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When Shane Meadows made the leap from film to TV with This is England 86, no-one was really surprised. Done well, TV plays to Meadows' strengths, giving him more time to develop characters and themes over a number of episodes, rather than having to condense everything into a handy 90 minute package.
Equally, following the critical acclaim for This is England '86, it was no great surprise to see the format repeated in a follow up series which caught up with the This is England crew. Set (obviously) in 1988 and spread across three hour long episodes, it brings us up to speed with what has happened to the gang since we last saw them.
It's fair to say that time has not been kind to our friends. As a result of her affair with Milky, Lol is now a single mother, struggling to cope on her own. Split from long-term boyfriend Woody she is also struggling to come to terms with the death of her abusive father, whom she killed at the end of England '86. Woody himself has a new girlfriend and is desperately trying to convince himself that he is happy, but cannot forgive Milky's betrayal and so has cut himself off from his former gang.
If this plot summary points out just one thing it is that to understand this is England '88, you need to have watched This is England '86 (and ideally the original film). Many of the character's stories are picked up from where we last saw them and if you haven't watched previous instalments you will be left wondering what people are talking about or why they are acting towards each other in the ways that they do.
If This is England was about Shaun's transition from boy to adolescent and This is England '86 about Lol and Woody's transition to adulthood, then '88 is very much Lol's Tale. Much of the meat of the three episodes revolves around her failure to deal with her demons and reconcile her past with her present. It is not a happy story, bringing in some pretty heavy themes that at times makes for difficult viewing.
This is England 88 marks a change in tone from previous instalments. It is far more intense and serious, dealing with some serious issues and adult themes. There are still glimpses of the old humour; of a group of good friends having a laugh together, but cracks are starting to appear in the alliances. The black humour of previous series is rapidly disappearing and this is easily the darkest instalment to date. The overall tone of the three episodes in this series is sombre and depressing and it's certainly not a programme to watch if you are feeling down.
This is England '88 also has a much slower pace and is probably best described as a "slow burner". Meadows takes his time examining the sorry situation of the key characters and their damaged relationships This is no bad thing because the extra time allows him to develop the characters, fleshing them out so that they become very real, very flawed people. Thanks to some skilful writing and well-handled character development, they retain the sympathy of the viewer, no matter how selfish and horrible they might sometimes be. The longer format suits Meadows' style and he uses it well to create a gripping and compelling drama that confronts some serious and disturbing issues in an adult and thought provoking way.
One downside to the focus on Lol is that some of the other characters get lost. There are sub-plots featuring Shaun and his increasingly rocky relationship with Smell and a look at Woody who is desperately missing Lol and these work well, adding to the overall "soap opera" feel. However, many of the other original characters find themselves side-lined. The comic relief brought by Gadget is sorely missed, particularly given the unremittingly bleak tone and it's deeply disappointing that Stephen Graham's charismatic Combo features in just one substantive scene.
The reason for side-lining these characters is logical (given that a central themes is the rift that has grown between Woody and his former friends), but they are still sorely missed. We have witnessed their transition to adulthood in previous outings and so we feel that they are our friends, too. We want to catch up with them properly and see how they are getting on, but the opportunities to do so are limited.
Yet, whilst the disappearance of some characters might be a minor black cloud, there is a major silver lining in the shape of some superb, tragic, heartfelt acting. Vicky McClure, as Lol is outstanding. She has by far the most scenes and the trickiest role, yet always retains the sympathy of the viewer. Joseph Gilgun is not fair behind as Woody, as is Thomas Turgoose reprising his role as Shaun back. Despite some being reduced to smaller roles, the entire cast is superb and, along with the excellent writing, are the major factor behind the series' compelling nature.
Some people might take issue with the language. It sometimes feels like every other word is "F" this or "C" that. If you are easily offended, then you will switch This is England '88 off within two minutes of it starting. Even those who are not quite so delicate might be upset by its frequency and ferocity. Yet, for all it is offensive, it is also justified. It accurately reflects the way that people like Woody and Lol talk and reveals the depth of their emotions in a more intense way than full sentences could ever express.
Meadows has also developed a slightly irritating directorial trait of over-using long, lingering shots of not very much (characters sitting, exteriors of depressing blocks of flats. Although some of these establish the background and context to the characters' lives, they are too numerous. It's as though each episode is running a little short, so Meadows bungs these sequences in to pad the running time out to the correct length.
Due to its slower pace and darker tone, This is England '88 is a world away from the more light-hearted (if equally hard-hitting) original. This has led a few people to dismiss it as "boring". If you have bought into the lives of these characters, though, you will find it utterly compelling. It's fair to say that '88 is probably the weakest outing to date, but that's a relative judgement. Previous instalments have been so strong that matching that quality in a third episode was always going to be a tough ask. Despite some flaws, This is England 88 was still the best thing on TV when it aired in 2011 by a long way; and it's still well worth the current purchase price of around £9 on DVD.
The final episode leaves several plot strands hanging, so with a bit of luck, fans can look forward to hooking up with the gang again in 1990. On the evidence of this series, there's still plenty of life left in Meadows' kitchen sink drama.
This is England 88
Director: Shane Meadows
Running time: 3x approx. 45 minute episodes
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012