Friday, 10 September 2010

This is England 86: Politics and Nostalgia Part One

Montagu has been eagerly awaiting director Shane Meadows’ first foray into television with This is England 86, a four-part spin-off to his outstanding 2006 film This is England. The first part screened on Channel Four on Tuesday night to generally positive reviews (the Telegraph described it as “astonishingly good”) and a solid audience share.  This is quality British television in the making.

Meadows is an interesting director; a maverick of new British cinema, his films blend the irreverent ‘underclass’ humour that was put into effect so successfully in Shameless with a sense of genuine commitment to working class community, culture and experience, particularly from the perspective of children and young people.  This means that his often biting and ludicrous satire very rarely becomes patronising.  Meadows stands firmly inside the tent pissing out.

This is England contained the thematic preoccupations that have defined all Meadows’ films: the exploration of marginalised and periphery working class communities and experience; masculinity, childhood and adolescence.  However, it also marked a new, more explicitly politicised edge to his films, set at the height of Thatcherite jingoism during the Falklands war and critiquing far-Right politics.  The final scene where Shaun throws a Union Jack into the sea was a marvellous cinematic antidote to the popular nationalism and racism given space to expand by New Labour’s foreign and domestic policies of populist racism.

Andrew Higson, in a discussion of heritage costume dramas of the 1980s, identifies a tension between the visual spectacle of nostalgia and a more politicised social critique.  From this point of view nostalgia, as one of the central genres or modes in British film, can be seen as inherently conservative and in opposition to the more progressive traditions of realistic British cinema which have tended to focus on the here and now.  Of course, this opposition has a long history in socialist politics in which we can see nostalgia allied with conservatism in trying to “role back the wheel of history” (in Marx’s phrase).  This makes This is England 86 an interesting prospect politically.  Does the nostalgia of the series undercut its potential to offer a social commentary on recession and unemployment in the present?  Meadows himself clearly does not see any incompatibility:

“Not only did I want to take the story of the gang broader and deeper, I also saw in the experiences of the young in 1986 many resonances to now - recession, lack of jobs, sense of the world at a turning point.”

On the other hand, the appeal of the series might be found precisely in a depoliticised, backward facing nostalgia. For example, the preview event in Sheffield:

“For the creation and promotion of this event, Fuse Sport & Entertainment and film specialist elevenfiftyfive are collaborating to curate a live, interactive experience, taking fans back to 1986 where the cinema will be transformed into a working man’s social club, including a live performance by a local Ska band, free sausage rolls and monster munch to boot!”

From the evidence of the first part in the series, nostalgia for the 1980s has been placed more centrally than politics, particularly in terms of iconography - from soda streams to shell suits and scooters.  At points this seemed clumsy and overbearing.  On the other hand, the performances of Vicky McClure as Lol and Joe Gilgum as Woody were fantastic and a female central character is a well-needed departure from Meadows’ usual nearly exclusive focus on masculinity and men.  We shall delay a final analysis of the political potential of nostalgia in This is England 86 until it has run in its entirety.

Watch this space.

No comments:

Post a Comment