Shane Meadows – a very British auteurEarly daysMeadows’ background is a vital part of the context to his work. Shane Meadows is in his mid-thirtiesand grew up in the Staffordshire town of Uttoxeter. He is from an ordinary working-class backgroundand this has been the chief inspiration for all of his work so far. He studied photography and, afterleaving college, his early short films were largely financed by his dole money. His first major shortWhere’s the Money Ronnie! was an interesting and inventive crime film. His first feature Smalltimefollowed working-class characters involved in petty criminal activities. On reflection the film echoesPaul Abbot’s Channel 4 television drama Shameless in both its themes and mise-en-scène.Boxing cleverHis breakthrough film 24.7 (1997), funded by BBC Films, was a huge critical success. Starring BobHoskins as Alan Darcy, a local character who sets up a boxing club for a group of young lads on aMidlands estate, it has many of the themes that Meadows returns to time and time again in his work.The film, shot in stark black and white, is a rites of passage film for all the characters. It is anoptimistic film which supports themes of community and, in the character of Darcy, offers usMeadows’ first father figure. Ultimately Darcy’s alcoholism undermines this position but, at his funeralit is touching how Meadows shows the members of the now defunct boxing club displaying theirrespect for their former mentor. Stylistically Meadows mixes the bleak suburban estates andsurrounding countryside to fine effect. It is a heartfelt film and one which announced his presence asan important British film-maker.Unsuitable mentorsThe follow-up to 24.7, A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) also continued the themes of alienation andsuspect role models. It also introduced the world to Shane’s friend, the actor Paddy Considine, whohas gone on to work on some of the most interesting British films of recent times (Last Resort, MySummer of Love, 24-Hour Party People and Meadows’ own Dead Man’s Shoes).Romeo Brass was based on elements of Meadows’ own childhood and relationship with his bestfriend and co-scriptwriter Paul Fraser. The film follows two Nottingham schoolboys Romeo and Gavinand their relationship with twentysomething misfit Morrell (Considine). The film has much of thehumour evident in his earlier work, but there is also an edge underpinned by the sense of menacethat surrounds Morrell’s character. A Room for Romeo Brass is an accomplished piece of work. Muchof the acting in the piece comes from Meadows’ use of improvisation. As a result of this it has anaturalistic feel in terms of the acting and this is echoed in his way of shooting the unremarkable in away that makes it seem very different.Stars, money and pressureFilmFour’s Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) is considered by Meadows to be his weakesteffort. This romantic comedy moved away from the casting of his earlier films of relative unknowns(Hoskins excepted) and starred Robert Carlyle as Jimmy, who returns to the Midlands town to reclaimhis ex-girlfriend Shirley (Shirley Henderson) and daughter. The all-star cast, including Ricky Tomlinsonand Rhys Ifans as Shirley’s boyfriend Dek, fails to lift the film beyond that of a standard Britishromcom. The negative critical response was a setback for Meadows and this meant a ‘back to basics’return to the style of his earlier films with Dead Man’s Shoes.Revenge is mineDead Man’s Shoes (2004) was shot on a micro-budget of less than a million pounds and was a realreturn to form. The tale is a simple one. Richard (Considine), an ex-Para, returns to his hometown inDerbyshire’s Peak District to avenge the torture and bullying of his vulnerable younger brotherAnthony (Toby Kebbell) who has special needs. From the opening frames of Richard and Anthonywalking across the beautifully-shot English countryside set to the strains of Smog’s Vessel in Vain, toRichard’s methodical revenge complete with gasmask, the film veers away from the standard vigilantemovie to something much more interesting.Bullying has long been a central theme in Meadows’ work and is further explored in This is England.A gang of older men led by Sonny (Gary Stretch) exploit Anthony’s trusting nature by abusing andtormenting him, both physically and sexually. These men are, by and large, a gang of losers andwasters who deal drugs and present themselves as small town gangsters while all packed into a limegreen 2CV. When Richard appears, their power is suddenly rendered null and void.Meadows makes no bones about his approach to the central theme of this film. He has said:
