4 Sep 2010: As the Shaun, Combo and co come of age in the 80s, we meet the TV sequel’s director and cast on set in Sheffield
It’s a murky afternoon in a car park in Sheffield and two This Is England actors are lounging around in a golf buggy, eating fish and chips, gulping Coke and giggling. Joe Gilgun and Michael Socha – who play Woody, the tall, dark-haired guy who dates Lol; and his mate Harvey, who boasts an impressive blond flat top – have been drunk for three days. They abandon their lunch and, while Socha lazily drives the golf buggy around in circles, Gilgun slides into a seat on the double-decker bus that doubles up as a cafe and hangout.
It’s late May and the car park is the base for This Is England ’86, a four-part Channel 4 drama which picks up on the antics of Woody, Lol, Harvey, Milky, Shaun, Combo and the rest of the gang three years on from the original film. Gilgun, who was two in 1986, is in awe of director Shane Meadows. He’s like a lit firework, jumping around the bus, pulling his pants down to reveal a This Is England tattoo on his bum, and telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s having the best time ever, and that he’ll be “fucking depressed” when filming’s finally over.
Sitting still for a moment, Gilgun says that Meadows is very intuitive and that he “remembers things from years ago in the most vivid detail”. The Bafta-winning This Is England was loosely based on Meadows’s own experience of growing up as a skinhead in the early-80s, with Thomas Turgoose’s character Shaun telling the director’s story.
The TV series, however, is less directly personal. The spotlight shifts from Shaun to the rest of the crew, with Woody and Lol’s wedding providing the focus of the action for the first two episodes, and Combo’s return changing the dynamics in the latter two. It’s co-written by Skins and Shameless writer Jack Thorne, and two of the four episodes are co-directed by Tom Harper, director of The Scouting Book For Boys because, Meadows says, he isn’t used to writing for TV and didn’t have time to direct all four episodes himself.
‘We have to go and research the period ourselves but once we’re in rehearsals Shane listens to what anyone has to say’
Which is not to say that Meadows hasn’t been involved every step of the way. “A big part of the appeal is that Shane trusts us to take the bare bones of the script and to then improvise in rehearsal,” says Gilgun with a daft grin. “We had to go and research the period ourselves but once we’re in rehearsals Shane listens to what anyone has to say. It sounds like a cliche but we’re having the best times of our lives.”
Meadows, 37, has always favoured a collaborative style of directing. After dropping out of school in Nottingham, he borrowed a camcorder and shot a series of short films using friends as actors. In 1997, by the time he came to shoot his first feature film, Twenty Four Seven, he was embracing improvisation, ad-libbing and maximum input from his cast. It’s why, he says, the dialogue in his films is so authentic: “The actors work together in rehearsals until they feel 100% natural when they say their lines. With me it always has to sound true even if it might not make complete sense; if it feels like what that character would say then it stays.”
It’s not the non sequiturs that you notice when watching This Is England ’86, but the awkward pauses on screen that mirror life’s awkward pauses. At times you feel less like a spectator, more of a voyeur into the lives of Woody, Lol, Milky et al. As Meadows opened This Is England with images of Margaret Thatcher, Roland Rat, space invaders and the Falklands, so the TV series is set against a backdrop of the World Cup in Mexico, flat tops and Cramps T-shirts. We’re now deep into Thatcher’s reign, with unemployment topping 3 million.
Sitting on a filthy sofa on set – a condemned flat in a grey concrete housing estate high up on one of Sheffield’s seven hills – Meadows says that he’s not a political film-maker; he’s simply compelled to tell stories as the older generation of British realists told them before him. “In England in the 80s it was hard for the likes of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Alan Clarke and Stephen Frears to get funding for feature films,” he says. “So they made films especially for the BBC or Channel 4. As a kid my cinema was the TV in the living room. Films that I might have been too young to see at the cinema were accessible to me at nine o’clock at night at home.”
