It is the day before the death of Baroness Thatcher and about five-dozen people (give or take) are being transported, for a solid few hours, back in time to the height of Thatcher’s reign as prime minister. However, during the double back-to-back screening of This is England ’86 and This is England ’88 at the BFI on the 7 April (part of the BFI’s Warp season), her commanding voice only breaks through the audio momentarily, her poised image ordering war flickers between scenes only briefly; Thatcher, her policies, the England she created (or, to some, broke) are all there throughout This Is England ’86 and ’88, yet director Shane Meadows manages to push her overwhelming and all-consuming presence behind the scenes, turning Thatcherism into a mere backdrop: a contextual landscape in front of which a most emotionally-destructive, heart-wrenchingly tragic (yet, at times, invigoratingly comedic), brutal depiction of humanity plays out.
Leading on from Meadow’s film of the same name (based on his own childhood), This Is England ’86 and ’88 follows a tight-knit group of friends and looks at their relationships with one another, the people around them and their struggles against and with love, grief, betrayal, friendship and, in some cases, trauma. As well as being both intimately personal and consuming, the series manages to also be a microcosmic representation of 1980’s youth culture, very subtly dealing with the difficulties of the time – the Falklands war, austerity, racism and even, briefly, police brutality.
The idea of a marathon screening dedicated to a drama originally made for TV is quite unusual (perhaps with the exception of Star Trek). Travelling all the way to the BFI to spend a day watching This Is England ’86 and ’88, when the series is sitting on the bookshelf at home on DVD (and online on 4OD), is a somewhat ridiculous and seemingly pointless activity. Why weep over the distressing scenes of violence in public when you can weep from the comfort of your own living room? Why even watch it again, after experiencing just how harrowing it all is the first time on TV?
Since airing originally in 2010 and 2011 respectively, This Is England ’86 and ’88 have developed somewhat of a cult following. Meadow’s characters – the charmingly witty and honest Woody, the troubled yet frightfully strong Lol, the strange and extravagant Smell (to name just a few) – are bewilderingly real and intoxicatingly well-portrayed: deep, complex and seemingly spontaneous in their dialogue (much of which is improvised by the actors). The series also bravely looks at the shocking realities of abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder – an illness most commonly associated with survivors of war (especially, most aptly, the Falklands), but here examined in the context of domesticity – in shocking closeness. Perhaps the honesty and courageous depiction of brutal subject matter, plus the well-formed characters are part of what makes the series something so easily obsessed about. And perhaps, sharing this obsession with a group of equally obsessed viewers – those who really appreciate the craftsmanship, the perfect writing and improvisation and the sincerity of the series – is what makes attending a marathon screening, leaving 4OD and the DVD box set behind, seem less futile: sharing the painful moments and the trauma, trying to stifle tears, with a room of equal sympathisers.
Typically, the idea of a cult-classic screening brings to mind a crèche of nuns in a swarm of mosaic black and white outside a cinema (The Sound of Music) or a sea of suspender belts, PVC and back-combed hair (The Rocky Horror Show). However, at This Is England ‘86 and ’88, the audience seems quiet, somber, unstated: a group of mourners watching the unraveling of tragedy.
This is England ’86 and This is England ’88 screened at the BFI on 7 April. Warp Films at 10 continues until 30 April at BFI Southbank, London.
This is England 88′ still, Shane Meadows and Warp Films.