For over forty years, Shane Meadows was pretty much the only film industry Nottingham had. Before he fulfilled the promise of his hour-long calling card Smalltime with Twenty Four Seven in 1997, no-one had made a proper film which was set and filmed in Notts since Saturday Night and Sunday Morning gave Albert Finney his big break in 1960. Indeed, until Chris Cooke’s One for the Road in 2003, Meadows was the only person to make any more. During this time he completed his ‘Nottingham Trilogy’ with TwentyFourSeven, A Room for Romeo Brass (regarded as one of the best British films of the 90s by the tiny handful of people who actually saw it) and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (certainly has its highlights but generally regarded as a bit of a dog’s dinner).
Since then, Meadows’ locations have moved out of the suburbs and estates of Hood Town, but only as far as Matlock, for the back-to-form revenge drama Dead Man’s Shoes and Grimsby, the backdrop for parts of the small coastal town in This Is England. There’s a particularly East Midlands suburban sensibility in all these films, rooted by more than just accent. Although they look amazing, being shot with real care and vision – Danny Cohen’s excellent photography on This Is England is no exception – all Meadows’ films are grounded by the lack of glamour in their surroundings and shot through with the essential crapness of growing up in an unimportant area with nothing much to do, livened only by the silly jokes you have with your mates and the occasional flash of ridiculous colour that passes through.
One of the first fundamentals of scriptwriting is ‘write what you know,’ advice Meadows has been keen to take and This Is England has been described as his most autobiographical film yet. The director has, in interviews and commentaries, described his shock and disgust at witnessing a beating during his skinhead youth which he felt responsible for encouraging to happen. Whilst the film is not a literal dramatisation of that incident, it does tell that story, a rite of passage fable which also forms the basis of Romeo Brass, Twenty Four Seven and (chopped and remixed to fit the revenge genre template) Dead Man’s Shoes. All these films focus on a friendship between a teenage boy (or boys) and an older mentor figure. As the boy is drawn out of whatever imperfect domestic state he starts the film in, tensions build toward a distressing, innocence-rupturing moment of violence, perpetrated by the mentor and observed by the boy.
What makes these stories more than moralistic TV specials is partly the ambiguity of the mentors’ natures. At first sight, some appear good (Bob Hoskins’s Darcy), some appear bad (Stephen Graham’s Combo) and some seem just weird (Paddy Considine’s Morrell), but whilst Meadows never totally absolves them, they’re all presented in a spirit of understanding, with recognition of the weakness and loneliness that these men carry with them. But not all the lessons being given are negative ones; by the time of the violent catharsis each child has learned enough to reject his teacher and become his own man.
The one film in Meadows’ catalogue which does not seem influenced by that formative moment is Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. But even here the story (a mother and daughter having to choose between a loyal-but-foolish stepfather and a roguish but- unpleasant ‘real’ dad) is still concerned with the nature and failure of masculinity, an over-arching theme in all of Meadows’ work. In Shane’s world, men are proud but pathetic; too happy-go-lucky, busy settling scores or just too damaged to take any meaningful responsibility for their lives. Women, on the other hand, are usually sensible, protective and able to see past any bullshit and cut right to the heart of a situation. It’s clear that the boys in Meadows’ films don’t have to grow up to be bad men, but it’s less certain that any of them ever grow up at all.
Ultimately though, what really marks out Meadows’ talent is his ability to consistently coax astonishing performances out of newcomers, non-actors, soap stars and children. Meadows started out making short films starring friends and neighbours in Sneinton. The big lesson this taught him was that getting your friends and neighbours to improvise is easier than getting them to learn lines. It’s quicker than sitting around for six months trying to write a script which won’t sound as natural, warm or funny as the things people come up with when they don’t know what they’re going to say next. Meadows still uses this approach, starting each film with forty pages of plot details, the story is then fleshed out and developed by the actors through improvisation.
Creating a strong communal gang spirit amongst the cast is an important part of making this approach work; Meadows’ best results have usually come when the cast have been living with each other during filming. It’s not surprising that a repertory company of sorts has formed around his productions. This Is England marks the third appearance in a Meadows film by both Frank Harper and Andrew Shim and a second for Jo Hartley and Vicky McClure. Paddy Considine, an old college friend of Meadows, has given two of the best performances of his career in Dead Man’s Shoes and Romeo Brass.
That sort of supportive, creative atmosphere is also the perfect environment to get great performances out of kids. To make a coming-of-age story work, you need to be able to build your films around actors still in their teens and Meadows’ has had a particularly successful collaboration with Ian Smith’s Carlton Television Junior Workshop, graduates of which include Shim, McClure, Toby Kebbell and pretty much everybody in TwentyFourSeven who wasn’t called Hoskins.
Smith himself has a cameo in This Is England as one of Shaun Fields’ teachers, whereas Thomas Turgoose, who plays Shaun himself, was found in an arcade in Grimsby rather than an improvisation class in Nottingham and had never acted before.
But his brilliant performance fills nearly every frame of the film - a testament to the close relationship developed on set. “I could see myself in him,” Meadows has said of Turgoose. “There were teachers at school who said I’d end up in prison, there were only bad things out there for me, yet somehow some people believed in me and I actually made something of myself.” This Is England is the quintessential Shane Meadows picture and also his most mature film yet. After mastering growing up on film, he’s finally come of age.