After the transmission of This is England ’86 a mere 14 months ago, Shane Meadows returned to our television screens with the three-part series This is England ’88.1 Produced by Warp and broadcast by Channel Four over three consecutive evenings, the series brings us up to date with the lives of Lol and Woody and the rest of the ’83 gang before the final outing with the forthcoming This is England ’90.
Collaborating once again with Jack Thorne, Meadows sets the series amongst the backdrop of Christmas 1988. Lol (Vicky McClure) is unemployed, a single mother struggling to cope with psychological illness and sleep deprivation; Woody (Joe Gilgun) has a secure job, new girlfriend and a supportive family; Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) has found his calling studying drama, but destroys his relationship with Smell (Rosamund Hanson) after a moment of childish infidelity; Milky (Andrew Shim) is practically an absent father to Lisa (his child with Lol), only returning with money and the odd gift every once in a while. The gang is all present, with the notable exception of Meggy (Perry Benson), with Woody and Lol going their separate ways. The gang seems to have gone through yet another phase of subcultural mobility, but there is no hint of development or progression. With Lol and Woody previously supervising the clique almost as parental guardians, the split in their relationship, and in turn, their distance from the gang has stagnating effects on their individual development. The dynamic of the gang prompts a strong feeling of inertia, rendering the characters as progressively stale and caricatured.
While This is England (2006) and This is England ’86 (2010) used the gang as a focal point, within which individual character narratives erupted, This is England ’88 predominantly concentrates on the lives of Lol and Woody and shifts towards female character relationships. With the lives of the rest of the gang showing that life hasn’t really changed, we see Lol and Woody living separate lives on a dilapidated council estate. In the first episode, we see this spatial internalization in a shot which shows Lol pushing her buggy, while Woody drives past in his beloved Metro before Milky steps off a bus with a giant teddy bear. Though the three characters do not inhabit the frame at the same time, there is a sense that they are passing each other like ships in the night; that they live in such close proximity but do not, in the case of Lol and Woody, regularly see each other. This juxtaposition of geographical closeness with physical detachment is a far cry from the familial intimacy that is celebrated in This is England and the previous series. Through the franchise, we have seen the pair go from caring parental figures (This is England) to distant, vulnerable individuals in need of support (This is England ’86), to finally end up separated but still deeply connected to each other. If in the film we see the couple at their strongest, it is in This is England ’88 that we see them at their very weakest.
Again, the central narrative is driven by the psychological breakdown of Lol as she struggles to come to terms with murdering her father Mick (Johnny Harris), Combo’s (Stephen Graham) ultimate sacrifice on her behalf and the drudgeries of being an unemployed single mum with a young teething child. Across the three episodes, Lol’s mental stability becomes progressively fragmented to the point where she is plagued by visions of her dead father. Lol cannot detach herself from the feelings of guilt for letting Combo take the rap, and these feelings are exacerbated by illusory dialogue with her father which leaves her feeling imprisoned by her unconscious. With diegetic heavy breathing and non-diegetic choral music, Lol is at odds with herself. As much as she tries to cleanse her thoughts; through Combo, Evelyn (Helen Behan) and visiting Church, Lol is unable to find peace.
The intimate scenes between Lol and Evelyn and then Lol and Combo are stripped back and immensely powerful. Her second visit to the nurse allows her to pour out her feelings, the spectral appearances of her father and unremitting guilt for Combo. Even her prison visit to Combo does little to lessen her afflictions; unlike the rest of the gang, Combo elicits a feeling of growth and progression. Far from the fascist menace of the film, Combo shows emotion, evoking a sense of sympathy which was, on the whole, deficient in This is England. The scene emphasizes the distance between the two through the shot reverse-shot through the glass: Combo is moving forward, whereas Lol is trapped and lapsing into deeper depression. Lol attempts to take her own life, only to be revived through a stomach pumping which can also be read metaphorically: as the vile contents of Lol’s stomach leave her body so do the abhorrent events she has experienced since childhood. In a powerful montage of clips from both the film and This is England ‘86, Meadows presents all the negative aspects of Lol’s life: the violent racism, the breakdown of her relationship, infidelity, the rape of Trevor (Danielle Watson) and the murder of her father. The montage acts as Lol’s catharsis; it is a way forward for her, in more ways than one.
On the other hand, Woody has a seemingly indulgent life style, a new ‘ordinary’ girlfriend of whom his parents approve, and a firm step on the promotional ladder. However, there is something missing. He pines for Lol and his previous identity as a member of the gang. The only thing that has remained consistent for Woody is his job, which is telling in the consumerist 1980s setting. Although Woody succumbed to the Conservative work ethic in This is England ‘86, the latest series shows him as uncertain of his way forward as his job has remained the one part of his life that has maintained stability. After seeing the gang together, Woody’s deceptively ideal life begins to crumble, culminating in the scene in which he meets Milky and the gang. Stacey Sampson plays the innocent-hearted Jennifer who has, essentially, been a stop-gap for Woody after his breakdown following Lol and Milky’s infidelity. One of the most ironic features of Woody’s character development is the fact that he shares a patent similarity with his father. In the previous series Woody refuses to marry Lol as he ‘doesn’t want to end up like his dad’, but after the breakdown of their relationship, Woody becomes increasingly like him and settles for Jennifer who could be described as a younger version of his mother. It is Lol’s attempted overdose that draws the narrative to a close by bringing the two protagonists back together. Combo is the only person who knows the extent of her actions; the breakdown in her relationship with Woody (beginning in This is England ’86) was based on his misunderstanding and her unwillingness to open up to him. For her burden to be lifted, Lol has to purge herself through the attempted suicide, but also by confiding in Woody. Moreover, for Woody to be truly happy, he needs Lol. With the heartache and desperation that floods the series, the reunification of Lol and Woody is at once magical and conclusive.
What remains at the centre of This is England ’88 is relationships; not between the gang, but outside it. Meadows strips away the nostalgia and subculture, producing a series that is sparer in its approach, and the sparer it is, the better. Along with This is England ’86, This is England ’88 represents a distinct shift in Shane Meadows’ established oeuvre; the swing towards a more female-driven narrative after the pervasive masculinity of his previous work.
Originally posted: 5 March 2012.