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Old 05-10-2015, 17:23   #1
BarnDoor
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This Is England '90

So after one feature film and three series’ Shane Meadows’ This is England has (seemingly) come to an end – not with a satisfying bang, but more of a deflated whimper.

The transition from film to TV was never going to be easy for This is England, even with something this relatively low-budget and non-cinematic (I don’t mean that disparagingly). I think most would agree that ’90 was the worst installment, and that it was a case of diminishing returns with the TV incarnation. There was greatness which reminded you of Meadows’ undeniable talent and the strength of his creation – a number of the performances, the majority of episode three, and that table scene in particular – but such greatness was unfortunately few and far between. Indeed, the weaknesses which have always threatened to undermine This is England were magnified in this final season. Did it need to be 4 episodes? Did the last one need to be extended? Did Meadows really need the best part of 3.5 hours? In the case of episodes one and two in particular, and indeed large parts of episode 4, I would say not. Can there really be more than an hour – 90 minutes tops – of worthwhile material here that was necessary to the story? No. Meadows has always been prone to indulgence – he clearly loves these characters more than anyone else - and here it was particularly evident. There are pointless scenes of everyday life, often comedic, which go on forever and don’t move the plot forward. He brings back useless characters that no one ever cared about in the first place to fill no obvious purpose (Smell, Woody’s ex, Woody’s former boss, the two wankers, even though the lead one does make me laugh sometimes). Characters are clumsily shoehorned into episodes and plotlines when they need not be (Shaun’s presence in the last episode being a prime example). The narrative focuses on characters you don’t really care about and sidelines others that deserve more time, creating a real imbalance (I would say that Woody and Combo weren’t in this final season enough, at least not in a meaningful manner). The shit acting from certain people is once again problematic, especially given that they’re acting opposite some genuinely talented performers (worst offenders in this regard being Shaun, Trev and Milky, who can cry but do little else – some of his delivery last night was awful). I think that nails the main problems with the TV series on the whole and this one in particular. But I want to focus now on the finale.

All momentum was lost from last week. It felt incredibly anti-climactic, underwhelming, unsatisfying. Strands felt unresolved, or were wrapped up far too conveniently. A big slo-mo wedding party, featuring the silent returns of Meggy and that fat slag () and everyone happy except Milky – wonderful. Wouldn’t it have been an idea to see Lol and Woody looking for Kelly, and/or looking for Combo? Seems like potential for good drama in this. Instead, we get an easy ‘two months later’ passage of time, a convenient conversation with Milky on her wedding day two months after the event and then reconciliation with her sister. I would consider that lazy writing myself, but others may think differently. Moreover, it could be suggested that the conversation between Milky and Lol introduced a plot-hole, since it is said that they’ve known each other since they were about 9, from the mid-70s. If that is the case, then why does Combo not know of Milky when he’s released from prison in 1983? He can’t have been in there that long, since he’s had relations with Lol and she – apparently – was only about 18 in the film. It seems inconceivable he could not have come into contact with Milky if he knew Lol and Woody so well before he went away, given the pair’s long-standing friendship with Milky also.

In short, I wasn’t happy with the finale. Sure it can’t please everyone, and of course you aren’t going to be happy about the fates of certain characters if you were fond of them. But I want to talk about Combo’s end, undoubtedly the most significant element of this finale. Now we didn’t expect things to end well for Combo. Despite his rehabilitation and the selflessness he’s shown since the incident, you sensed a bad end lay in store. I accepted that. This isn’t a case of “Wah they killed my favourite character and so I hate the show” – I see this dismissive attitude towards Game of Thrones complaints and it irrirates me enormously. I want to talk about the highly problematic nature in how Combo’s demise was depicted, and explain why it left me with a bad taste. There are several elements to this, so bear with me.

Let’s look at things logically first of all. So we find out that Milky has been scheming revenge with his family. Vows were made while he was lying in hospital. Perfectly understandable - you’d want the same if some cunt had done this to your brother say. So they’ve spent 7 years dreaming up this masterplan, and 2 months putting it into motion. Big burly intimidating black men arrive, take Combo away in a van, drive him to an abandoned warehouse/industrial site and beat him to a pulp right, exacting revenge for a beloved family member a long time coming? No, not quite. Instead, they hand him over to some big burly intimidating white guys to do the job. Fiendish. I bet that was very satisfying for them. Clearly what happened to their dear relative wasn’t quite personal enough – they’d rather let someone else dispense justice. Wow. You would have thought they might have at least roughed him up a bit before handing him over.

