My God yes, this is England: not the only England, but one England among many. It is certainly an England I have lived in.
What Shane Meadows does brilliantly is capture and express a specific time and place, and root his story in the real experiences of working class life. Skinheads rejoiced in how the English often see ourselves, as hard drinkers and fighters, brave men who “can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.” It was a youth sub-culture born of cultural impoverishment, but also rebellious, exuberant and cheeky. Being a skinhead meant being part of a gang that approved of you, and the values of being a skinhead were generally ones celebrated in English culture (I am not saying that is a good thing!) This is underlined by the frequent references to the Falklands war.
Thomas Turgoose turns in a fantastic performance as Shaun, the troubled 12 year old brought into a local gang of skinheads, attracted by their camaraderie, and the way they boost his self esteem. What the film does very well is show how precarious and out of control life is when you are young, as the gang changes around Turgoose’s character, and the bond of loyalty to the gang becomes more sinister and explicitly racist.
Stephen Graham as Combo, the racist skin just out of nick is electrifying. The review in the Guardian described Combo as “deeply objectionable”, but that soooh misses the point. The truth is that anyone who has ever been in a youth sub-culture has had mates like Combo. Older men who, like Peter Pan, shelter from life’s disappointments by being the respected elder in the gang. He is objectionable from the point of view of a Guardian journalist, but from the point of view of a 12 year old on a council estate, Combo is quite glamorous.
The contradiction that Combo was both a violent racist, but also conscious of the multi-racial origins of Skin culture was convincing. Back in the 1970s I had friends very sympathetic to the NF who would listen to ska music, and thought Desmond Dekker was like unto a God. This is part of a very contradictory world view that understands class grievances, but articulates them through racism. So there is an ambivalence about black people who share the same class experience.
Indeed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s most (white) working class teenagers knew people in the NF. I found the NF meeting in a tatty pub completed convincing, and I liked the way the film showed the NF as reasonably attractive for these alienated lads, while at the same time most of the skins saw through it as a pile of shit.
There are some lovely touches in the film. The fact that combo only has a provisional driving licence is comically deflating in an understated way, and the indignity for Shaun, that DMs don’t come in children’s sizes!
There were some things I was not too sure about. I think the film tried too hard to explain why Combo was a loser, whereas I think the audience could have been trusted to work that out without the Oprah moments. I am also not entirely sure that skins in 1983 were listening to ska so much , as opposed to the Cockney Rejects and Angelic Upstarts. There was also a political problem, that in 1983 the NF would not have been talking about Englishness, but Britishness, and it would have been the Union Jack, not the Cross of St George behind the NF speaker.
But generally, this is a great, and very English, film.