Shane Meadows’ raucous coming-of-age drama returns to Channel 4 for a fourth – and possibly final – instalment on Sunday. Sam Rowe ventures on-set to meet its close-knit cast as they prepare to party like it’s 1990…

It’s a grey, drizzly night in northern industrial England. Suddenly a procession of lairy 20-somethings come bounding around the corner, their wide grins surely fuelled by something stronger than mere bonhomie. Their outré stylings contrast spectacularly with the drab surroundings: psychedelic hoodies, camo-print bucket hats, 22-inch flared jeans and purple Wallabees abound. Behind us, someone whistles ‘Fools Gold’ by The Stone Roses and, just for a second, it feels like we’ve joined the queue for the Haçienda, circa 1990.

In fact, we’re on the Sheffield-based set of This Is England ’90, the final instalment of Shane Meadows’ often improvised drama series that began almost a decade ago with the This Is England movie – a masterfully grimy yet heartwarming ode to skinhead culture, teen tribalism and getting your kicks on the ravaged streets of Thatcher’s Britain. Two equally adored TV spin-off series have followed, dropping in on Woody, Lol, Shaun and the gang as they negotiated the transition into young adulthood. Now, following This Is England ’86 and ’88, we’ve reached 1990 – that period when northern industrial England, thanks to The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and the Blackburn warehouse raves, was the centre of the cultural universe.

Yet the beauty of Meadows’ series is that it has never lapsed into rose-tinted nostalgia. This Is England has been unflinching in its tackling of racist violence, unemployment, mental illness and rape. Its nimble combination of heavy themes and moments of low-level farce has only been possible because the characters are realistic and likeable, and because there is a genuine warmth between them.

“There’s always been a gang feel,” says Thomas Turgoose, who plays Shaun, as he shelters from the drizzle on the catering bus. “Even when we’re not filming, we’ll get together – sometimes pubs will get us together and we’ll do a TIE themed party.”

The camaraderie is obvious. Earlier, when Andrew Shim (Milky) was being interviewed for Channel 4, Turgoose interrupted his flow by walking past with his arse hanging out. And tattooed on that arse? The names of all the other This Is England actors.

“I love this job,” confirms Andrew Ellis (Gadget). “We all get together every couple of years and go mental.”

This Is England represented the first acting role for some of the cast, although most had at least trained at Nottingham’s Central Television Workshop. Turgoose, on the other hand, was famously unearthed at a Grimsby youth centre, aged 13, while excluded from school and – by his own admission – “a vile little kid.” He even demanded a fiver for the audition (which became a tenner, a PlayStation and a mobile phone, for later auditions).

Now, a decade on, many of the cast have awards on their mantelpieces. Joe Gilgun (Woody) has recently worked with Michael Caine, Vin Diesel and Bryan Cranston, Michael Socha (Harvey) has been cast in a show for ABC in America, while Vicky McClure (Lol) has starred in big-hitting TV dramas Broadchurch and Line Of Duty. Not that they’ve forgotten their working-class roots. Shim juggles acting gigs with sidelines in cage fighting and motorbike racing, while Turgoose worked in a pub in his native Grimsby until just recently. He claims to have been genuinely heartbroken when acting commitments meant he had to quit. “I literally got to pull pints and chat to my mates all day,” he beams. “I loved it.”

“I think every single show says there’s a family vibe,” McClure reflects, “but I think because a lot of us grew up with each other, and also the way Shane brings the cast together, we take each other warts and all. We’re all emotionally open with each other and I think a lot of the dark stories we’ve touched on in TIE we’ve managed to get there because we all sat down in a private room and shared our darkest tales. That’s when you know how to push buttons and gain emotion from people, and how to sympathise with them as well. That’s why I think we are as close as we are.”

McClure and Gilgun are particularly close – unsurprisingly given that the intense on-and-off relationship between Lol and Woody has formed the spine of the show since the beginning.

“Somebody tweeted me saying that we’re the Kate and Will of the working class!” laughs McClure. “I know they’re a couple that people really adore because of the way we play them. We’re so comfortable with each other that we can play it as real as it can possibly get.”

