It’s 1986, somewhere in Britain. Shaun is finishing his final exam at school—a History CSE, for nostalgics.
Anyone who saw Shane Meadows’s film This is England has met Shaun (played by Thomas Turgoose) before.
Then he was 13 and found friendship and a sense of belonging with a group of skinheads.
This new four-part TV series for Channel 4, This is England ’86, sees Meadows revisit many of those characters. This time they are in that moment of transition between childhood and becoming an adult.
Shaun wants a scooter as a school leaving present—a symbol of freedom. His mum wants him to get a job. But Shaun isn’t ready to go to “jail”, as he sees a life of employment in a routine, dead end job.
In the film, set three years earlier in 1983, Woody, a skinhead, befriended Shaun, and stood up to Combo, an older member of their gang just released from prison. Combo’s racism and Nazi links threatened to tear the group apart.
In 1986 it isn’t just the hair length and dress styles that have moved on.
Woody (Joe Gilgun) now has an office job and has even been promoted, and he is planning to marry.
His greatest fear is that he will become like his parents. His dad used to ride a scooter, but has gone from being “a wild man” to “wearing sweaters at the weekend”.
Adulthood’s promise of freedom has turned into compromise as the pressure to get a job and bring up a family drain life of freedom and excitement.
Fighting to avoid this fate was, as his girlfriend puts it, “why we became skinheads”. Youth culture offers a sense of freedom and belonging, where the family often seems unable or unwilling to provide it.
It is a vision of society as something that simply constrains us—a prison.
It’s not hard to see why it can appear this way, as powerlessness is the fate of working class people so much of the time.
In 1986 unemployment was over three million and Margaret Thatcher was on the rampage. Hopes for an alternative seemed for many to be little more than dreams.
The defeat of the miners seemed to most people to have closed off a different path of collective change.
The choice became escape—through music and lifestyle perhaps, or accommodation and adaptation to the often grinding rhythms of wage labour and family life.
But the yearning for freedom and a better future, and a refusal to accept the world the way it is still grip the characters. They still have fight in them.
The first episode—the only one Channel 4 made available for preview—only hints at the wider tensions in Thatcher’s Britain. The focus is on establishing the situation facing the characters and the relationships between them.
Meadows ably combines light humour and darker conflicts. This is England ’86 vividly and loving recreates the fashions, music and tacky décor of the period—the job centre looks like an army outpost in Northern Ireland during Britain’s war against the IRA.
But beneath this is a story that is far from out of place today.
As Meadows puts it, “I saw in the experiences of the young in 1986 many resonances to now: recession, lack of jobs, sense of the world at a turning point. The film told part of the story—the TV serial will tell the rest.”
This is England ’86 starts on Tuesday 7 September, 10pm, Channel 4. If you miss the first episode on TV it will also be online at www.channel4.com/programmes/4od