Tom Beasley bids farewell to This Is England with a review of the final, feature-length episode of This Is England ’90, which looks set to be the end of the decade-old franchise…
It’s finally happened. After the best part of a decade on our screens – whether big or small – Shane Meadows has finally called time on his This Is England universe. With that, we must bid a fond, if bittersweet, farewell to one of the most loveable, complex and, above all else, real ensembles of characters ever committed to television. True to form, though, they went out in a hail of violence, tears and four letter words.
Following directly from last week‘s chilling final scene in which Milky (Andrew Shim) plotted violent retribution against Combo (Stephen Graham), the finale opened with Combo starting a new job. He’d moved out of Lol (Vicky McClure) and Woody’s (Joe Gilgun) and was working with those less fortunate than himself in meek, heart-warming fashion. However, we weren’t far away from one of Meadows’ trademark montages, which focused on the rise of the National Front, using chilling archive footage from the original 2006 film to remind us of Combo’s despicable racist assault on Milky. It’s a mark of just how accomplished Graham is as Combo that it isn’t until this montage that we remember just how far the character has come – from violent, rage-fuelled bigot to quiet, upstanding member of the community.
Meanwhile, Lol and Woody prepared for their wedding in a hilariously awkward family gathering and Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) met a slightly posh girl (Poppy Corby-Tuech) as he started his photography course at college. The fragile domestic arrangement over at Harvey’s (Michael Socha) broke down when he discovered Kelly (Chanel Cresswell) chasing the dragon in the bathroom and threw her out onto the streets, much to Gadget’s (Andrew Ellis) disgust. Needless to say, it was something of a mixed bag for the gang.
With so much narrative lifting to do, it’s remarkable how well Meadows and co-writer Jack Thorne manage to navigate the various storylines and give each character the send-off they deserve. ‘Winter’ is a consummate example of ensemble storytelling, complete with heart, brutality and palpable emotion. They even find room for ample comic relief in amongst the misery. There’s nothing to match the sheer unadulterated power of last week’s dinner sequence or Kelly’s descent into hell in episode two, but This Is England ’90 certainly goes out on a high.
One of the criticisms of the This Is England TV spin-offs has always been that they fail to explore much of the fallout from the film’s violent climax. However, Combo’s chickens came home to roost in genuinely saddening fashion this week. Graham’s sombre, heartfelt apology to Milky in a secluded café is a beautifully written and exquisitely acted moment, given extra weight by the knowledge that Milky has a metaphorical loaded gun in his hands. When he pulls the trigger and his heavies enter the room, Graham’s sad resignation to his fate mirrors the audience’s – this was always going to be his destiny. As Combo was dragged to his death in an emblematically broken down relic of Britain’s industrial past, that resignation turned to a troublingly realistic desperation from a man who wasn’t ready to die yet.
Andrew Shim does a great job of selling the effects of his actions. When the show flashes forward to the wedding, Shim is visibly carrying with him the weight of what he has done. Combo found a way to live with the consequences of his own brutality, now Milky must as well. When Lol confronted Milky in a side room of their social club reception, their lack of eye contact told a potent story – she knew the look of a human being who had inflicted violence, having killed her own father at the climax of This Is England ’86. McClure too shared a heart to heart with Chanel Cresswell, when Kelly made her return to the gang as a late arrival at the wedding. The reliably excellent McClure has done a remarkable job of progressing Lol from the broken young woman she once was to a balanced adult, now the glue that holds the group together.
But outside of those central storylines, what was truly remarkable were the minor advancements made by each of the ensemble as they moved towards becoming rounded human beings. Shaun reconciled with Smell (Rosamund Hanson) and her Noel Fielding-a-like boyfriend (Haris Salihovic), Harvey and Gadget buried the hatchet in bromantic fashion and even Flip (Perry Fitzpatrick) and Higgy (Joe Dempsie) finally got their groove on with the returning Trudy (Hannah Walters). Despite the relative happiness, with Milky a notable exception, there was an inescapable sense that these characters will continue to live, whether they’re on screen or not. Meadows and Thorne have created characters that exist without being observed – they’re organic and real.
The finale of This Is England ’90 is not a perfect hour and a half of television, but seen as the final piece of a larger jigsaw, it brings the franchise to an elegant conclusion, but not one that rushes to tie up every loose end. Meadows has provided us with an exquisitely crafted slice of working class Britain that resonates now more than ever in a country under Conservative rule where working class life is often bleak and free of hope.
The overriding message of This Is England, though, is not one of misery, but of optimism. No matter how bad things get, the support and brotherhood of family and friends is all you really need.
Tom Beasley – Follow me on Twitter for movies, wrestling and jokes about David Cameron.