This is Disappointment ’86
I wanted to love this, I really, really did. This is England, the movie that acts as a prequel to the series, is sensational, so the promise of seeing where those characters are at a few years down the line should, done right, be awesome. Unfortunately, This is England ’86 falls into the category of sequels that are just bad fanfic. Oopsy.
Firstly, pretty much every character is someone who featured, to varying degrees, in the film, to the point where it stops being appropriate and just feels like balcony-playing. “Hey look, it’s everyone you liked from This is England! Remember the lady from the shoe shop scene!? No? Oh. Well here she is anyway!” Inexplicably, Woody’s Happy Funtime Gang now feature school bully Harvey, and Combo’s racist buddies Meggy and Banjo, without a word of explanation as to why they’re all suddenly great mates. Sure, groups of friends shift and change, and that’s not something that necessarily needs a backstory, but the machete-welding Banjo of the film is such a vile racist thug that even Combo, who has deeper-seated issues than just “punching blacks is fantastic!” driving his own philosophies, can no longer tolerate him. The ’86 Banjo is just a cuddly teddy bear, the R2D2 to the “doing a shit on a Pakistani’s shop floor in the film” Meggy’s C3PO, in some weird comedy double act that isn’t funny. The central character from the movie, Combo, doesn’t show up until much later, but I’ll get to that.
One of the main problems with ’86 is that the tone is all over the place, never sure if it wants to be a Skins-esque “ain’t it fun being young?” unrealistic celebration of youthful friendships, where everyone’s trapped in some smiling, foam covered, perpetual moshpit; a broad, 70’s style sex comedy romp; or a dark, grim kitchen sink drama where slow-motion crying and protracted rape scenes are the order of the day. But don’t worry about being confused by those tonal shifts, we’re told exactly what we’re supposed to feel by the constant sad piano montage music and close-ups of weepy, Northern faces. Dear god, all those sad piano montages. The formula for ’86 was something like this:
Everyone having a great big laugh > something fucked up happens > mournful piano music over the faces of everyone looking all sad > credits.
The shifting tone of the show doesn’t even fit with itself, let alone the film. The incredibly powerful violence that shatters the end of the movie is not an easy fit with the comedy knockabout gang-fight during the park footy match, with Banjo rolling around on the floor and copper’s helmets being knocked off like in The Beano. That would have worked for the series, had the series been consistent, and not later on tried to recreate the power of the film with a violent ending of its own, without having earned it.
Shane Meadows talks a lot in in interviews and DVD commentaries about a hugely character forming incident that happened to him when he was a kid, hanging around with a group of older lads. It was a single sudden act of brutality that looms heavy over a lot of his work (A Room for Romeo Brass, Dead Man’s Shoes, This is England), but maybe it’s time to look towards other inspirations, because over the course of this series, it’s really gotten old. Maybe you saw a funny dog once, or a tramp showed you his arse through the window of a passing bus; try using that instead.
The rape scenes themselves just came off as somebody mistaking a thing for being emotionally powerful when it’s actually just violent and unpleasant. As it is, I’m completely sick of rape as a lazy go-to storytelling device, as a means to creating monstrous men or damaged, vengeful women – cos that’s the only way to make female characters interesting, right, shit writers? See also: a recent popular foreign film. The tissue-thin character of Trev existed solely to suffer through a drawn-out rape, and other than the scene itself being exceptionally uncomfortable viewing, I didn’t particularly give a shit about the fate of her character – and why should I? I didn’t care about any of them, I’d been given no reason to. That’s one of ’86’s biggest failures, with so much time spent on stuff that either served no purpose or wasn’t paid off, leaving the audience with the bits that might have been interesting to see being played out not having enough time to do so, and a consequently rushed ending with no impact whatsoever. What about Gadget’s crush on Kelly? The dreadful “Confessions Of…” sex comedy plot with Gadget and Shoe Shop Lady? Meggy’s secret son? Milky and Lol’s affair? And why was so much screentime of the wildly rushed finale wasted with getting all the gang together for a second crack at the wedding? All of these discarded plot points hung in the air like the lingering farts of a director who’d scooted out of the room and left us to deal with the stink of his trumps. The lazy writing was epitomized by a character standing under a window and shouting “hey, Shoe Shop Lady from the film – who’s suddenly morphed into a comedy sex predator – you can officiate weddings, right??” Yeah, way to overcome that plot challenge.