Both Leigh and Loach use improvisation, but it was Alan Clarke’s 1982 television play Made In Britain that had the biggest impact on Meadows. “It’s an incredibly powerful film,” he recalls. “Trevor, the lead character, was an antihero in the film but a hero to me because he said, ‘Well, if you’ve got nothing I’m going to give you fucking hell.'”
Meadows’s films, which are often set in the least fashionable parts of the Midlands, portray the kind of violence that Clarke showed to such great effect in Made In Britain. Like Clarke, he attempts to show the futility of violence: when Combo, as a newly recruited member of the National Front, beats up Milky at the end of This Is England, we are left breathless with horror. Yet Meadows also ensures that we can’t simply dismiss Combo as a thug; he lashes out at Milky ostensibly because he’s black, but he’s also deeply envious of Milky’s loving family background.
Although Meadows himself had a stable upbringing, he lived just on the right side of the law. As a teenager he had low-key clashes with the police, most memorably for stealing some chicken tikka sandwiches and a breast pump for a friend with a new baby. Like Shaun in This Is England, he had an older girlfriend called Smell and was a skinhead in the early-80s.
“The skinheads I hung around with weren’t the original 1969 skinheads, but they wanted to be true to that era,” he says. “We were really proud of being working class and we wore work boots, jeans, a white shirt and braces to create a powerful image of our class. It was political, but it was never extreme. Some would be left- or rightwing – in terms of Labour or Conservative, rather than Militant or fascist – and the bands were much the same. I was really into Trojan reggae and the Jam in the mid-80s.”
‘We got Ian Brown to wear shoes for the first time since the mid-80s; he’s only had trainers on his feet for the past 25 years!’
Meadows reckons that, though the 80s may not have been such a cool decade, it nonetheless embraced individualism: “In the 60s it was mods and rockers or hippies and casuals. In the 80s it was goths, punks, mods, skinheads, new romantics, casuals, metal heads … These days you can’t tell one kid from another, but back then it was a really bold time. Video recorders were coming in, CDs were being made, the landscape was changing. No one knew if they had a future but kids were out playing on the streets. For me it was the last great hurrah. People don’t take chances any more. Everyone’s far too reserved.”
Yet he acknowledges the comparisons between 1986 and now: the government’s cuts and the lack of job prospects for school leavers; the England football team coming home from the World Cup empty handed. At least Gary Lineker returned from Mexico 86 with the Golden Boot. Meadows laughs: “Yeah! Back then they could hold their heads high; this time we were just rubbish.”
There is talk, if This Is England ’86 goes well, of doing another series for Channel 4 set in 1990. And not just because of Italia 90 and Gazza’s tears. Meadows loves the idea of the series being set in the era of rave and Madchester; he’s even got Ian Brown on board by giving him a cameo in This Is England ’86. “He plays a copper chasing the gang with a truncheon during a massive fight scene,” he says. “He had to wear shoes for the first time since the mid-80s; he’s only had trainers on his feet for the past 25 years!”
Vicky McClure, who plays Lol, turns up. With platinum blond flat top, startling blue eyes and a shy smile, she says a harrowing scene she filmed a few days earlier was intense. But, like her ex-boyfriend Andrew Shim, who plays Milky, she has been mates with Meadows for over a decade now. And, like Joe Gilgun, she trusts the director completely.
While it’s great that the cast are as thick as thieves off screen as well as on, isn’t it occasionally hard for Meadows to be tough with them on set? “They’re a great bunch,” he says, “but they have got out of hand a few times. On one occasion they woke me and the producer Mark Herbert up at 4am and we decided to kick them out of their luxurious flat. At 6.30am Mark made them pack their bags and wait for a taxi he didn’t order. We were furious because we’d given them three warnings by then.”
Meadows looks across at McClure and tries, unsuccessfully, to look cross with her. “We relented because one of the crew went to see them at lunchtime and they were sitting in the flat, bags packed, crying and listening to R Kelly’s If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time. I kid you not …”
He smiles: “How could I have kicked them out?”