maggie is a Twat”. The period detail is minutely observed, right down to the holes in the woodchip wallpaper, picked, out of boredom, from Shaun’s bedroom wall.
Everything changes with the arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), a skinhead of 1969 vintage. His allegiance to the racist National Front splits the group, taking Shaun into more dangerous company. The boy’s identification with Combo’s rage is derived from the death of his father in the Falklands war, and he learns how to impose his grief on others – leading a wrecking raid of the local Asian store. The presence in the original gang of a black kid, Milky (Andrew Shim, from Meadows’ second film A Room For Romeo Brass), is another flashpoint, though the tragedy is deferred by a slow dissection of the fractures in Combo’s philosophy. Milky is offered a cricket test: does he feel English or Jamaican? Milky says English, which is enough, for a while.
Meadows has been around the territory of male violence and peer group pressure before, not least in his last film, the brilliant revenge drama Dead Man’s Shoes. But This is England is more precisely personal, stemming from a time when the director’s role model was the unreconstructed Jimmy Boyle. The film’s treatment of teenage tribalism has similarities with Richard Jobson’s 16 Years of Alcohol, but Meadows is most obviously indebted to the late Alan Clarke. While the emotions are tugged by the vulnerability of Shaun (a precocious performance by Turgoose), Stephen Graham’s Combo can stand alongside Ray Winstone in Scum, or Tim Roth in Made in Britain, as a portrait of fractured masculinity.
In the end, the Falklands analogy feels slightly forced, but the scenes of public rejoicing at the docksides are a reminder of how potent English nationalism was during that hiccup of decolonisation. The history is important. But, as the title of this vital film suggests, Meadows has his eyes fixed on the tensions of the present.