I’m not a violent man, but at the end of the day the characters who get killed in Dead Man’s Shoes are based on people that I want to kill.The film again was largely improvised and Meadows shot the film in chronological order which gave asense of unpredictability to the proceedings. The film is extremely violent but there is a carefulbalance between humour and darkness which is inherent in all of Meadows’ work.Living in the 80sAll this brings us to This is England. Shane Meadows’ latest film (now available on DVD) is by far hisstrongest and most complex piece of work to date. Although all of his previous films have touched onelements of the director’s past, it is fair to say that this is Meadows’ most personal work. As he hassaid of the 80s context of the film: As a kid growing up in Uttoxeter, Staffs, it was a time of great music, brilliant fashion and a vibrant youth culture that makes today’s kids look dull and unimaginative by comparison. It was also a time of massive unrest when British people were still prepared to fight for the stuff they believed in. My new film, This is England, is about all of these things. The Guardian 21/04/07The film starts with a montage of 80s imagery, everything from Roland Rat to Duran Duran, KnightRider and the royal wedding of Charles and Diana. Also included in this is footage of MargaretThatcher, Conservative Prime Minister of the period – whose policies and philosophies loom large inthis film. The shattering of working-class communities is a common theme in Meadows work, and inthis film this is implicitly seen as a result of the Thatcherite belief in individualism and the promotion ofconsumerism.The backdrop of the film is the Falklands War. In 1982 Argentina invaded the small colonial outpost ofthe Falklands Islands in the south Atlantic. Mrs Thatcher’s response was to send a Task Force ofBritish serviceman to fight for the retention of the Islands’ British sovereignty. Shaun, the centralcharacter, has lost his father in the conflict and this acts as a catalyst in the film for much of hisbehaviour. The war was fought and won quite quickly and although there was some loss of life, thevictory gave a tremendous boost to the Conservatives who had been struggling with massiveunemployment at home. In turn this was seen as a key factor in Mrs Thatcher’s second GeneralElection victory a year later.Youth cults and a sense of belongingThis is England centres on 12-year-old Shaun (an excellent performance by newcomer ThomasTurgoose) and his induction into a gang of local skinheads led by the affable Woody (Joe Gilgun).Shaun is still reeling from his father’s death, and lives with his mother on a nondescript Midlandsestate. He is bullied at school for the clothes he wears and seems lonely and disaffected. That said,he isn’t afraid to stand up for himself, despite his diminutive stature. What may not be known to manyyounger members of the audience is the background to the skinhead movement, what they signify inthe broader context of the film.Youth cults have always been a feature of the British teenage experience. They offer a common dresssense and a shared set of attitudes and values. These cults or movements centre on music as a keydefining feature and they had existed in recent British popular culture with Teddy Boys in the 1950s,Mods and Rockers in the 1960s, Punks in the 1970s and New Romantics in the 1980s. There were ofcourse other movements that teenagers were a part of as well; and by far the most feared andperhaps misunderstood were the skinheads. In This is England, Shane Meadows, himself a formerskinhead, tries to deal with these complexities.The rise of the skinsThe first wave of skinheads came to prominence in the late 1960s. They were essentially workingclass youngsters, who in their communities and workplaces were for the first time encountering WestIndians. There was a common bond forged here with the rude boy culture of the Caribbean and thiswas largely based on a love of ska, soul and bluebeat music. In terms of fashion it was relativelycheap, practical and crucially very distinctive. Fred Perry T-shirts, drainpipe Levis, Harrington jacketsand Doctor Martin boots were its uniform. Extreme, closely-cropped hair gave the movement itsname.Any youth cult or movement inevitably raises fears exacerbated by the media (witness last year’stabloid outburst on Emo). Like any group of young people there were factions of skinheads who wereviolent – but they were easier to label. During the mid 1970s skinheads largely disappeared, only tore-emerge at the tail end of the decade. Spurred on by a new generation interested in the ska and
