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Thursday, 30 September 2010

TV Review: This Is England '86 Episode 4

Written for Den of Geek.com

Truly difficult television is a hard concept to get a handle on. Like an intelligent lyric in a pop song it’s not so much a bad idea as one that takes the medium in an unfamiliar direction. Sure, there are plenty of maudlin documentaries or shocking scenes in soaps, but these are often conveniently distanced or suitably fictional for our armchair viewing pleasure. They aren’t necessarily the kind of thing we’d call ‘hard to watch’.

This Is England ’86, on the other hand, is most definitely hard to watch- at least, it has been of late.

Fittingly, since the final scene of the penultimate episode derailed both the narrative of the series and all discussion about it, the final episode flies off in somewhat of a tangent. The episode starts with Woody planning a second, more successful wedding to win Lol back, Milky reconciling his betrayal of his best friend and Shaun trying to find sympathy for the violent father-figure who changed the path of his life forever, but this is largely left frustratingly without closure as the true drive of the narrative is Lol’s confrontation with her father, made all the more imminent by Trev’s horrific news.

’86 is a series that has clearly changed direction. Instead of the ensemble teen series prior episodes have lead us to expect, this episode we’re faced with a heavy, high-stakes drama where life and death really feels like it’s hanging in the balance, particularly in the key scene that spans practically the entire episode. If this sounds like a description of gripping, dare we say ‘worthy’ television that’s because it is. This episode has the potential to make you leap from the sofa with nervous energy, weep bittersweet tears or curse the name of Shane Meadows for putting us through another hard-hitting scene (or the hat-trick in the case of this reviewer) and can therefore comfortably be called an example of great television by most people’s measure of these things.

The question that returns from last episode is not whether the result of Meadows’ boundary-pushing is a success but rather whether it had any place in the series he started making with episode one. It would have been obtuse to continue with knockabout plot lines such as the mysterious parentage of Trudy’s son after last episode’s finale, but it’s difficult to feel that the last episode of this series concludes in any satisfying way anything except that one particular scene.

The episode in isolation is TV drama at its finest. You may need to prepare yourself before viewing (both mentally in anticipation of some unpleasant scenes and physically with a good stress ball to get you through them) but the reward is drama that is as noteworthy and high quality as any you’re likely to see on Channel 4 in the near future.

How to view the series as a whole in light of it or even consolidate the episode as part of a wider narrative remains a debate well worth having, but with Meadows already proposing how a second series could see Shaun negotiating the drug culture of the early 90s it seems this isn’t the last time Meadows will make us grip the sofa tensely during our evening’s entertainment. Just remember for future reference the following advice: just because a series features the music, fashions and good old hi-jinks of your parents’ youths does not mean it will make a comfortable evening’s viewing when watched with your mother…

TV Review: This Is England '86 Episode 3


Written for Den of Geek.com

Shane Meadows takes the directorial chair for the second half of his coming-of-age drama, but is it getting old before its time?

Things are getting serious for Woody and his friends. Since their failed marriage attempt, he and Lol bicker about their flat, his work and everything in between. Meanwhile, Lol’s infidelity with Milky continues but that too is losing its spark as Lol takes her self-loathing out on all those close to her. On the comic-relief side, Gadge wants out of his increasingly oedipal relationship with the matriarchal Trudy, and Smell convinces Shaun to make amends with his mother only for them both to find themselves rekindling the relationship of their youth. As the final World Cup group match against Poland approaches emotions are running high, and it all takes a turn for the worst as Lol’s father shows his ugly side and an unwanted guest-star from the gang’s past makes a reappearance.

Spoiler alert: while there are no spoilers in this article, people in your life will be talking about This Is England ’86. Admittedly, the series is not the most widely-watched of dramas, but what it may lack in viewings figures it will most certainly make up for the breadth of debate around it and the profound desire amongst its viewers to talk about it. People who have watched the third episode of ’86 will be talking about it - they can’t not.

