Resonances with the present day seem only to have multiplied since Shane Meadows' raw portrayal of the early 1980s, This Is England, hit cinemas in 2006. But in the first episode of This Is England '86, the televisual follow-up written by Meadows with Jack Thorne of Skins and Shameless, the social and political landscape that loomed large in the film has receded. In its place is a smaller, more domestic drama that could slip smoothly into another decade, give or take a few haircuts and the dodgy decor.
If you had already seen the film, this was no bad thing. Meadows' original study of the contradictory faces of skinhead culture offered a satisfyingly nuanced, if bleak, understanding of how personal and ideological matters become dangerously entangled. So it was logical that Meadows chose to tread different ground this time.
When we meet his characters three years on, they no longer seem to be so violently buffeted by larger external forces. Loner Sean (Thomas Turgoose), last seen in size four Doc Martens, is now celebrating finishing his CSEs, hankering after a scooter and being nagged by his mum to get a job. Woody, the leader of the benign skinhead gang that adopted Sean, has grown out of his number two and is having cold feet over his wedding to girlfriend Lol. Combo, the racist thug who all but tore their group apart, is largely absent.
The problem was that if you hadn't seen the film it took a while to figure out why you should care about the travails of these unknown figures, particularly given that it was all played for laughs. One character's heart attack becomes a pretext for racing round a hospital in wheelchairs to a Housemartins soundtrack.
Likewise Sean's encounter with the local tracksuited bullies begins menacingly, but dissolves into farce as Sean is inveigled into a moronic plan to impress a girl. It ends with Sean bleeding on her living-room floor, but it's a world away from the grimly realistic bloodshed in the film – his cut is inflicted by her father's broken lava lamp (one of many well-observed, Martin Parr-ish details in the decor).
It's not that it's unengaging; Meadows' eye for acting talent and the extraordinary potential in ordinary faces continues to reap rewards. Turgoose and Joe Gilgun as Woody are endearing sad clowns and the lingering shots of Vicky McClure as Lol, unconventionally lovely in her Ben Sherman and bleached quiff, exemplify the kind of visual breathing space we're not often treated to in television.
It's just that it all feels like a sitcom with too many set pieces. There were hints of more troubling things to come, however, so I will be watching again in the hope that we get a little more of the dark material that Meadows handles so well.
In Alan Davies' Teenage Revolution, a visual memoir of growing up in 1980s Essex, we had to wait a little too long for something to get our teeth into. Though Davies strained to connect his personal experience with the wider social climate, interspersing visits to his old haunts with archive shots of Thatcher, much of the teen angst he described seemed a more or less universal youthful experience.
There was, however, an interesting, uneasy moment when Davies located the leader of a gang of skinheads who had terrified him. Now in his forties, the man looked embarrassed when recalling his days of "Paki bashing", even more so when his father interjected with a tirade about "coloured people moving into the area". So while we may identify echoes of the 1980s in 2010, it was clear that some things never really went away.Reuse content