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'This Is England': Sins of the Father

07/10/2015 18:09 | Updated 07 October 2016

"Erect yourselves."

(Woody, This Is England '90)

This Is England is the most important British drama of the century so far. Following the M*A*S*H model of the film-turned-TV series, writer-director Shane Meadows has fashioned a blood-boltered, tonally infinite epic poem of Thatcherite Britain. A stethoscope to the country's irregular heartbeat, it examines racism, grief, drugs, sex, family, work, subcultures, anger and disenchantment, remixed to ska, reggae and Madchester house, with Ludovico Einaudi's piano-and-strings the constant. Meadows and co-writer Jack Thorne have also amassed a cloudburst of young characters, gorgeously interpreted, semi-improvised, their intelligences as brightened and unmannerly as crowbars. With its seven-year span and rumours the latest series (which ended on Sunday) is the last, the time feels right to appreciate the work as a whole.

Let's begin with Meadows' mastery of the montage: not just the two-minute time capsules that introduce each new series, Proustian mosaics of music and news footage, but the wordlessly artful sequences throughout: a rave round a travellers' campfire, first part euphoric, second part appalling; the primal laughter at Shaun's pipe-and-sideburns play; those horrible, delirious rape scenes; Shaun bereft on the war memorial; the final shot of the film when Shaun throws the flag of St George into the sea and looks up at the camera, 400 Blows-style; the joyous (for all but one) very final dance.

Time on Meadows' watch warps and twines, somersaults and rusts. This Is England '88 covers three consecutive days before Christmas, '90 the four seasons. The overall compression of the plot to specific weeks and gatherings every two years, a technique Alan Hollinghurst (author of the other great Thatcher-shadowed eighties-chronicle The Line Of Beauty) uses in his novels, both focuses and expands the drama. There is a deceptive mellowing as the series progresses (Meadows described, in his own life, the drift from punk violence to ecstasy-dazed love in people's attitude towards strangers) and each character, their nicknames as idiosyncratic as their looks, gets their turn in the narrative.

Fathers and fatherhood haunt the series. The emotionally precarious Woody (Joseph Gilgun, such a supple actor, can flit between levity and despair in a split-second) is defined by his reluctance to turn into his squarish dad or factory boss, but matures into his own paternal roles (most surprisingly to Combo, a virtuosic Stephen Graham). Shaun, whose dad dies in the Falklands before the film starts, spends the next seven years looking for surrogate father figures: initially bewitched by Combo's psychotic charisma, he later thaws to his mum's gentle boyfriend Mr Sandhu, ironically the victim of a Combo-led racist attack in the film, which Shaun himself took part in (Jo Hartley is so subtle as Shaun's mum, a torch of amused patience).

The spectre of Lol's father Mick is most horrific of all: even when he's alive, he ghosts in and out of that symbolic family living room (Johnny Harris, who plays Mick, is quite extraordinary and his face, like Steve Carell's in Foxcatcher, flickers numbly with demons under the surface). Memories of Mick are so insidious that, when Lol (the mesmerising Vicky McClure) reveals that her dad abused her, her sister Kelly's bewilderment is a mix of disbelief and jealousy. Milky's account of his happy home life is what prompts Combo to almost kill him: seven years later, the grim cyclicality raises the prospect of Combo, fresh out of prison, living under the same roof as Milky's daughter.

But all the characters are wonderful maturing syntheses of writing and acting. Thomas Turgoose as Shaun is a sort of anti-Harry Potter, the unidealised son-of-the-nation who's grown up in front of us (just watch the film's trailer nine years on to see how intelligent-eyed an actor he was even at thirteen).

Coen brother Joel once described directing as "tone management". More skilfully than any contemporary work, This Is England straddles the tramlines of comedy and tragedy. Meadows has previous for laughter in the dark (like the bit in Dead Man's Shoes when Sonny answers the door unaware his face has been painted like a clown) and the humour in This Is England tends to have a violent lining.

Everyone has a temper. Milky has a lovely, funny scene playing with his daughter's teddies before he shadow-boxes at the prospect of Combo's return and orchestrates an act of violence he regrets instantly. Mid-argument with Lol in '86, Woody defends his restless budgie: "if he wants to play with his shitty lamp, let him". Shaun's riotous play in '88 precedes the breakdown of his relationship with Smell. On a farcical road trip to a rave, Harvey suddenly loses it in the car with Gadget and throws the map out the window. Perry Fitzpatrick's hoarse, boggle-eyed portrayal of Flip diverts the permanent threat he might punch Shaun at any minute. But purely serious confrontations - Lol with her dad in '86, Woody with Milky in '88, that Sunday lunch in '90, Milky and Combo's "cup of tea" - are excruciatingly, exceptionally drawn-out. It's, as ever, a question of timing, distended, sandless, impeccable.

When you call something This Is England, there's a heightened, perhaps unsolicited responsibility to say something definitive about the state of the country. (The grandiosity is ironic, given it's a line from one of Combo's racist speeches). But the show's beauty is its ambiguity, a deliberate ambivalence for characters more sentient beings than allegorical symbols (Combo, for example, is a more complex figure than the dying animal of the British thug, or proof that prison works). Nevertheless, the ending still brims with hope, redemption and the dissatisfaction of revenge: hearteningly, after seven years of misplaced masculinity, the key final scene is between two sisters, unshackled from the memory of their father. The This Is England canon is as significant to British television as Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem was to theatre, an intricate, effervescent, mythic hymnal to a reluctant, post-imperial kingdom still trying to erect itself after centuries of violence. We may not see them again, but characters as magnificent as these live forever.