Tom Beasley reviews the first episode of Shane Meadows’ latest, and possibly final, return to the This Is England universe…
From the moment we’re tossed back into the world of This Is England ’90, it’s as if we’ve never been away. Shane Meadows’ captures the milieu of working class Britain and the lives of his ensemble cast just as well now as he did in 2006’s incendiary film This Is England. That film, and its two sequel series set in 1986 and 1988, serve as a chronicle of the Thatcher years and a torturous time for the working classes in the UK. This time around, though, as Meadows returns to the universe for reportedly the final time, things are a little different. Maggie has shuffled out of Downing Street and there’s a cautious optimism in the air.
No one crushes that optimism quite like Meadows, but he is keen here to re-establish his world and give the audience a brief update on where the gang are in their lives. Woody (Joe Gilgun) and Lol (Vicky McClure), after reconciling at the close of This Is England ’88, are happily co-habiting on Lol’s dinner lady wage, with Milky (Andrew Shim) acting as a parent to one of her kids. Meanwhile, the younger members of the gang are immersed in the pill-popping Madchester culture, with Gadget (Andrew Ellis) perma-stoned, Harvey (Michael Socha) acting as “the Pablo Escobar of the estate” and Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) still pining over Smell (Rosamund Hanson).
The first episode of This Is England ’90 is admittedly light on the uncompromising drama that has characterised previous series, but it maintains the easygoing charm. We open with a brilliantly lengthy comedy segment about the gang’s school dinners scam and Gadget’s remarkably sensitive nose, before later seguing in to the return of the brilliantly inept Flip and Higgy. Without the latter twosome, the world would never have been introduced to the mad practice of “sniff banging” and its associated sexual awkwardness.
The cast still shine as brightly as ever, with Andrew Ellis a standout as Gadget. Whether he’s showing off his best moves at a Madchester disco or defending wrestling against suggestions that it be renamed “bummy bummy bum box”, Ellis is a comic delight. There are early hints in this episode that his deep-seated affection for fellow gang member Kelly (Chanel Cresswell) may come to fruition, which would be a delightful direction for these hitherto underused characters to take.
That’s not to say that the old favourites aren’t on the same top form as before. One of the highlights of this opening episode is Joe Gilgun’s explosive reaction to his parents as they cast aspersions on his current arrangements with Lol, in which he is a stay-at-home father. His reconciliation with mum and dad in an excruciatingly long phone call plays out as one of Meadows’ trademark scenes of glorious mundanity. Meanwhile, Vicky McClure does a solid job of showcasing Lol’s new-found contentedness, with the ghost of her abusive father banished but for one toe-curlingly misjudged riff from Woody.
It’s all fun and games at this point of This Is England ’90, but the elephant in the room is the inevitable sense that something is about to go seriously wrong. The source of the conflict seems likely to be the gang’s burgeoning drug empire and the laissez-faire attitude of the youngsters to mixing their poisons. Alternatively, there’s the prospect of a turf war with a group of goths, led by the disarmingly posh Harrison (Haris Salihovic) – Smell’s new partner.
Whatever happens next, it’s a delight to be back in the company of these characters, who feel like family at this point. We have experienced their highest points and their lowest ebbs, but This Is England ’90 sees them ready to begin adulthood to the sounds of The Stone Roses.
Everything is peachy, for now at least.
Tom Beasley – Follow me on Twitter