bluebeat of the late 1960s, this new movement centred on a record label, 2-Tone, set in Coventry.Suddenly all over Britain, young people started getting their hair cut in the distinctive suedehead styleand dressing much like the skinheads of ten years previously. One famous Top of the Pops in 1979,saw the appearance of no less than four bands (The Specials, The Beat, Madness, and The Selector)on 2-Tone or associated with the ska revival. Skinheads were truly back in style and part of themainstream consciousness.2-Tone prided itself on its multi-racial groups and its adherence to an anti-racist agenda and it alsoproduced some fantastic music which is still highly influential today. The late 1970s also saw massiveunemployment and social disorder with riots in many of Britain’s cities. It was against this backdropthat Margaret Thatcher was elected in May 1979. At the same time far-right political parties like theNational Front, who blamed the economic difficulties on immigrants, grew in popularity.Woody in This is England represents the 2-Tone model of the skinhead in many respects. One of thegang, Milky (played by Meadows’ regular Andrew Shim) is from a Jamaican background and there is aclear love of black culture shown in the mise-en-scène, for example posters celebrating ska musicadorn the walls of Woody’s girlfriend’s bedroom. The use of music in the film initially harks back to theoriginal artists from the West Indies and it is wonderful. There is a lovely slow motion Reservoir Dogsmoment set to Toots and the Maytals’ Louie Louie, where the gang emerges and walks down thestreet. It sums up the early feeling of the film as one of celebration, of Shaun finding something orsomebody to help him. We see the gang dressing up in costume and vandalising some emptyhouses, kicking football and going swimming. Shaun is introduced to parties and his first kiss with BoyGeorge look-alike Smell. The café and square where the gang hang out is lovingly recreated. Woodyis a very much a surrogate father for Shaun – looking after him and encouraging him to become partof the gang by shedding his hideous corduroy flares and animal jumpers for a Ben Sherman shirt andLevis strides. The transformation is complete when Lol (Vicky McClure) shaves Shaun’s head. Butthere are dark clouds on the horizon.Combo and the dark sideThe emergence of Combo (an incendiary performance by Stephen Graham) in the film signifies a shiftin the mood and tone of the narrative. Combo has been in prison for three years for an unspecifiedcrime, and on his release sets about regaining the gang from his old friend Woody.Combo is a racist, schooled in the politics of fear and ignorance. It is indicated, by some clevercutaway shots of Lol and the rest of the gang, that Combo has always been like this, that his radicaland abhorrent views are not just the result of his jail sentence. He sees the economic problems aslargely being the fault of ethnic minorities. His rhetoric challenges the group to either fight or to staywith the more civil Woody. For some members like Milky and Lol it is an easy choice to make; but forthe weaker, more vulnerable skinheads it is much more difficult. Impressed by Combo’s ugly, rousingspeech, Shaun chooses to stay with him and so begins a new chapter in the film.What is clear to see here is that Meadows never glorifies the actions of Combo and his new acolytes.Their intimidation of young Bengali boys and Asian shopkeepers is a far cry from Combo’s ‘tactics’. Inone interesting and unsettling scene, we see Combo driving his new found gang to a country pub(complete with L plates), where they are addressed by National Front members. The respectableappearance of these so-called politicians contrasts sharply with that of their audience. For Combothey are providing a voice for him and his beliefs, as wrong as they might be.Shane Meadows has suggested in a number of interviews that Combo’s racist ideals are rooted in alack of identity and uncertainty of what being English is all about. The immigrant communities hadstrong identities, a real sense of community and a clear culture as evidenced in areas such as music.Combo it seems lacks these core values and it is his xenophobic stance that is totally at odds withskinheads’ multicultural roots. The skinhead movement did suffer from a massive upsurge in racism inthe early 1980s – the ramifications of this are still seen today with a number of neo-Nazi skinheadgroups operating in Europe. That said Meadows does give a great deal of complexity to Combo,rather than just presenting him as a raging sociopath. There are indications of a lost past, a brokenfamily, a missing father. He sees in Shaun a younger, purer version of himself. He is a very differentpatriarch to Woody, who echoes Darcy in 24.7. He is much closer to Morrell (Romeo Brass) andSonny (Dead Man’s Shoes) in terms of temperament and their relationships with younger characters.His rejection by Lol is also pivotal in understanding his catalytic final action.However, what is central in This is England is Shaun’s development. It is a tough rite of passage forhim as he searches for a sense of belonging and very possibly a new strong father figure. In the finalshots of the film, the Cross of St George flag (a present from Combo) is used to excellent effect, asShaun throws the flag into the sea. It raises fascinating questions beyond the narrative about wherehe will go next and what exactly he is rejecting.