So at this point you’re registering what’s unfolding before your eyes. The white guys look nasty. The general look and tats suggest violent, rough types. Combo seems especially scared to see them – not just a “Oh Christ, this is it” scared, but “Jesus it’s these fuckers!” scared, as though they’re ghosts from his past. The only rational thought is that they’re NF members/right-wing sorts, or ex-cons that he’s crossed in the past – perhaps both. But in his recent stint Combo was apparently a model prisoner (hence his parole), so you’d have to go quite far back. Either way, Meadows is asking us to make quite a leap here, with very little explanation. I’ve seen one person suggest that they were white members of Milky’s family, him being mixed-race – now that’s an even bigger fucking leap, and from the looks of them hugely improbable. So let’s say they’re NF members. Why do they want Combo so badly? He was a lowly lacky in a very small regional branch. Why would they care? If, say, they’d found out about his mixed-race background – and I don’t know how they would, or why they’d pursue it - do you really think they’d give that much of a shit? Seven years have passed since he went into prison for beating the shit out of a black man – I’d say that gets you a pass in most NF circles. Moreover, we know a good number of skinhead types were at least mixed-race, and I’ve read of many who happily indulged in a bit of ‘paki-bashing’. I very much doubt this would have come as much of a shock to them, and that they would have given a shit. If this was the reasoning, it’s stupidly flimsy.

So black men with a personal vendetta hand over their prize to white NF types with no real axe to grind – yeah, makes a lot of sense on all levels. Here’s the thing – if Milky and his family wanted Combo dead, but had no intention of doing it personally, then why not get it done while he was in prison? Hell, if you’re willing to let whites do it, and can find some with a grudge against Combo, then surely that just makes the job easier? On the flipside, if these NF types wanted Combo so bad, why have they waited this long? Again, why not do him in prison? None of this sits well with me.

Indeed, it shouldn’t sit well with any of us, because it’s forced and however you try and spin it does not make sense. Here’s an idea perhaps if you want things to play out in this way – Combo gets into the van with Milky’s relatives, and you never see him again. Ah but we can’t have that. Why can’t we have that? Because it doesn’t fit the political agenda that Meadows (and Channel 4 I suspect) wish to force-feed us.

I should preface this by saying that This is England is of course no stranger to political and social commentary. In the film this is particularly evident, and we have that troubling image at the end of Shaun throwing the Flag of St George into the sea. Given that he is a young boy whose father has died fighting a far-away war for his country, and has seen explosive violence which he believes was motivated by an extreme ‘Nationalism’, you can understand his actions. But let’s fast-forward to 1990. The opening credits mix stock footage of far-right demos with particular scenes from the film to create a rather ominous mood, one of racial tension and potent ‘Nationalism’. But there is a problem with this. The stock footage is from the late 70s/very early 80s, when groups like the National Front were at their height (but even then, we’re probably talking 20,000 paid-up members at their zenith). By the late 80s, they were in terminal decline, and by 1990 effectively a spent force, just as they are now (I use the term NF types in this post merely because monikers of skinheads or Neo-Nazi’s aren’t really accurate nor entirely fair). So compare this to the opening credits of episodes 1 and 2, which very efficiently captured the zeitgeist of 1990. So why now, in 1990, are you setting the mood with footage from over a decade before? Is the suggestion that the past haunts us, that it never truly leaves us? That this kind of expression is always bubbling under the surface? Or is it drawing a thinly-veiled parallel to the rise of far-right movements across Europe today, and the marches we’re seeing here and elsewhere in defiance of things like mass immigration?

I would let you decide, but I would say that Meadows makes it clear if we fast-forward to Combo’s arrival at the abandoned industrial site. The vicious beating is replayed, presumably an indication of what’s going on in Combo’s head but it serves a purpose for us also: it reminds the viewers, many of whom are rooting for a reformed Combo and want to see him catch a break, that he has done something horrible, and may well have to pay for his sins. I can understand this as a narrative device – perhaps we could be accused of forgetting Combo’s misdemeanours all to easily. But what follows is less easy to digest. When I first watched this scene, I was focusing on the identity of the white guys carrying Combo and Stephen Graham’s excellent acting, the tension of the scene allowing me to concentrate on little else. But this morning I watched it again, and other elements took my interest. Firstly, the speech playing when the van pulls up. This is audio from an anti-apartheid speech given by Labour MP Hugh Gaitskell in the early 60s. Here it is in full:



