This is England 86 concluded on Tuesday 28 September. Shane Meadows portrait of Britain's urban underclass, specifically in the south Midlands, was as gritty, darkly humorous and disturbing as anything he has offered up until now. It was also, in my humble opinion, the finest piece of television unleashed on the British public for yonks.
Included were familiar Meadows signatures. Nottingham council estates utterly segregated from Middle England. Communities struggling to exist. People unable to connect. People, especially males, with inept social skills, resorting to drink, violence, or fucking. Not necessarily separately.
What Meadows does is show poverty without the condescension of expecting viewers to simply wring their hands and fret over how desperate conditions are for these poor proles. He gives us three-dimensional characters who are exasperated and often dysfunctional but who also crave love and friendship, respect, sex, camaraderie and wish fulfilment, just like the majority of the population looking down at their predicament. In these bleak streets and blocks of NF-grafittied social housing, where every third window is boarded-up, there are shattered families and broken homes. But Meadows believes emphatically in the humanity of his subjects.
It was also, in my humble opinion, the finest
TV unleashed on the British public for yonks.
The final episode of This is England 86 reached an explosive climax with one searing scene. Lol (Vicky McClure) finally confronts her violently incestuous father (Johnny Harris). His reaction leads to another attempted rape, except this time she has come prepared and manages to fend him off with a hammer. This was one of the most unsettling and powerful moments of drama that has appeared on terrestrial British TV. The acting by the two protagonists here was beyond electrifying.
All those CSI imports love to dwell on the aftermath of crime, on the nitty gritty of forensics: what a butchered body might look like, how the police use sophisticated techniques to outwit the criminals. Which is fair enough. The difference here is that we are launched straight into the vortex of the crime scene. We hear the terror in Lol's voice as she fronts up to her estranged father. We witness the brutal assault unwinding before our eyes. So we desperately want to see her win, not him. We are rooting for the victim facing this horrible dehumanising bully.
And then, once that manslaughter is finished, before we can even snatch a breath, we are introduced to Lol's knight in shining armour, tattooed former skinhead thug Combo (in a plethora of vivid performances, a standout cameo from Stephen Graham).
Setting this story in the mid 80s gave added pathos.
Thatcher was proclaiming there was no such thing as
The characters with 'lighter' storylines – Sean (Thomas Turgoose), Woody (Joseph Gilgun) are equally integral
to the overall picture. Their own sub-plots - the marriage that never will be, the struggles of a school leaver in the mid-80s - illustrate the poignancy of life going on, even if there is horror being enacted next door. But Meadows is a past master at entwining comedy and tragedy. The sexual romps are frequently hilarious. Whether it's a cubicle quickie that misses a crucial moment during England v Argentina, or toyboys dressed as Clark Cable, sex is celebrated for what it can be - harmless, consensual fun - the polar opposite of sexual abuse. Counterbalancing the highs and lows requires a deft touch. Meadows does it brilliantly.
Setting this story in the mid 80s gives added pathos. Thatcher was proclaiming there was no such thing as society. It was business as usual in the City of London. At the Mexico World Cup, England fans were goading Argentinians about the Belgrano.
This is England 86 was bleak, a snapshot of the human fallout from Thatcherism and its radical social reforms, the flipside of all those red-braced southern yuppies wallowing in their ivory towers. But for all the ugliness, Meadows work is, ultimately, a celebration of humanity, a euphoric anthem for the common people, punctuated by a note-perfect soundtrack. The credits rolled out to The Jam's 'Bitterest Pill'. A beautiful irony. Roll on This is England 90.