Blazing his own gloriously parochial and unpredictable low-budget path through the dispiriting landscape of post-millennial British cinema, with all its Harry Potters, Bridget Joneses, mockney geezers and Full Monty knock-offs, Shane Meadows has come from nowhere (in cinematic pedigree, at least) to make himself the indigenous film director to watch. The bleak housing estates of the East Midlands are now as firmly on the movie map as the bookshops of Notting Hill.
In recent years, Uttoxeter's most famous son has been showing signs of moving away from his pet subjects – his own youth and his own backyard – so it came as something of a surprise to learn that Meadows' latest project was going to be a sequel, revisiting the skinhead characters from his most personal and successful film to date, This Is England, and that it was going to be for television.
The resulting four-parter, This Is England '86, which begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday, takes place three years after the violent climax to Meadows' acclaimed box-office hit set at the height (or depth) of the Thatcher era. It reassembles the same cast and characters, including the semi-autobiographical teenager Shaun Field (geddit?), played by the director's great discovery, the wonderful Thomas Turgoose. In the film, Shaun was a fatherless 12-year-old who finds a sense of belonging within a gang of ska-loving Humberside skinheads, and we now meet him again as a reluctant GCSE student. The characters, and their relationship to each other, may take some working out for TV viewers unversed in the original, but for Meadows, revisiting Shaun, Woody, Lol, Smell et al was a labour of love. And in true Meadows manner, the germ of the idea came to him in a minibus travelling to a funeral in Grimsby.
"Tommo's [Turgoose's] mum passed away a few months after This Is England finished and we all went up to her funeral to show support," he says. "And although I didn't think at the time, 'hey, let's do this again', I do remember that leaving a bit of a mark on me. And then when I started doing Q&As at festivals, people would ask me, 'What happened to the gang? Were the gang okay?' And it got me to thinking. When you've got such great characters, it's a shame to just cast them aside."
Meadows' films come in all shapes and sizes, from the relatively big budget, 2002 Sergio Leone-flavoured Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and the 71-minute Somers Town, a crypto-advertisement for the joys of travelling by Eurostar, to his witty 2009 mockumentary, Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee, which was shot in just five days on £50,000. But television? Doesn't Meadows, like so many in the movie business, look down his nose at the small screen?
"The problem has always been in people's heads," he says. "There was a big snobbery and I think it came out in the Eighties when people were forced to work in telly – which was to the benefit of telly in a huge way. I mean you got Stephen Frears, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke making banging films for telly – because they couldn't get them made as films."
Frears, Loach, Leigh and Clarke – if there ever was a film-making lineage from which Meadows is descended, it's this school of British social realism, one that traditionally finds irrelevant the schism between cinema and television. "I was brought up on that amazing telly. I mean I remember the first night of Channel 4 [in November 1982] as though it was yesterday, and it making a mark on me for the rest of my life. If I went to the cinema back then I could probably catch ET, Bedknobs and Broomsticks... you know, there wasn't anything great being shown in my cinema. Everything I saw that touched me I saw on telly.
"But I think UK telly's gone to shit, it really has. It's appalling. What's happened in America, with The Sopranos and The Wire... so much stuff coming out of there is so good. The viewer actually wants to watch an event, whether it be cinema or something else. People are saying 'I want to watch a 12-hour film back to back, I want to watch 24 with the missus, all the way through'."
The director's "missus" is new partner Joanne, who works in a surveyor's office in Nottingham. Meadows split from his wife Louise, who was also his long-time co-producer and collaborator, during the exhausting production of This Is England in 2006, a shoot that had Meadows checking himself into a clinic in order to recuperate. The divorce itself has "worked out much better than these things sometimes do and we are all still friends," he says. Meadows and Joanne now have a son, Arthur (named after Meadows' dad, a long-distance lorry driver; his mum worked in a chip shop), and it was the need to be around for young Arthur that also propelled Meadows towards television, with its faster pace of production.
"I'd just had my son, and I'd been brought up in a house with this father who wasn't there very much because of his job – and that was the last thing I wanted," he says.
Meadows directed half of This Is England '86, while Tom Harper (The Scouting Book for Boys), helmed the rest. His co-author is Skins writer Jack Thorne, a self-confessed "Shane Meadows nerd". "I knew for someone who wasn't me to write these people it would take someone who fell in love with them from the film, and that was Jack," says Meadows. Thorne himself admits that the responsibility of taking them on "was really scary – I sent Shane 15 pages very early on because I was really scared of doing the whole thing and it being a disaster."
Adisaster it absolutely isn't – This Is England '86 is great fun, and should be a perfect fit for the Shameless audience who are usually catered for in this slot. The discipline of collaboration and a television schedule certainly seems to have worked wonders on Meadows' post-production technique. "I was quite scared because on This Is England and Dead Man's Shoes, just the edits alone were nine months each," he says. "And then you've got a month of mixing, a month of grading... you're looking at two years. We shot this in April, and it's going on screen in September."
Whatever you think of Meadows' films, and there are some agnostics around, what just about everybody agrees on is that you're always going to hear (to dip into Meadows speak) a banging soundtrack – not all of it necessarily from the period in question. "When I was a kid in the late Seventies I'd whack my dad's records on from the Fifties, you know, rockabilly, Motown records. The only rule was that we didn't put anything after '86 in there.
"Tom and I had editing suites next door to each other; sometimes I'd go round and say, 'Have a listen to this' and vice versa. Tom used "English Rose" by The Jam in one of his episodes and it was the only time I pulled rank and said, 'I'll have that... ' I'll give you this wonderful track by Toots and the Maytals in return... "
The period detail is, as usual, unobtrusive and not in the least bit slavish. "This wonderful lady came in to do the haircuts and this incredible thing happened where everyone designed their own hair. It was amazing – it was like a 24-hour hair salon. It was the same with costumes. I bet if you actually analyse the actual items and the haircuts, I haven't got the faintest idea whether any of the things were popular at the time – they just felt right."
This Is England being, at heart, Shaun's story – Meadows' story – the director can envisage a further series, "This Is England '90". "The next really big turning point in my life was 1990, with the Hacienda, the rave, The Stone Roses, ecstasy, the whole shambolic thing," he says. "I'd seen a lot of friends get into heroin off the back of that, so in a kind of way, Shaun's journey, if there is to be a second series, will continue in 1990."
Shaun, however, is somewhat peripheral to the opening episode of This Is England '86 and, gratifyingly for those who say that Meadows' films are too macho, it centres on the character of Lol (the excellent Vicky McClure). "It's been said that my work has been male-dominated – as my childhood was male-dominated – and luckily, in the wings, I had this very macho lady waiting, with a Ben Sherman on. She looked pretty tough and I thought, I can still have my man and she's a lady."
'This Is England '86' starts on Tuesday at 10pm on Channel 4
For further reading:
'Thatcher's Britain' by Richard Vinen (Simon & Schuster, £8.99). Order for £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030Reuse content