|'Neither a pointless cash-in nor a vacuous nostalgia-fest'.|
Nowadays it seems you can't turn round without coming face to face with yet another film franchise being rebooted, reimagined or rehashed as a TV series. Back in 2010, however, when Shane Meadows' sequel series to his 2006 film This Is England appeared, it was met by many fans of the film with caution. Whilst the prospect of returning to the rich characters Meadows had introduced four years earlier was an enticing one, the main question being asked was whether This Is England '86 was needed, with fears it would end up tarnishing the legacy of one of the best British films of the 21st Century.
It's a concern that, in hindsight, now seems entirely unfounded. From the start, Meadows and writing partner Jack Thorne ensure This Is England '86 is neither a pointless cash-in nor a vacuous nostalgia-fest. Whilst there are clear links to how matters were left at the end of This Is England, particularly in the first episode, the shift in focus places Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) into a still prominent but unmistakeably secondary role, with the spotlight now shining upon Lol (Vicky McClure). It's a master stroke by Meadows and Thorne: aside from one key scene shared with Combo (Stephen Graham), Lol as a character had remained in the background for much of This Is England; choosing her as This Is England '86's focal point ensures a wealth of new ground is explored.
It also capitalises on McClure as a truly phenomenal acting talent, glimpsed in places during the film but only exploited fully for the first time here. Lol is transformed from a peripheral figure to a young woman rich in personality and tormented by a past wrought with abuse. As the demons of her childhood rear their unpleasant heads once again through the reappearance of Lol's father Mick (Johnny Harris), McClure takes us to the character's own personal hell and back, demonstrating an emotional and dramatic range not achieved by whole casts in lesser TV series.
Harris also deserves praise for creating a truly nasty piece of work in Mick, bringing an unsettling subtlety to his performance for much of the series that makes Mick's most despicable scenes all the more galling and brutal when they arrive. The moments shared between Lol and Mick are fuelled by pure, overwhelming hatred. Just as was the case for This Is England, however, mentioning only the central performances of This Is England '86 seems unfair to the other members of the comprehensively excellent cast. Joe Gilgun in particular as Woody is given further opportunities to shine here, both as a skilled dramatist and infectiously funny comic performer.
In fact, it's perhaps the series' funnier elements that best demonstrate Meadows' mastery as a writer and director. Whereas the original film had definite moments of humour, they became more and more scarce as the story progressed further. Here, Meadows understands that telling a hard-hitting and gritty dramatic narrative across a four-part miniseries needs a steadier flow of light relief. Elements such as Gadget's (Andrew Ellis) relationship with Trudy (Hannah Walters), as well as any scenes involving scooter-riding casuals Flip (Perry Fitzpatrick) and Higgy (Joseph Dempsie), are not only welcome to break up the heavier central narrative, but also show off Meadows and Thorne's knack for writing brilliantly observed comedy. It's also further proof that This Is England '86 not only complements This Is England superbly, but develops many of the characters and elements introduced further to stand tall as a remarkable drama serial in its own right.