This is of course not necessarily a bad thing. To be responsible for inspiring debate is a great accolade, and one that Shane Meadows has always courted in his envelope-pushing, hard-hitting dramas. The question is not how proficiently or even tastefully the ‘event’ (as it will here-in be referred to) is dealt with – this being a Meadows’ drama it is ruthless in its poignancy and ability to evoke emotion – rather, the issue that will split the opinion of its audience is how unexpectedly unpleasant the episode’s third act was – and whether it had any place in this series.
Given Meadows’ reputation it may have been foolish to expect the happy-go-lucky atmosphere of this sometimes melancholy tale of growing-up to continue indefinitely, but the sudden change of direction is astonishing and raises big questions – both about the direction the series’ finale will (or can) go and also what buttons a TV audience will allow a mini-series starring young actors can push without crossing a line.

To speak (finally) about the less controversial first two acts, Meadows allows longer scenes in this episode which showcases the young stars’ skill in natural dialogue but unfortunately can sometimes lead to the seams to show as the interchanges drag on. Lol is also becoming a problematic protagonist – too difficult to defend in her treatment of others, too damaged to genuinely hate. This series may have been promoted as the first Meadows project to have a female lead as the focal character, but it’s hard not to feel the true hero of this story is diminutive nice guy, Woody, and with the way tensions are building there’s the definite worry that he will go the same way as the series, acting out of character and giving us all a nasty shock.

Soap operas and docudramas have tackled many similarly heavy subjects to that covered in this penultimate episode of ‘86, but these are often through insinuations and allusion rather than graphic depiction, and it will remain to be seen whether the consensus is that Meadows has utilised a level of violence inappropriate for the small screen or has brought much-needed innovation to a medium that has seen little since the time this series is set in. For now it’s only clear that the final episode will be explosive, highly-charged television – for better or for worse.

Friday, 17 September 2010

This Is England ’86 episode 2 review

Written for Den of Geek.com

Shaun gets a job, Woody fixes up a flat – is the rebel yell of This Is England finally being domesticated?


Episode 2 of ’86 is unashamedly the ‘daddy-issues’ episodes. The theme is quite apt for a show that both benefits from its parent series’ success and yet is still to escape from its shadow, and of course such subject matter is always ripe for soap-opera.


Lol’s father makes an unwelcome reappearance - dredging up the past and forcing Lol to reveal home truths that her mother denies and her sister has never heard. Shaun gets a job renting out VHS tapes and finds a father figure in the trusting shop-owner, and Gadge’s tryst with an older woman reveals her son may have been fathered by another member of the gang.’86 is shaping up to be a bleakly funny kitchen-sink dramedy that courts contradictions in more than just its genre definition. Evidently the subject of the day is growing-up, yet the largely youthful cast of lost boys and girls seem to address this fact by acting as immaturely as possible at every opportunity.


Shaun and Woody may be working - and the latter has organised the gang to decorate a flat for Lol and generally disguise the fact that a drug addict died in there - but you’d be hard pushed to call even the older members of the gang (who quite frankly should no better) an emotionally-developed adult member of society.


’86 is not mature, ‘worthy’ drama but then neither is it the disposable pulp-fiction of aspirational teen-drama, and the series continues to explore and attempt to find its tone as much as its heroes look for their place in 80’s Britain. The performances are still largely solid (with the possible exception of Thomas Turgoose who may have already shown all he has to offer), and while some characters are clearly being pigeon-holed as clowns and others as victims, nobody seems miscast and all are more than capable in the roles they have been given.


‘86 can be silly and it can be tragic, and it’s not immune to hitting the odd bum-note (the love-triangle hinted at in the first episode seems unnaturally accelerated to fit the limits of a four-episode run), but the will to forgive much greater sins is easy to find since the series’ heart is so undeniably in the right place.


At the half-way point already, it’s unclear whether any great arc chartering the gamut of teen life in Thatcherite Britain will be achieved, but that is obviously an unfair expection given that most of the time ’86 seems in no great rush to get any particular story told, any message delivered.


Like its cast, it’s fair to say that ’86 is enjoying the time it has while it lasts. And while that is undeniably self-indulgent, it’s difficult not to feel more than a little indulged vicariously for having watched it.


Somehow, by transporting what is ostensibly the cast of Skins to live in their parent’s decade and handing them a few issues to deal with that don’t involve iPhones, This Is England ’86 makes a drama about immaturity feel oddly mature. Or is that the other way round? More of the same please.


Read our review of episode one here.

Looking back on Grandma’s House

Written for Den of Geek.com.

