This is England is iconic. It is an emotive reflection of British culture, it’s roots and how troubles in the country led some people to adopt white nationalism. This is true of Thomas Turgoose’s Shaun, whose sadness over the death of his father leads him to join a gang of skinheads. The friendship and companionship help bolster his confidence, until Stephen Graham’s Combo arrives on the scene. The group splinters, some following Joe Gilgun’s Woody and leaving, others accept Combo’s revelation of British white power. Shaun accepts it too because it gives his life purpose and someone he can blame for his misfortunes. But Combo is revealed just be bitter and jealous, lashing out after Andrew Shim’s Milky talks about his family. The snippet of Shaun’s life is a keen insight into how England adopted radical practices in times of dissatisfaction. Few films capture England with such honesty and emotion.
So in 2009 when it was announced that Channel 4 planned to show a four part continuation of the film, fans were excited and suspicious. How many BAFTA award winning films go on to have television shows made? How many of those television shows are successful and truly capture the essence of the films they are recreating? In reality, this rarely happens because of the difficulty in creating stories as compelling as their movie counterparts and because actors generally move on to bigger and better things so managing time schedules and contracts can leave some cast members unable to return. Worse, if producers attempt to recast a character.
But Shane Meadows pulled it off. This is England ‘86 premiered in 2010, dealing with Shaun’s reconciliation with the group, Woody’s fear of marriage and growing old and Lol’s family issues, aggravated by the reappearance of her abusive, rapist father. Amazingly, Meadows pulled it off not once but three times, returning with This is England ‘88 in 2011 and This is England ‘90 in 2015. And each series as built upon the previous one, showing the aftermath of trauma which is so rarely shown on television, accumulating in the most recent series, which is apparently to be the last.
Was it a fitting end to the franchise? After a deeply tense and unsettling third episode, the final episode was always going to struggle to match it with the resolution. Milky is finally able to confront Combo over the events of the film, having promised to avenge the attack despite Combo’s atonement and apology. Combo is seen being dragged away but his ultimate fate is unknown, reflecting how Milky’s fate was ambiguous at the end of the film. Unfortunately, we got use to the film delivering on its aftermath. We saw how the events of the film affected Shaun, Combo and Milky in This is England ‘86. We saw how Lol’s father and his death affected Lol and Trev in This is England ‘88. This is England ‘90 is the accumulation of the past 7 years (film wise), so for it to end like this, with a chapter of Milky’s future untold feels underwhelming. But perhaps that happened could have possibly met viewers expectations.
On the other hand, other parts of the finale feel rushed. Shaun meets a new girl and moves on, to Smell’s disdain. Woody and Lol finally get married. Kelly, who has spent This is England ‘90 having sex and taking drugs, immersing herself even further after hearing about her father’s true nature, but simply just has a change of heart in the finale. It’s not that I don’t want it to end, although I do love the franchise. I understand that it is better to stop here rather than drag it out, especially if Shane Meadows or the cast want to move on. But this felt like a series that still had some gas in the tank.
Still, no one can fault This is England. The writing and acting has been brilliant. There would always be some aftermath left to tell. In the end, as much as the series followed Shawn and Woody and the gang, this was Combo’s story. The film told of his coming, and this last episode depicts his leaving. The rest was just all the people he affected and helped along the way. And we got one award winning film, and an award winning series out of it. And that’s more than anyone ever expected.