“We did a really difficult scene yesterday,” adds Gilgun, “and I wanted to fucking murder her! It’s bizarre. I was fuming, I wanted to pack all my shit up and go home.”

Having gained the absolute trust of his actors, Meadows is not afraid to push them into difficult places, as McClure can attest. To say she earned her Best Actress Bafta TV Award in 2011 is a bit of an understatement – the bruises received at the hands of her father Mick as he attempted to rape her during TIE ’86 were not the result of a makeup brush. “Fuckin ’ell, they weren’t. There’s a picture of me in the bath with a fag on and a glass of wine, and I’ve got bruises literally all over me. It felt like hell, but that’s what it needed to be, I suppose.”

In fact McClure is adamant that harrowing moments such as ’86’s rape scenes are utterly necessary. “Rape on telly is usually a girl in a short skirt down an alleyway, she’s drunk. The best way to describe it is, ‘This is England, not this was England’. Rape is happening every day, and it does happen like it happened in the series, in that it’s somebody’s fucking dad.”

“Telly now takes away the thinking for people,” adds Gilgun. “The rape stuff, it made you watch it, you had no option. If you wanted to see the episode or series through, you had to see that bit. So it forced the nation to watch and think about that subject matter, whereas most telly now offers you everything on a plate.”

The counterpoint to this uncomfortable level of realism is the way that the cast can bring their real-life wit and concerns into the show, often making for moments of brilliant ad-libbed comedy as they rib each other mercilessly.

“I needed a fucking poo, didn’t I?” recounts Gilgun. “Towards the end of one scene I was getting really bad tempered and that will hopefully make it on national telly. You channel it all into this poo.”

“He either needs a poo or he farts in every other scene,” complains McClure.

“I don’t like kissing her,” shoots back Gilgun. “Her breath stinks.”

Most of the cast are too young to recall much about 1990. “I was seven,” says Shim. “I remember driving round with my uncles in the XR2s and Capris.” McClure wasn’t initially clued up on the era’s music scene, but the influence of director Meadows – a noted Stone Roses superfan who directed their comeback documentary Made Of Stone – has obviously made an impact. “I only really discovered The Stone Roses about four years ago, but I went to Heaton Park and loved it.”

For a first-hand perspective on the year of Gazza’s tears, Saddam’s invasion and Mandela’s walk to freedom, series producer Mark Herbert is on hand to provide some context. At a time when Britain was emerging from a dark recent history of war, racism and football violence, he says that 1990 represented a “seismic shift” in the culture.

“Blokes that were going round fighting were suddenly doing Es and hugging each other,” recalls Herbert, who was 19 at the time. “It was obviously a time that was pre-internet, pre-mobile phone, so we used to go to the services, call a phonebox and somebody in that phonebox would tell everyone where the next rendezvous was. After three or four of them you might find out where the rave was. But some of the best nights I had were when we never found the rave, got back four hours later and just had a house party. There was something very magical about that.”

This Is England taps into a little bit of that magic – and just like a great night out, its cast really don’t want it to end.

“It’s terrifying, I can’t stand it!” admits Gilgun “It’s like taking one child away from a family for no reason, it feels fucking wrong.”

On the other hand, says McClure, “We don’t want it to ever become this thing where we’re forcing stories into the plot. I think if it ever got to the point where Shane was struggling to wonder where he’d be [in another time setting], then he probably wouldn’t do it… I think if it does go again it won’t be for a long time.”

“His head’s full of fucking stories, though,” says Gilgun. “Honestly, I challenge anyone to watch ’90 and not go, ‘Hang on a minute, there’s a ton of shit there, you can’t leave us there!’”

McClure: “If we all died it would be the end.”

Gilgun: “There’s gonna be an apocalypse, that’s how we’re gonna end it. There’s gonna be an apocalyptic event where Lol massacres the entire gang with a fucking machine gun…”

McClure: “With a hammer…”

Gilgun: “With a hammer, yeah! And we all die.”

Until that day comes, however, there’s always a chance that TV’s most watchable gang will reunite for another brilliantly mundane, gut-wrenchingly poignant adventure.

Don’t miss This Is England ’90, Sundays 9pm on Channel 4