This is England – DJ set
For all the tension woven into a good police procedural, for all the subtleties of a fine literary adaptation – and we’ve had decent examples of both genres in the past few years – there’s been no other recent UK drama with the gut punch of This Is England. This Is England ’86, ’88 and now ’90 – that follow on from Shane Meadows’s 2006 film set among a group of skinheads in 1983 have been that rare thing: sequels that are better than the original.
In ’86 and ’88, Meadows’s lens focused closest on Lol (Vicky McClure), a former skinhead who had been raped by her father as a child and who delivered retribution when he did the same to her best friend.
Last night the narrative came full circle. A young black man, Milky (Andrew Shim), got revenge on Combo (Stephen Graham), the white racist who had beaten him to a pulp in the original film. The thing is, Combo had repented, and Meadows does repentance, redemption and forgiveness, that holy trio, with the awe once due to them. When Combo realised Milky’s apparent gesture of reconciliation – a cup of tea together in a deserted cafe – was in fact a trap, just after he had begged Milky’s forgiveness, it was unbearable to look at either character. Stephen Graham’s bruised, desperate performance as Combo has been a wonder throughout all the series, now he stood surrounded by the harbingers of death, resigned, frightened, betrayed, overwhelmed by the knowledge he was to blame for his own disaster. Andrew Shim cried floods of real tears as Milky, offering that forgiveness to Combo although he couldn’t stop the punishment.
As in real life although not wholly satisfying for drama, This Is England ’90 has been dominated by events from the characters’ past: the wicked deeds of Lol and Kellie’s father Mick, Combo’s attack on Milky. This has at times felt like a bit of a narrative cop out, and that there is nowhere left for the characters to go now. Instead we have been asked, in the main, to sit back and enjoy Meadows’s gift for social observation, slipping into parody here and there, as in Woody’s sappy ex-girlfriend Jennifer’s (Stacey Sampson) absurd creation of a wedding planning scrapbook for him and Lol, but catching also the day-to-day poignancy of life, such as in the bumbling Gadget’s (Andrew Ellis) unrequited love for Kellie. It seems that, with the main traumas of their lives with any luck behind them, Meadows shouldn’t bring this group of friends back to the screen again. But in the course of the three series he has extracted something epic from their apparently small existences – lives of dinner ladies, factory workers, the drug addicted and the unemployed that are normally way below the radar of most dramas. The vivid presence of Lol, Woody, Combo and their friends will be sorely missed. There’s been nothing quite like them.