This is England is a 2006 film written and directed by Shane Meadows. It is the story of a young boy's initiation into a gang of skinheads. The film paints a bleak portrait of life in an unidentified East Midlands town. With grey dusty tower blocks and drab shopping precincts at every turn, your mates are the only spot of colour in an otherwise bleak existence. Stirring opening credits sweep the years back to 1983: the time of Roland Rat, Margaret Thatcher and the rousing patriotism of the Falklands war victory.
The Islanders have spoken. They wish to remain loyal subjects of the crown.
...announces Maggie, grandly, with cut-glass vowels in the midst of images of Union flags and cheering people.
The opening scene shows 12-year-old Shaun getting out of bed in a run-down bedroom with green paint peeling off the walls. He looks at the photo of his father standing proudly in his army uniform before getting up and dressed for school.
Shane Meadows wanted to show the human cost behind Maggie's war: the shattered lives, the working class men and boys who had gone to fight and never came home. Shaun's father was killed in the Falklands war; he is picked on at school for wearing the flares his father bought him.
When Shaun meets Woody and his mates in a subway after another horrible day at school, he feels at last he has found people he belongs with, who won't judge him. Woody, (Joseph Gilgun in an outstanding performance) takes Shaun into his gang. Yet the arrival of Combo, Woody's friend just released from prison, divides the group. His racist views create tensions between gang members and Milky, the one black member of the group, eventually causing the gang to split in two.
This film has been described as 'the best British movie since Trainspotting' and indeed, it does work well on many levels. The recreation of 1980s fashion, music and décor is brilliantly achieved. The film's colours match footage shot at the time, with the colours slightly faded and bleached out. Shane Meadows has said this is his most autobiographical film to date.
I remember being given my first Ben Sherman by a guy called Woody, which was way too big for me... I still have the cross tattoo – on the same hand and the same finger as Shaun.
He says when he tells people he used to be a skinhead, people think he was a neo-Nazi. Yet, ironically enough, skinhead culture, which was to become linked with the National Front and racism, actually had its roots in the ska and reggae music which came over with immigrants from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s.
At the very centre of the film is Shaun1, first following kind-hearted Woody, and then finding himself increasingly drawn to Combo, as the two form a surrogate father-son relationship. Combo is a complex character, alienated from society and filled with hate.
Three and-a-half million unemployed
...He spits, the authentic voice of the angry unemployed working class white man, searching for something, or someone, to blame.
Shane Meadows says he didn't want to make him a stereotypical skinhead, but rather somebody who was left damaged by their environment and their upbringing. Combo is a deeply unpleasant, violent, racist thug, but there are certain moments when he is shown expressing deep emotion and the interchange between him and Milky about music reveals that the two have much in common. Combo says:
I was one of the original skinheads from 1969.
He adds how much he loves the music Milky's 'people' brought over. Yet, when Milky happily talks about his large, loving family, jealousy burns in Combo's eyes as his own loneliness and isolation is bitterly brought into focus. Interestingly, Stephen Graham, the actor who plays the racist Combo, is himself of mixed race. He has a Swedish grandmother and a Jamaican grandfather. His brothers look black, but Stephen himself is very fair-skinned. When he was offered the part, he called the director and said:
You've asked me to play this extreme right-wing character. But I need to tell you that my Dad's black.
Stephen said he grew up feeling like he didn't belong and brought forward this experience of alienation into playing the character of Combo. This question of identity does bring a far greater complexity to the scenes between Combo and Milky, and to the jealously and the threat of violence that can be seen in Combo's eyes as he bites his nails and glares intently at Milky. It is the racisim in the film that led to the British Board of Film Classification giving it an '18' certificate for the use of 'realistic violence and racist language'. Shane angrily hit out at the classification, complaining:
The film is now unavailable to the audience it will benefit the most. 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.
Shane Meadows was not in favour of the Falklands war. In the film, anti-war sentiment is expressed by Combo, although it's couched in racist terminology. In the opening credits to the film, there are images of the defeated Argentinian soldiers – some of whom don't look much more than boys. Shane explained why he felt the way he did about the war:
Ultimately, I was privy to footage from ITN archives – that wasn't shown on television – of the people we were fighting, and it was shameful. It was bullying. It was really horrible. How could we have been proud of winning that? It was the equivalent of putting Mike Tyson in the ring with a seven-year-old kid from an infant school. So that was always running in the back of this film – the root level of that horrible racism, that bullying and violence that exists in someone can also be inherent in a nation without us knowing it.
Winner Best Film: British Independent Film Awards
Winner Most Promising Newcomer: British Independent Film Awards
Winner Special Jury Award: Rome Film Festival