Quote:
“The purpose of this... is for the people of Britain to register on the widest possible scale, their passionate protest against an evil and repulsive doctrine, an evil and repulsive doctrine, which says that a man’s legal status, a man’s political rights, a man’s economic opportunities, a man’s social position shall depend solely on the colour of his skin.”
Now this audio plays as Combo is dragged away to his doom, a scene which is intercut with images of white skinheads performing Neo-Nazi salutes, and young children – a mixed-race child, then 3 black children with a white kid. The ultimate ‘clever’ irony, it seems, is that Combo is not killed by black men – no, they can’t be seen to be bad - but by whites. It’s not the other you need fear, but your own kind. The ‘evil and repulsive doctrine’ he once followed has ultimately lead to his own destruction. And of course, yay for multiculturalism and down with far-right movements, because that’s not something with contemporary relevance at all. Of course no one would disagree with the words of the speech, but the agenda presented here goes further than that.

Maybe I’m looking into this too much, but ask yourself why we’re getting all this in 1990, when the ground was already covered in the film and when it didn’t have the same kind of relevance in current society. As Combo said in his apology to Milky, it wasn’t really about racism – it was jealousy, jealousy of Milky’s loving family and his happy upbringing. Combo was left upset by many things – his father’s abandonment of him, Lol rejecting him – things that turned him into a violent young man. The National Front didn’t have to do much in this regard – indeed, you got the impression they probably latched onto him when he was inside for the first stint, indicating he was a vicious little fucker before that, though presumably not a racist one. The clue is in the speech – that ‘evil and repulsive doctrine’. And yet with that final scene of Combo’s, Meadows made it all about race, if not racism. Why did Combo have to die for what he did to Milky? Was it absolutely necessary? After all, Banjo was turned into a lovable (I use the term very loosely) oaf and part of the gang in 86 and 88, a far cry from his role in the film (another thing which made little sense). Or was it merely an opportunity for a thinly-coded warning to audiences of today that Meadows and Channel 4 couldn’t resist?

As I mentioned on the shoutbox recently, I’m fed up of this constant obsession with Neo-Nazis in film and TV, and a blanket demonization of white far-right groups. Do they exist? Undoubtedly. Are there malevolent elements? Of course. Do they post the threat that the media suggests? Absolutely not. If you want to talk about an ‘evil and repulsive doctrine’ that’s corrupting a large number of Britain’s youths today and for the foreseeable future and is infinitely more dangerous than the National Front or associated far-right groups here ever were, I can think of at least one. But of course, you won’t find much suggestion of that on our screens, particularly on Channel 4.

This are my initial ideas anyway. Perhaps others viewed it differently. Interested to know your thoughts.
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"Now I absolutely despise the murderer Herzog. I tell him to his face that I want to see him perish like the llama he executed. He should be thrown to the crocodiles alive! An anaconda should throttle him slowly! The sting of a deadly spider should paralyze him! His brain should burst from the bite of the most poisonous of all snakes! Panthers shouldn't slit his throat open with their claws, that would be too good for him! No. Big red ants should piss in his eyes, eat his balls, penetrate his asshole, and eat his guts! He should get the plague! Syphilis! Malaria! Yellow fever! Leprosy! In vain. The more I wish the most horrible of deaths on him and treat him like the scum of the earth that he is, the less I can get rid of him!" - Kinski on Herzog


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Old 05-10-2015, 18:41   #2
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Firstly, fantastic post. You have touched upon many things that were floating around my head during and after the episode, and said it in a manner I doubt I have the required skills to do so.

We'll start at the crux of my problem with This is England as a whole, and this is that for the most part, outside of Woody and Combo, the characters just arent that likeable and their specific stories, just not as interesting. Yes we've had some great performances over the course of the series, Lol's dad being the standout in 86, and his appearance in this season was just as brilliant, with Lol and Kelly both giving performances that I appreciate at one point or another, but then you get the likes of Trev, Milky, Shaun, Smell and Gadget who are just average at best, and who actually cares about Shaun getting in to college or getting a new girlfriend?