18 certificate? What’s that all about?Each film theatrically released in the UK must receive a certificate from the BBFC (British Board ofFilm Classification). In one of the most controversial decisions in years they deemed that This isEngland should receive an 18 certificate (the highest category) for racist language and excessiveviolence in one sequence. It clearly annoyed the director, as he stated that the film’s messages weredeliberately aimed at the under 18s and he refused, I believe quite rightly, to recut the film for ayounger audience. As he has stated: It’s like I’ve somehow overachieved. By having one piece of violence and one piece of really acute verbal violence I’ve managed to get an 18 certificate, whereas someone else can slay thousands of people in a single film and that’s OK. To be honest I don’t understand it because, yes, the film is affecting but I think it’s something that someone of 15 can cope with. Guardian Unlimited Blog 23/04/07Channel 4 News showed the film to some multi-racial sixth formers who had no problem with thefilm’s content. Some local councils such as Bristol and Westminster have overturned the BBFC’sruling and given the film a 15 rating, so sanity has prevailed. That said it does seem quite ironic thatThomas Turgoose, the star of the film, isn’t able legally to watch the film in the cinema.What relevance has This is England got today?Apart from being a journey into the past for some members of the audience who grew up in the 1980s(teachers like myself), the film has got incredible resonance for the modern viewer. The title of thefilm, based on a song by The Clash, is ‘This is England’ not ‘That was England’. It is as much astatement about the present as it is about the past. Although the skinhead movement in this countryhas ebbed away over the past twenty years, it certainly doesn’t mean that racism has disappeared.With more economic migrants arriving on these shores, racist incidents have increased greatly. Withthe backdrop of the Falklands War, there are sharp parallels to be drawn with the present conflict inIraq. There are still fears around youth crime and disaffection, which are clearly highlighted in the film.In many ways Shane Meadows in his own idiosyncratic fashion, crafted a film that is a very much a‘state of the nation’ piece for how we live today. And he has managed to do this on a small budget andwith considerable style and panache.Talking points• How far can Shane Meadows be considered an Auteur director? What commonthemes and personal preoccupations can be found in his work?• What key aspects of film form are features of Meadows’ films?• What are the key representations of social class, identity and gender in his films?What part do these play in This is England?• How apparent is improvisation in This is England? How far does it enhance theauthenticity of the film?• What has Shaun learnt by the end of the narrative? Where do you see him going?Follow it upAlthough the film largely concentrates on the original Jamaican music of the skinheads it is worthchecking out The Specials’ first album called The Specials (1979). Lyrically and musically it is anexcellent snapshot of the era (as well as being the first record that I ever bought!). If you want to delvefurther into the past, Trojan Records, who released a great deal of the early ska music in this countryhave an excellent range of compilations and boxsets to get you started. By far the best one is theTrojan Originals boxset. Other than that just get a hold of the soundtrack for the film or download yourfavourites.There have been a few decent films about skinheads (American History X, Meantime, RomperStomper) – but the closest to the messages and style of This is England is Alan Clarke’s Made inBritain (1983). A difficult, unsettling watch, the central performance of Trevor, played by a young TimRoth is excellent.Another film which has distinct parallels with This is England, but from a slightly different perspectiveis Kes (Loach, 1969). This is clearly evident in its portrayal of the lead character Billy Casper. Therealso seems to be distinct parallels in the way that it is shot.
Shane Meadows’ work on DVD is definitely worth purchasing. I would also fully recommend thedirector’s commentaries, which are funny, sharp and very perceptive. It almost feels like you are downthe pub having a chat about the film with the great man.There is an excellent, informative fansite on Shane Meadows called appropriately ShaneMeadows.comJohn Fitzgerald teaches Media and Film Studies at Wyggeston and QE1 College, Leicester, and is anExaminer for Film Studies FS3.from MediaMagazine 21, September 2008.