Last night's viewing - This is England '88, Channel 4; Money, BBC2

 

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The Independent Culture

If there's any kind of television more lowering to the spirits than the Christmas schedules I'd rather not know about it. We can already feel the ground rumbling as the "specials" trundle towards us, camouflaged with artificial snow and Santa hats. The chefs are in overdrive, offering pre-baked celebrations of "yuletide fare" and the television equivalent of Katyusha rocket launchers – one-off seasonal dramas – are even now being lined up to bombard us with hugs and life-lessons. So, thank God for This Is England '88, Shane Meadows's deeply lovable account of life in a Northern town, which at least has the decency to coat its sweet centre (there will be one, I suspect) with something dark and bitter.

"Lovable" is by way of warning, incidentally. I know that This Is England '88 isn't perfect and that its marriage of Loachian realism and underbelly picaresque sometimes leads to rumpled seams. I know too that Meadows's version of dirty realism can teeter into fond caricature. But I just don't really care because it's so loving itself towards the characters it has created, and so careful to acknowledge that bad times don't pass in a single episode. Nor even, as it happens, in the two-year gap between series. This Is England '86 ended with a tragedy and a sadness – Lol's murder of her abusive father after he'd raped her friend Trev, and another missed appointment for a wedding. And two years on those events are still reverberating.

Lol is a depressed single mother and Woody, once exuberant and free, has rebounded from her infidelity with their friend Milk into a suffocating relationship with the respectable Jennifer. Meanwhile, the relationship between Shaun and Smell, joyously initiated in a pub lavatory, has been staled by familiarity. "I've been wanking you all week, please wank me," nags Smell as she wakes him to go to his drama course. But sadly Shaun is now more interested in his co-star in the college play than in gallant sexual reciprocation. And, for the moment, even the silver clouds have a black lining. Offered a promotion by his boss, Woody is badly rattled. He can only see it as another bolt slid home on the prison door and – in a nicely observed scene – seriously misjudges his office banter in his panic.

There was social comedy here too. Invited round to his co-star's upmarket house to run through his lines, poor glum Shaun found himself being force-fed olives by her grimly ingratiating father ("Why don't you pop through... we're just about to start our Christmas comestible tray") and the asphyxiating niceness of Woody's home life was played for laughs too. But the prevailing mood is more darkly sorrowful, and Meadows breaks with realism to convey it. Submerged in her bath, hiding from the world, Lol saw someone enter the bathroom and broke the surface to find her dead father standing in front of her. Judging from the last series, it could get darker still before we reach Christmas, which won't suit everyone. But at least the chill and the warmth here feel real, not just a dusting of ersatz frosting and tinsel bonhomie.

Vanessa Engle's intriguing series Money ended with a clever idea. Film different families living on £40,000, which is the national average income for a household with two working adults. For some people this is very comfortable living, for others it's painfully pinched. Main finding? Children are the ruin of even the most carefully watched budget. The star? Neville, a train-driver who meticulously divides his income into a series of "pots" to cover every possible eventuality. Well, nearly. He didn't have a "pot" for testicular cancer, but although he confessed that the BMW 5 Series had called to him seductively after his diagnosis, he'd realised it wouldn't really make him feel better. Which is why he's now both in remission and still solvent.

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