Last Night's TV - This Is England '86, Channel 4; My Story, BBC1
Welcome back to Shane's world
Wednesday 08 September 2010
Shane Meadows stitched together the end of his film
This Is England and its television sequel This Is England '86 with a shot of his character Shaun in the rain – hand out to test the water. And it wasn't very long before you could tell that the temperature had changed significantly in the three years that had elapsed between the first drenching and the second. This Is England ended in a mood of chilly bleakness – with violence and disillusionment. But now life is looking up for Shaun, not least because he's just finished his CSEs and has no intention of continuing the desultory imitation of the academic life that led up to them. "You're in for quite a shock young man," said one of his teachers, looking disdainfully at his exam paper. "I think you'll find that it's me that's doing the shocking, love," replied Shaun, and the remark was eager, not embittered. "How did it go?" asked his mother, meeting him in a café for an exam post-mortem. "It went," said Shaun, "end of."
Most of this first episode was concerned not with Shaun but with Woody and Lol, the skinhead couple who took Shaun under their wing and first gave him a sense of family. Woody and Lol are about to get married, a social occasion that doesn't involve a lot of frills. Meggy and Banjo are travelling to the ceremony on the bus – clutching a Tupperware box full of home-made vol-au-vents – while Gadget and his mate are in the local cemetery, stalking a visitor in the hope of nicking some fresh flowers. The mood and style is Ken Loach at his lightest, so when Gadget makes a rush for the bouquet there's no emotion more scarring than wild indignation from his victim. And as more friends pile up – filling the top and launching into a raucous chorus of "Daisy, Daisy" – it's easy enough to decide to go for the ride with them. It's an ancient strain in British entertainment this – running from the Cheapside scenes in Henry IV to Shameless – the charm of other people's joyous fecklessness.
For the moment, Shaun is outside this convivial gang again, exiled by his own choice and a loner ripe for exploitation by the local bully, Flip, who enlists him into a stupefyingly dimwitted plan to romance a local beauty. Shaun is to insult her at which point Flip will defend her honour. And if this strikes you as a slightly strained moment of picaresque, it's still pretty funny, and rescued by an interlude of awkward silence, when Flip and his sidekick, Iggy, stare in bemusement at the interior décor of a lower-middle class house straining for higher altitude. "That's got it's own rug," said Flip, pointing to the doily under a vase on the coffee table.
There are hints too that the warmth of these opening passages may be a lulling strategy, designed to get an audience far enough in to be able to withstand the darker realities that Meadows often admits to his dramas. Woody and Lol's wedding does not pass off well, with some comic misadventure (Meggy has a non-fatal heart attack while sitting on the lavatory) and a more poignant reversal, as Woody loses his nerve and can't bring himself to utter his vows. Lol, beautifully played by Vicky McClure, isn't just the victim here, but emerges as a character in her own right... one who, a long wordless final scene suggests, might have a more troubling back-story. For the moment, This Is England '86 could be accused of straining a little too hard to be likeable, something it would achieve anyway. But the quiet gaps between the mischief and the capering promise something far more involving than that.
My Story is very strange indeed – an oddly miscegenated programme that is best explained as the wrong answer to the question: "How might we best tap into the massive success of women's true-life magazines?" There's nothing particularly wrong with the stories themselves, which are the kind of heartstring tuggers and jaw-droppers that occupy a big stretch of the newsagents shelves. This week – in a programme themed around the idea of family – we got a woman who'd been reunited with her adopted daughter after a striking coincidence, and a mother who'd been forced to travel to Thailand to rescue her abducted son. But, as if it would be faintly downmarket to be interested in these stories for their own sake, the machinery of a competition has been bolted on, with a panel of three judges (including the novelist Kate Mosse and the journalist Fergal Keane) deciding which of the three will win "the ultimate prize" of being published as a book.
It isn't clear whether they're judging storytelling ability here (in which case there might actually be a point to the competition) or simply deciding where experience has kinked into the most seductive forms, which seems slightly distasteful, like an inverted lottery in which bad luck buys you a better ticket. But in any case the apparatus of judicious selection means that the stories themselves get distinctly short-changed. By far the strangest here – that of a woman whose "perfect marriage" was suddenly shattered when her husband celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary by attempting to murder her with an axe – left you with so many unanswered questions and weird elisions that it was impossible to know what to make of it. What we needed was a John Peel – to be a tactful proxy for our own prurience. What we got was Maureen Lipman, saying "gosh" in a variety of ways.
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