In the absence of Combo, This is England ’86 was meant to be Lol’s story. It’s just a shame she was (issues included) so woefully unlikable and trout-faced. Why were two life-long best friends fighting for her love, exactly? I know the 80’s had no internet or Guitar Hero, but were things so dreary that smoking and scowling were such glamorous, thrilling qualities as to risk the end of a friendship? The lack of Combo was like if you made a follow-up to Fight Club focussing solely on the Space Monkeys who didn’t even get a line in the movie; but that’s nothing that couldn’t have been overcome by making it, you know, any good. Stories are stories. Combo’s presence aside, Graham is a powerhouse actor in a way that none of the, essentially background artists of the film, are, and it was evidently too big of an ask for them to carry a whole series. There was also a general disconnect between the characters and their film counterparts, with Woody seeming to devolve from the slightly wacky, friendly guy of the film and first episode to out-and-out retard by the end. “Eee, you alreet there, Flower?” kissing his parrot (not a euphemism) and endlessly jabbering on like a Yorkshire Vérité Rain Man.
It’s understandable that Stephen Graham, an actor who’s rightly in huge demand, probably couldn’t couldn’t fit much filming time into his schedule, but ’86 reduces him to a tear-drop-tattooed Deus Ex Machina. Witness his fucking stunning performance in the final scene of the film, as Milky talks about the happy, stable family Combo has clearly never known. There are a million subtleties playing out on his face, with so much seething rage and self-loathing bubbling under the surface. We don’t have to know his backstory, we can see it; we can feel it. A series that shows us Combo’s redemption? Sold!
That was by far the worst aspect of the show. The unforgettable, incendiary character from the film, so deeply layered and conflicted, and with the potential to tell an incredible story of redemption, and what does his story get – ten minutes of screen time while we sit through endless amounts of fuck-awful sex scenes, tedious bleakness and comedy fat-man nudity. As I’ve said, I’m sure the actor was too busy to do much filming, but if you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all. We’ve no idea what changed him, but maybe he was lucky enough to learn the error of his ways while folding laundry with a witty black man, like Derek Vinyard. There was so little time for his character development, that they resorted to the unbelievably lazy writing of having Combo’s mum die just to humanize him enough to have us buy the ending. Awful. When I pictured a This is England TV series, the image in my head was not of scenes where a fat teenager and a middle-aged woman do that very British comedy sex of having her missionary-position legs kick up in the air like a Vicky Michelle end of the pier farce. And I really could have done without those two supermodels Shaun and Smell rutting in a filthy toilet cubicle like a deleted scene from Troma’s Toxic Avenger. You could almost hear the self high-fives that they orgasmed at the exact moment of Madonna’s handball. Yeah, yeah, very clever.
I feel like I did over last year’s big C4 series, Red Riding, the arrival of which was heralded by ponderous trailers where Warren Clarke said ‘ard things like “dog’s bollocks,”and promises that it’d be the best thing on British television for decades. It was critically acclaimed seemingly because of how knowingly unpleasant it was, and was just a mass of tedious crime show clichés and that now familiar bleakness that was way too forced to ever have an impact.
I know writing a long essay in your blog about how something stinks has the danger of painting yourself as a total Comic Book Guy, but I’m not one of those gleefully negative bloggers (check out my Top 10 Shows of the Decade), I’m just passionate, especially when I’m so disappointed that something that had the potential to be amazing turned out to be a horrible muddle of Skins, a Robin Askwith film and tiresome tragedy-porn.