Andy Pope discusses the representation of the skinhead sub-culture in Shane Meadows’ This Is England…
Shane Meadows’ recent announcement that he is currently filming a sequel to his 2006 film This is England comes as no surprise to those of us who have watched with growing interest the amount of time British television and cinema has devoted to revisiting the 1980s in recent years. This year alone has seen two football hooligan based films (Awaydays and the forthcoming The Firm) based in the Thatcher era while Is Anybody There? took a more whimsical look at disaffected childhood – a la Son of Rambow (2007) – while taking a swipe at the treatment of the elderly in the decade of the selfish.
Despite varied subject matter, many of these films incorporate complementary themes which, although not exclusive to, are commonly associated with the 1980s and particularly the social conditions created by Thatcherism. The effect of these conditions including high unemployment (particularly amongst the young), restrictive access to the welfare state and the widening gap between rich and poor, created an aspirational society. This led many of the working-classes to attempt social mobility through home and share ownership thus blurring the traditional boundaries of social class. Television characters like ‘Loadsamoney’ highlighted this paradox, adding to the feeling of alienation for those working-class people who felt trapped. This was particularly apparent with young males who felt they had lost any sense of belonging.
Time magazine, in its 1983 article ‘The Tribes of Britain’, wrote extensively of this feeling of dispossession which had permeated through the lower strata of British society, by linking it with the rise in subcultural membership. Whilst such tribes had a long history it was in times of desperation that their ranks were swelled, and, with high unemployment, little future, the disenfranchised young turned to groups like skinheads for their security.
Nick Knight in his illuminating book ‘Skinhead’ describes the image the group projected in the early 1980s as ‘an almost robot uniformed army, in which an attack on one individual would bring a violent response from the rest’. It is this portrait of skinhead culture that many people now associate with Thatcherism. It was ugly, it was violent and it was intimidating. It wasn’t, however, necessarily representative of that particular subculture. Knight argues that this behaviour was the result of the emergence of a new breed of skinhead in the early 1980s. ‘Plastic’ skinheads eschewed the traditional ideology that embraced black music and acknowledged a wider culture, for a raw, violent working-class outlook.
British cinema sticks with this tribal representation in Mike Leigh’s Meantime. Whilst Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Coxy, the loutish skinhead, is caricatured and heavily reliant on the contemporary stereotype, the behaviour he engenders in Colin (Tim Roth) is vital to understanding the importance of sub-cultures in Thatcher’s Britain. The recalcitrant Colin rebels against the bullying, self-serving society around him by adopting the skinhead haircut – in a bid to belong to something with which he can identify.
Twenty five years on, Shane Meadows expands on this theme. This is England’s gang of skinheads behave more like a convivial family than a threat to society. Woody et al aimlessly roam around an anodyne housing estate dispensing kindness to schoolchildren and being respectful to their parents, with the only violent acts perpetuated by the gang directed at derelict houses. Significantly only property is harmed, not people. The only anger expressed by members of the gang is in regard to their position within the group’s hierarchy and even this is muted – being part of the gang seems to be enough. Very little of the chaos and the degradation of the outside world appears to infiltrate the world of Woody’s gang. Mrs Thatcher would have been proud of Shane Meadows’ middle-class skins.
This of course all changes with the arrival of Combo who, amongst other things, acts as an allegory of 1980’s British society. Combo, the plastic skinhead with his intense racism coupled with extreme charisma is the flipside to the components of Woody’s multiracial, traditional gang who crave stability and friendship. As Mrs Thatcher is attempting to modernise Britain through radical and aggressive policies Combo carves his way through Woody’s world with considerably less opposition. It is significant perhaps, that the most spirited defiance he encounters is from a woman. Lol ultimately crushes him by aiming at the heart.
Combo in many ways represents Thatcherism in all its glory. His nationalistic rant on the Falklands War has the passion, the articulacy and the fallaciousness of one of Mrs Thatcher’s speeches. Combo is a direct threat to the alliance formed by Woody – an alliance which is predicated on the aspiration that all members are equal. A supposition Combo exposes as naive when he woos away the weaker members of Woody’s collective.
Meadows’ representation of the period and the skinhead culture in general is genuine, but its depiction of the conflict between the traditional and the modern – in terms of subculture and politics – leaves a sense of unease. Maybe this is derived from a feeling of oversimplification of the Thatcher years – something inherent in British films of recent years set in that era. The comparison of the traditional and plastic skins is a useful conduit into which a wider analysis of the period and, in particular, the subculture, can be made. However, by doing so Meadows ignores much of what defined British society at that time. Through films like This is England it is the sense of community which is remembered, exactly the thing Thatcherism destroyed.
Meadows’ recollection of Thatcherism – possibly honed by years of misty eyed nostalgia or even a desire to rewrite the history of his childhood – paints the affiliation of Woody’s gang as the defining victor. Unfortunately as we all now know, a generation on, the real winner was individualism at the cost of self belief.
This is England’s sequels are being made as a mini TV series for Channel 4 and, I understand, will be set in 1987. Hopefully a more thorough representation of the Thatcher years will be demonstrated when the series is broadcast in the Spring.
Andy Pope is a PhD student at the University of Portsmouth, researching the representation of Thatcherism in British cinema since 1990.
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