Comfort Classic: This is England '86

Comfort Classic: This is England '86

Wednesday, 12th July 2023
This is England '86 (Credit: Channel 4)
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Harrowing and hilarious, the lovingly recreated fashions, music and décor underline how timeless this story of fierce friendship is, says Matthew Bell

Hilarious, ribald and ridiculous but also achingly bleak and sad. This Is England ’86 is all these things but, more than anything, what it has in spades is humanity.

The 2010 Channel 4 drama features a gang of largely unemployed misfits in an unnamed, impoverished East Midlands coastal town, following England’s progress at Maradona’s “Hand of God” World Cup in Mexico.

The gang comes in all ages, shapes and sizes, sporting the worst 1980s haircuts. There’s no fake tan, fancy nails or gym bodies on show, as you fear there would be in a contemporary version.

The four-part series was a spin-off from Shane Meadows’ multi-award-winning movie This Is England and features largely the same cast. In the film, which is set in 1983, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), Lol (Vicky McClure, later to find fame in Line of Duty) and Woody (Joe Gilgun, Brassic) are skinheads, in thrall to ska and soul, whose world is turned upside down by Combo (Stephen Graham), a charismatic but racist skinhead newly released from prison.

When Channel 4 commissioned the series, Meadows said: “I had a wealth of material and unused ideas that I felt very keen to take further.… Not only did I want to take the story of the gang broader and deeper, I also saw in the experiences of the young in 1986 many resonances to now – recession, lack of jobs, a sense of the world at a turning point.”

Meadows wrote This Is England ’86 with Jack Thorne, then at the start of his career with a few episodes of Skins and one of Shameless behind him. Thorne also has a small role in the series, playing estate oddball Carrotbum. He cheerfully admitted that he was cast as he was “the weird kid at the back of the class… the token nerd on the show.”

In lesser hands, This Is England ’86 could have become a mishmash of polemic and farce. In one episode, joyous scenes in the pub as England beat Poland are bookended by harrowing news footage from the Falklands war and a brutal rape.

The same episode also includes a comic sex scene (one of the gang is forced to cultivate a Clark Gable moustache and dress like the film idol by his older lover), a life-affirming family reconciliation and a violent assault by a father on his daughter. This Is England ’86 is not an easy watch, but the best drama rarely is.

Meadows and Thorne went on to pen two follow-up series, This Is England ’88 and This Is England ’90. They extended their writing partnership with the RTS award-winning The Virtues.

Currently, both writers have their own much-praised dramas on the BBC. On the surface, they couldn’t be more different from This Is England, although there is the welcome presence of Thomas Turgoose and Michael Socha (Harvey in This Is England ’86) in Meadows’ new work, The Gallows Pole.

Thorne’s heart-rending drama Best Interests is about a parent’s fight to stop hospital treatment being withdrawn from her severely disabled daughter. It’s a big-issue drama. Like This Is England, Best Interests is imbued with an intense humanity.

The Gallows Pole is an adaptation of Benjamin Myers’ fictional account of the brutal exploits of a gang of 18th-century coin counterfeiters.

In truth, it’s not so far removed from This Is England. As Lucy Mangan noted in The Guardian: “Every [character] feels as fresh and completely convincing as Lol, Combo, Harvey or Shaun. Real people, just… in the past.”

This is England ’86 is available on Channel 4.