One of my favourite aspects of this season was infact the character of Harvey, yes he's a druge dealer but he was funny, well acted and also didn't stand for any shit. The scene where he flipped with Gadget in the flat in episode 4 was his standout performance, and I think we all agreed with what he was saying, Kelly was a no good heroine addict who would never fuck Gadget who longingly followed her around like a lost puppy. Gadgets arc in this season was one of the more pathetic, yes he has always been a side attraction, but he hasn't repulsed me as much as he did in 90, even when he grew that fucking shit moustache and was shagging the older woman.

As mentioned before, for me, the main attractions are Woody and Combo, and in a perfect world i;d have liked to have seen them dominate the screen time, but both were under utilised and pushed to the sidelines while Lol and her family have very much been pushed to the forefront of the show, ever since 86. We've had her father being a rapist, her having the affair, killing her father, then 88 was all about her being miserable and living alone with Milkys kid before trying to kill herself, and now it's mostly bout her and her sister, and the repercussions of her actions. Now of course, all this ties in with the overall Combo/Woody story, but I felt we were undeserved with the real meat of the show.

Woody is fantastically acted by Joe Gilgun and he is a genuinely likeable bloke, but for all of this final season he's pretty much reduced to the role of a bearded useless cunt, standing back while people argue and just making a joke every now and then. When he gets the chance to properly act, we were treated to what may have been the best scene in the show outside of the table sequence, and that is when Woody and Combo both breakdown in tears and hug. This is what we wanted to see more of.

Moving on to Combo, I think we all knew his tale did not have a happy ending. From the beginning it has been shown he was very much a broken man with no real happiness. His actions were awful and I think anyone here would likely want to kick his head in if he'd done the same to a family member of yours, so it is only understandable that his demise came. Tragically, it really did come across like Combo had become reformed. The snippets of his character that Meadow allowed us to see in episodes 3 and 4 were that of a man who had genuinely been rehabilitated and who wanted to try the best to right the wrongs of his past, but, as with you, it isn't his death that is the problem here, it was the manner in which it played out.

The sitdown in the cafe was expertly shot and acted (by Graham) and the arrival of Milkys family/friends really did leave a sickening feeling in my stomach. From milkys comments and actions, I actually feel like it wasn't an event he wanted to happen, but it was all out of his hands. Perhaps in the time between the sitdown at the dinner table and now he had came to the conclusion that he didn't want this to happen, but now it was out of his own hands? His family made the decision while he was in his coma, and his family weren't going to listen to Milky if he'd asked for it not to happen. Combo forgiving Milky was done fantastically well, and just shows how much of a bigger man Combo is/has become.

Now, if we'd have had Combo driven to a secluded site and beating the fuck out of by the 10 burly men in the van, then I think we'd have all been gutted that Combo had died, but at least felt that it was a believable course of events. However, when the van doors opened and there were two skinheads (my first thought was "they look like other racists" and then "why would Milkys family be employing skinheads/why would the skinheads do the work of a black family") it just didn't make sense. As you mention, if this is something you have formulated over such a long time, it would make sense that you'd want to at least rough him up before the final act takes place. I'm not saying I wanted to see Combo get his comeuppance, but a more believable sequence of events would've made the finale just a little bit better.

I'm bored now, but i'll come back and touch upon your thoughts on the underlying political messages of it all at another time.
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Old 05-10-2015, 18:52   #3
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You make excellent points about the show as a whole which I kind of touched upon but you elaborate on them in good detail. I agree with all of them really, especially the point about Harvey, who was one of the major assets of this season. Infact, I'm now disappointed we didn't see more of him in previous seasons, especially 86 and that arc with his abusive dad they teased.

It is somewhat interesting that Milky will now bear the physical and mental scars of all this, whereas he was pretty happy before. There's obviously something about vengeance not being all it's cracked up to be in there also, which again is something I don't have an issue with. I just wish they hadn't been so heavy-handed and stupid with how his death went down.
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"Now I absolutely despise the murderer Herzog. I tell him to his face that I want to see him perish like the llama he executed. He should be thrown to the crocodiles alive! An anaconda should throttle him slowly! The sting of a deadly spider should paralyze him! His brain should burst from the bite of the most poisonous of all snakes! Panthers shouldn't slit his throat open with their claws, that would be too good for him! No. Big red ants should piss in his eyes, eat his balls, penetrate his asshole, and eat his guts! He should get the plague! Syphilis! Malaria! Yellow fever! Leprosy! In vain. The more I wish the most horrible of deaths on him and treat him like the scum of the earth that he is, the less I can get rid of him!" - Kinski on Herzog
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