YouTube ‘This Is England’, sift through results. Video One: a girl films from her Norwich-bound train; grannies and skate teens reflected in the tidy villages and urban sprawls rushing past. Video Two: a pop-promo, the number 30 bus’ blown top spliced with Stonehenge. Lyrics: “They took the passport, they took the pound/And now they’ve bombed the underground/They’ll never destroy the land of hope and glory/This is England.” Video Three: a skinhead, dressed in a tight white shirt, lectures a room of potentials, singling out the sole black member. “Do you consider yourself English or Jamaican?” Pause. Silence. “English.” Applause. Three videos and we’re none the wiser. What is England?
Video Three – as everyone reading this should soon see for themselves – is a clip from Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes follow-up, This Is England; the skinhead being neo-fascist Combo (an exceptional Stephen Graham), released from Her Majesty’s Pleasure with vendettas to vent. Combo wasn’t always this way, though. He used to be part of the original, more lefty skinhead subculture, but prison’s turned him. Now free, his new, racially motivated rage soon scares away long-term mate Woody (an immensely likeable Joseph Gilgun) – the man he did time for.
“It was the best night of my life,” Combo coos to Woody’s girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure; you guessed it, brilliant), talking of their pre-slammer night of ‘passion’. “It was the worst one of mine,” she replies. Combo was a kid before being banging up, life ahead. But Woody got the girl, he got the time. Big matter. He’s now a disenfranchised man looking for disciples. And, surrounded by fickle teens in awe of the big boy in the room, he’s able to entice some of Woody’s gang into his hateful way of thinking.
Stuck in the middle is Shaun (thrilling newcomer Thomas Turgoose). It’s the last day of term in his Nottingham estate and a summer of opportunity awaits. But having recently lost his dad in the Falklands, the 11-year-old latches onto father figures left, far right and centre. Bullied at school for his baggies in a time of skinny jeans (“Will you behave with the flare comments!?”), first Woody and then Combo take him under their wing. The former is jocular – buying his protégé a Ben Sherman shirt and inviting him on wasteland ‘hunting’ trips. The latter is intense – gifting Shaun a St George’s Cross and taking him along to National Front meets.
As a snapshot of youth, This Is England is timeless. Shaun is a sponge, absorbing everything from sex to booze to smokes to ideas. As a nostalgic glimpse of 1983, it’s immaculate. At the kick-off, Meadows montages what made England exciting back then (CDs, punks, the blasted Rubik’s Cube) with what made it fearful (riots, strikes, war). For the first half-hour at least, the film is far funnier than you may expect. As a stocky, cheeky kid in the headlights of puberty, Turgoose’s naturalism constantly charms, while his mum Cynthia (Jo Hartley) frets touchingly beneath her power perm. The language (“That’s sterling!”), the clothing (Doc Martens, braces, checked shirts) and the music are all magnificent. Framed by a director who treats near every shot as a work of art to hang in the Tate – sod Constable, this is England – if you were unaware of how choice the ’80s were before, prepare for a slap in the face. Meadows grasps the England of Video One – the country of unique fashion; a melting pot where ideas can breathe.
However, knocking you gasping some 45 minutes in is the England of Video Two and the moment Meadows cements himself as a filmmaker of vital vitality. Gathered in his council flat, Combo launches into the film’s defining speech “For 2,000 years, this nation has been raped and pillaged,” spits Graham, the Snatch star hitting a five-minute career-high as poisonous words leave his lips with perfectionist poise. Once he’s ranted against “3.5 million” coming into the UK as “cheap labour” the relevance stings. “Phoney” Falklands? Phoney Iraq. The finale of “Thatcher in her ivory tower... she lied to us about the war”? That’s the moment Tony Blair stands up. And exits the cinema.
Combo’s hatred is skin-deep, but alas couldn’t be more resonant in 2007 if he delivered it via webcam. “These people think we owe them a living!” he shouts, echoing ‘soft touch’ immigration debates rife throughout this country today. But England’s never bought intolerance, never done repression. No Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, even Le Pen. We have always treated neo-fascism as a bit of a joke. But times are changing and religious differences – militant Muslims, fundamental Christians, bigoted atheists – leave the country on the precipice of a worrying battle of intolerance. The England of Video Three is from a film for panic attacks and, for better or worse, is England. Right now. Organise church trips, galvanise your local community, take your mum. Just bloody well see this film.