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Sunday 11 December 2016

Review: This is England '90: an ode to lost working-class life

Vicky McClure as Lol and Joe Gilgun as Woody
Vicky McClure as Lol and Joe Gilgun as Woody

JUST three more hours, including ad breaks, to go and then it will be time to say goodbye, in all probability for the very last time, to Lol, Woody, Shaun, Milky, Gadget and the rest of the This Is England gang.

This is England ‘90, Shane Meadows’ third mini-series follow-up to his original 2006 film, is almost certain to be the final time we get to revisit these wonderful characters. Every writer probably keeps a copy of the ‘Never Say Never’ clause in his or her back pocket, and Meadows hasn’t definitively ruled out a return at some point. But it’s unlikely.

Sunday’s first of four episodes, Spring (each one takes place during one of the seasons), found Lol (the brilliant Vicki McClure) and Woody (Joseph Gilgun, hilarious as always) getting by very nicely. She’s a dinner lady in the school canteen and he’s taken surprisingly well to being a stay-at-home father.

But you know Woody... there’s always something on the boil. In this case, it’s his and Milky’s (Andrew Shim) bizarre scam involving school dinners. Sausages, chips and something called coffee whips (nope, me neither) are being spirited out of the kitchen in Milky’s backpack. Things aren’t quite so bright for teenager Shaun (Thomas Turgoose).

He’s mooning about the house, aimless and still pining for his true love Smell (Rosamund Hanson), who’s at art college now and has found a new boyfriend. Perhaps most woundingly of all, she’s become a goth!

Shaun’s depression aside, the first instalment was notably heavy on comedy — particularly a tremendously funny, post-argument phone conversation between a stoned Woody and his parents — and light on plot.

 

DARKER

It’s guaranteed to get darker, though, as some of the characters lose themselves in the new music and freely available drugs of the “Madchester” rave culture.

Viewers have had to wait four years for This Is England ‘90 (plans to make it in 2012 were sidelined by Meadows’ film on The Stone Roses) and it’s going to be hard saying goodbye to such strong characters. And yet, this seems the perfect time to bring the curtain down.

If Meadows’ film and TV follow-ups were era-defining, 1990 was the beginning of the end of the era that was being defined. This Is England ‘90 is an exhilaratingly vivid period piece. Seeing the (often chaotic) fashions and hearing the music brings on a flood of warm nostalgia. But it’s also an account of the slow death of traditional working-class life as it used to be.

A key image in the opening-credits montage is Margaret Thatcher leaving office that year while The La’s There She Goes plays on the soundtrack. Her departure seemed to signal the arrival of hope and a new freedom.

For the young, in Ireland as well as Britain, it felt as though everything was up for grabs and anything was possible. The feeling was intensified mid-decade when Tony Blair’s New Labour took power. We now know it was just an illusion, a sham, a con job.

I’m not sure I’d want see Meadows propel his characters into the ultimately cynical Cool Britannia years (our equivalent was the Celtic Tiger) and beyond, because we know how the story turns out. We know how the real-life Lols and Woodys and Shauns fared.

This Is England ‘90 shows a world before mobile phones, the internet and the casual cruelties of social media, and without the callous indignities of zero hours contracts. A world where not all working-class people who couldn’t find jobs were vilified as lazy spongers, or used as fodder for poverty porn television like Benefits Street.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than now. Let’s just enjoy the remaining memories.

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