Tom Beasley reviews the second episode of This Is England ’90, in which the hazy delirium of a party in a field mingles with the oncoming storm of a figure from the gang’s past…
As entertaining as last week’s premiere episode of This Is England ’90 was, it was tough to get away from the fact that there were a series of big smiles where the grimaces and tears should have been. Shane Meadows reintroduced us to his lovable roster of characters at a point when their lives were going well, or at least as well as could be expected in a Northern England still reeling from the after effects of Thatcherism. This week, though, it was hello darkness, my old friend.
There were two parallel narratives in play, with the younger half of the gang heading off in search of an ecstasy-fueled rave whilst Woody and Lol hosted a boozy barbecue with friends and family. As Harvey and co. inevitably got lost on the way to their illicit haven of youthful chaos, they crossed paths with the returning Flip and Higgy, before ending up spending their night at a bizarre, slightly hallucinogenic pagan festival. Woody and Lol fared slightly better, with their day going off without a hitch, until Lol received a late night phone call from Combo (Stephen Graham). He’s due for parole soon and has nowhere to live when he gets out.
Meadows is perhaps at his best when he let’s go of narrative structure and allows his audience to spend time with his exceptionally drawn characters. This episode of This Is England ’90 took that approach, feeling a little unfocused as a result for much of its running time, before paying it all off in the kind of “everything is awful” closing montage that we’ve come to expect from this universe. By the time the episode reaches its conclusion, the central threads of the season have been set into motion and we can expect the turbulence to intensify in subsequent programmes. Despite its apparent lack of narrative rigidity, ‘Summer’ proves to be a masterclass in show-don’t-tell storytelling.
One of the selling points of This Is England ’90 was that it would focus more intently on the members of the gang who have been sidelined in earlier series. That promise certainly came to fruition this week as we experienced the self-destruction of Chanel Cresswell as Kelly. Actions that seemed like the desperation of a teen wanting to be noticed at the beginning of the episode soon turned considerably darker as Kelly was seduced into an exploitative, hazy night of heroin and group sex that left her feeling dirty the next day. These sequences were brilliantly directed by Meadows, who manages to convey the disorientation of drug use in an evocative, powerful flurry of invention. Fittingly, it was Gadget’s arms Kelly fell into the morning after, with Cresswell and Andrew Ellis – still the best thing about this series so far – sharing a genuinely tender dramatic moment, briefly escaping the noise of the gang and the universe as the episode came to a close.
Thomas Turgoose also got plenty to work with this week, first in a shocking outburst of rage at his mother upon receiving a rejection letter from college. Turgoose’s Shaun has always seemed like one of the more vulnerable members of the group, so to see him so driven by rage was a moment of impressive potency. A later scene, in which Shaun – high as a kite after popping less than half an E – spilled his heart out to a much older woman in a caravan, was a touching emotional high point for an episode that dealt often in moments of quiet, sensitive clarity.
For the adults, things initially seemed a lot smoother, but the slightly heavy-handed introduction of Combo looks set to change things up. Stephen Graham casts a formidable shadow over the whole franchise and the brief glimpse we got of him at the end of this episode was enough to rekindle the sense of unease that has surrounded his character since he first emerged as a maelstrom of racial epithets in the original film. Joe Gilgun and Vicky McClure beautifully underplayed their bedroom discussion of Combo’s imminent arrival, with Woody bemoaning that they only got “a year of happiness”. He should count himself lucky; we only got one hour before the shit hit the fan.
This Is England ’90, halfway through its run, feels like a show that is confident enough in its characters to simply let them exist, without forcing too much in the way of drama into their path. It’s interesting enough to watch them explore their feelings and the whole new era of that time period, complete with such quotable dialogue as referring to a secluded field as “like American Werewolf in Yorkshire”.
By the time the credits roll on this episode, a storm is coming for these characters and it will down to Meadows to once again bring them out on the other side. Consider us braced.
Tom Beasley – Follow me on Twitter