Simon Amstell has proved himself to be an adept presenter and stand-up comedian, but do his talents translate to the traditional sitcom? Josh looks back at Grandma’s House…

You may have heard a little about Grandma's House over the last month. You won't have watched it (oh, God, no) but you will have heard it spoken about, largely because it has encouraged a disproportionate level of debate given its modest viewing figures.

Discussion point number one has been Simon Amstell himself. Leaving Never Mind The Buzzcocks on an impressive high last year, it seems he's split his time between recording new stand-up DVD, Do Nothing and co-writing and starring in the odd little nugget of observational comedy that is Grandma's House. And the question on everyone's lips has unanimously been, "Yes, but can he act?" to which the honest answer remains: we don't know. He hasn't really tried to yet.

The series is a family situation comedy more in the vein of The Royle Family than My Family, though it walks a perilous tightrope between the two, not truly picking a side with any conviction throughout its six episode run.

Simon plays Simon, a sardonic ex-presenter known for ridiculing pop stars on TV. He's surrounded by an over-encouraging mother (Rebecca Front, best known for The Thick Of It's Nicola Murray), her dull try-hard fiancé (James Smith, Glenn of the same series), a paranoid aunt, her obnoxious son, the eponymous grandma, constantly trying to keep the peace, and her long suffering husband who wants only a bit of calm and quiet.

So far, so situational, and accompanying it the comedy does not disappoint. Amstell has proved himself not only in his stand-up and quick-witted presenting, but also in a proficient guest writing role on Skins, and the family neuroses here are as keenly observed as they are cringe-worthy.

While their culture is a key part of the family's nuances (it's not for nothing that in one episode the outsider Clive is finally labelled the ‘schmuck' that he is) you need not be Jewish to start drawing lines with character traits of your own family members.

And if the working class context of The Royle Family felt irrelevant to you, the Amstells (a surname assumed, but never mentioned) offer a hilariously ‘upwardly mobile' alternative.
Grandma's House is a comedy constructed out of competent, robust parts, the weak links arguably being the irritating young actor playing the cousin (blissfully absent in the fifth and, not coincidentally, best episode) and Simon himself, who plays more the ringmaster of a panel show than a character, regularly distancing himself to address events in a way not dissimilar to Woody Allen's pieces to camera.

A lead who doesn't do much acting need not be a complete deadend (take Larry David's performance in Curb Your Enthusiasm, often sounding more like a man complaining about the lines than delivering them) but it is this jarring confusion of performances that leaves Grandma's House slightly off-kilter.

While Amstell channels the American neurotic greats, half the cast carry on apparently believing they're in the next My Family, while the rest seem to think they're in The Thick Of It (probably because they very recently were).

While these various pieces from seemingly completely different puzzles make for uncomfortable viewing at first, it eventually gels quite well, with the environment of a house where disparate personalities are forced to congregate each week. Viewers who stay with the series long enough for it to find its feet are treated to a comedy that tackles domestic comedy without ever feeling domestic.

While lead personality Simon takes a backseat choric role, his mother Tanya's relationship with Clive becomes a natural focal point, and the series charts their courtship, while in the background, Simon's cousin gets kicked out of various schools, sickly grandpa just tries to stay out of trouble, and by series' end, enough dramatic tension has built that Amstell damn near emotes.

The promise of 'trust me, it gets better' is the fragile last defence of any series apologist, but if you're willing to take on a whole six episode commitment, you may find your investment rewarded with a sensitive and honest comedy that occupies a niche no-one knew needed filling.
Amstell's performance can be bemoaned (mostly unfairly) until the cows come home, but it does bare mentioning that, while this could have become a vehicle for the worst kind of 'everyone's crazy but me' comedian-helmed sitcom (Everyone Hates Raymond, King Of Queens, etc.). Instead the dysfunctional family of well fleshed out personalities invokes more the Bluths of Arrested Development, especially as that series also featured a lead you followed in the madness, only to prove less likable as the series went on, leaving you to find a new favourite amongst the nutcases.

The same is true here, as dark horse grandpa proves to be an amiable hero in his epic quest to not be any bother, which makes it all the more sad that the actor Geoffrey Hutchings died before the series made it to air.

Find the entirety of this series on BBC iPlayer to catch a wonderfully understated final performance by a fantastic straight man.

Episode 1: The Day Simon Told His Family About His Important Decision is here.

