This review contains spoilers
Last night I did an almost unprecedented thing. Midway through the fourth and final part of a programme that I'd been looking forward to since its inception, and had become ridiculously emotionally involved with, I switched off the TV and walked away. I simply couldn't handle watching it. That programme was Shane Meadows' This Is England '86.
Thankfully this morning I summoned up the courage to continue and finished off what was quite possibly the greatest UK television programme of a generation.
Those familiar with Shane Meadows' work (Twenty Four Seven, A Room For Romeo Brass, Dead Man's Shoes) will have known to expect a certain amount of hardship in This Is England '86. Its predessecor, the 2006 film This Is England, centred around a young boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) taken in and befriended by a group of skinheads. These were not the skinheads of The National Front but instead working class kids searching for an identity.
As with most of Meadows' work we got to appreciate and laugh along with the jovaility of what is, in essence, a story of friendship and how these friends look out for each other. Until, that is, Combo (a convincingly frightening Stephen Graham), a racist skinhead from their past, returns with little purpose other than to infect the group. When he disrupts the equilibrium of the gang, all hell brakes loose.
It was exactly this friendship that made the third episode of the television series so hard to bear. Together again four years on from Combo's racist attack on Milky, the gang are reunited, celebrating the wedding of the gang's substitute parents, Woody and Lol. When the father of Lol (played with a dead-eyed menace by Johnny Harris) returns, a dark history is uncovered. Whether or not he abused his daughter as a child is made abundantly clear when he attacks and rapes her friend Trev in a truly harrowing scene.
So troubling, in fact, that when the continuity announcer set up the third part of the final episode with the words "the following contains scenes of sexual violence", as stated before, it was too much to bear. I doubt I was alone in the action of turning the TV to standby but would encourage any others to persevere if they can, for what followed was storytelling of incredible power.
In one fell swoop Meadows (and Graham) managed to take the character of Combo and offer him a glorious redemption, aiding Lol with her justified revenge and allowing her a new lease of life. If you'd told any fans of the original film that by the end of the series Combo could be forgiven, you'd have most probably been met with universal derision.
But darkness without light is unbearable. Meadows knows this well and sprinkles the script with comedy moments and touching scenes. Whether it be Gadget's new found sexual partner or the group's kind-hearted derision of him ("You're a dick. Move On!") to the ridiculous bully picking on Shaun ("13! 13! Who counts down from 13!") there is so much love and kindness between the friends that This Is England '86, though undeniably harrowing, is also hugely entertaining.
The highlife and the lowlife. This is England. Nobody does it better than Shane Meadows.
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