UK VOD TV review: This Is England ’90 (Episodes 1 and 2)
Chris Bryant | On 27, Sep 2015
Beaten, bloodied and back for more, the This Is England gang return to screens to welcome in a new culture, a new life and a new decade.
Shane Meadow’s wild drama reignites in Spring 1990, and the gang aren’t too far from where we left them two years ago. In some ways, Woody, Milky and Lol are the mature ones – building a home and raising a family in post-Thatcher Britain. In some ways, they’re no more mature at all, scavenging free lunches from Lol’s job running the school kitchen and joking about her Mum’s new lover. The rest of the gang certainly aren’t, living a life dominated by raves, video games and 24/7 intoxication. Meadows’ uses the group as an expression of all youth experience at the time, brightly coloured clothes, The Stone Roses and cannabis being their only real pastimes.
It’s a colourful time filled with freedom and friends – yet it never seems too far from total despair. Every fan knows Meadows’ history of tormenting beloved characters – that was clear in the closing minutes of the film – so every wisecrack is met with a pinch of hesitation as the drama unfurls. Nearly a decade since the eponymous film, and with two seasons already under his belt, Meadows shows no sign of writing his characters with any less joy, honesty or relatability.
Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is still avoiding college after his break-up with Smell (a phenomenally outfitted Rosamund Hanson), arguing with his Mum and hiding in a cloud of smoke with his friends. Refusing to move on, Shaun’s anger and pain give Turgoose another chance to demonstrate his total dedication to the role that made his name.
Spending his time with the Gadget (Andrew Ellis) – a raver defined by his slow thinking, good nature and ever-obvious loneliness – and Harvey (Michael Socha) – an ex-bully-turned-friend whose home life has left him carefree, but volatile – Shaun struggles to find a place to turn without a confidant.
With the comedy proceedings dominated by Flip (Perry Fitzpatrick) and Higgy (Joe Dempsie), their moustaches and music taste, the episode serves only to set up the inevitable storm. But for the opening hour, at least, it’s business as usual for the band of misfits. Episode 1 is the perfect Welcome Home, from a trademark 90s montage to the sorrowful piano that frames every moment of hurt for the motley crew. The characters, free from the eighties, are clinging to their youth via chemicals, pranks and a good fight. It reunites the gang – and the fans – with a boisterous hug, a cup of tea and a rude joke.
Through the ad campaign and the looks on her face, it could be Kel, Lol’s younger sister, who bears the brunt of Meadows’ gritty talents this season. She seems definitively lost; unsurprising considering her traumatic life so far, but where she ends up is anyone’s guess. Shaun, meanwhile, is clearly taking the loss of his longtime girlfriend hard – having loved Smell since mid-’83, it’s a huge loss given how much younger he is than the rest of his cohorts.
Woody, Milky and Lol, however, seem fairly content. Of course, occasionally there’s an old workplace associate in Woody’s parents’ cupboard, or an ill-fitting ex-girlfriend looking after his kids, but the three seem to have settled into their unconventional family life perfectly. The biggest worries are that Woody has a job offer, and Milky is worried about Gadget stealing his food. Maybe this relative paradise won’t stay peaceful for long – Stephen Graham’s Combo has also been featured in multiple adverts – but for now, it’s a pleasure to see the band back together.
Episode 2 continues its look at both sides of the track. Milky, Woody and Lol host a family barbecue, while Gadget, Harv, Shaun and Kel embark on a wild road trip complete with Class A drugs, hippies and, of course, Flip and Higgy.
Staying at home, Woody and family – notably complete with Evelyn (Helen Behan) – fill their garden with a stereo, kids, a few beers and a novelty chef’s apron. It’s the future Woody feared throughout ’86, with a few stylistic additions that ensure the gang’s sense of rebellion and bonding stays intact. It ends as every party does, with Woody and Milky cuddling on the sofa. It’s a wonderful take on Meadows’ own trope of writing uncontrollable parties for the gang, punctured breathtakingly with a phone call for Lol.
Meanwhile, the more reckless members of the old crew decide to go to a truly wild rave. Kel nearly doesn’t make it – having ditched work to drink all day – and car trouble seals their fate. Destined not to attend, they decide to hold their own. Blurry, drug-fuelled and eventually horrifying, the contrast between Lol and Kel’s nights powers the episode.
Chanel Cresswell’s Kel has dispensed with the pink Mohawk and joyful abandon of past and embraces passivity towards almost everything that might numb her pain. Flashes of Mick, her father, glimpsed in her most intoxicated moments, give a few hints towards her torment, but Kel’s vacant gaze certainly signals that there’s worse to come.
Writers Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne have certainly not lost touch with their past or the viewer’s present, skilfully complementing every joke with a nod towards despondency. The worries that dawned in Episode 1 are carefully crafted further, with Harvey’s temper flaring, and Gadget’s longing for Kel coming to the forefront for two of the most emotional scenes. A nostalgic, trying hour, This Is England ’90 fans everywhere must be gritting their teeth preparing for Episode 3.
This Is England ’90 is available to watch online for free on All 4, as well as on DVD and on pay-per-view VOD services, including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, TalkTalk TV Store and Google Play.
Photo: Dean Rogers