This Is England ’86 episode 1 review

Written for Den of Geek.com

Set three years after Shane Meadows’ original This Is England film comes a four-part drama, but is this transition to the small screen a backwards step?
Published on Sep 9, 2010

Television series based on successful films are usually the reserve of shameless cash-ins. Often, finding they do not have the budget or the cast for a sequel, the studio is left with only a brand name and put that into a poor man's imitation that fails to recapture the essence or the scale of the movie that fathered it.

This Is England '86 is not that series. Although not unchanged after jumping mediums, the first episode is less the shameless addendum of Teen Wolf: The Series and its ilk and more the atmosphere of the City Of God televisual follow-up, City Of Men.

The predecessors of both were hard-hitting, violent coming-of-age dramas that told the story of young boy's falling in with a bad crowd in the midst of a very particular place and time, whereas their respective series offer a more leisurely, soap opera-type narrative that allows for a naïveté and moments of comedy that would have seemed alien in their counterparts.

But, while it's tempting to get wrapped up speaking in dualities, if ‘86 is to be labelled a success, it has to be on its own merits rather than through any comparison.

Now that three years have passed, Shaun has become the clichéd underachiever. Lacking the smarts to finish high school with any aplomb or the physicality to impress his peers, his only virtue seems to be that same quaint chivalry that won Smell's heart all those years ago and even this only serves to get him in trouble with the slapstick local scooter ‘gang'.

Interestingly, when his path happens to cross with Gadge and another familiar face (the pair fresh from stealing a wreath from the graveyard), he deliberately ducks them and watches as his sometime friends pass him by.

When the two catch-up with the rest of the gang, we see the flowers have been procured for Lol and Woody's imminent wedding, and they all travel to a modest community centre on the top of a double-decker bus. During the service, family members who are supposed to attend don't, while parents who weren't do, and just as Woody falters on that all important ‘I do', a member of the congregation collapses with a heart attack and they all rush to the hospital, coincidentally, just as Shaun too finds himself in need of medical attention after a disagreement with the bullying leader of the scooter gang.

As already stated, '86 is funny, genuinely belly-laugh funny, and it's such a relief going in to this series, with the knowledge of previous events, and finding a warm, humorous narrative that doesn't take itself too seriously.

In a nice touch, it begins with what appears to be a deleted scene of the young Thomas Turgoose standing in the rain and this serves to both remind us of the young actor's sweet performance and bridge the gap of the three-year jump cut.

With the fate of Milky hanging heavy over the series (the eagle-eyed may have, in fact, spotted him on the many posters in circulation) it's fantastic how organically the plot unravels, as Shaun does not immediately rush in to the inevitable consolation with Milky after his youthful sin of leaving his friend at the mercy of the psychotic Combo, and, while Lol and Woody clearly have a lot to deal with after the mishap over their marital vows, the issue hangs over for future episodes to cover.

Forgive the cascade of various character's names, as this is symptomatic of how quickly the series invokes anew in you the names and histories of characters you didn't realise how closely you held in your heart.

While it's great to see so much of the original cast return and again deliver such believable, amiable performances, there are also some fantastic inclusions in the way of the Skins veterans playing the scooter gang leader and his right-hand henchman, and the now less cute Turgoose matured into a proficient straight man to their various pratfalls.

All said, this first episode is a great foundation for the next three in the series. There is something contradictory about the style, as it manages Thatcherite-era Britain with reflections on its similarities to youth today (the Skins regulars being a clear touchstone), balancing anarchic, uncouth humour with an oddly wholesome ‘family' drama rarely seen since the time of its setting.

It walks this line without faltering, and it's refreshing to see a well made British drama that doesn't rely on this nation's pre-occupation with a staple diet of supernatural and crime dramas (that is, beyond the petty crimes of graveyard thievery).

Meadows has suggested that future episodes will orbit closer to Lol than Shaun, and this would be a wise choice, as it seems that the logical progression from his coming-of-age is her struggle with dealing what it means to now be a ‘grown-up'.

The mini-series may be only a fleeting glimpse of what the boundary to adulthood means for these old faces, but it's a reprise that this episode proves should be very welcome to those who enjoyed the film and inspires trust that no-one involved is about to let the narrative stagnate just for the sake of cashing in.

This Is England '86 airs on Tuesdays at 10:00pm on Channel 4.