I realise this may be controversial to say, but I have a problem with Shane Meadows. Actually, more specifically, I have a problem with This is England, and I’m not sure the new series This is England 86 is going to remove that problem (although I think all of his films are overrated). It’s not the plot or ethos of the film that bothers me. Sure, it’s far fetched but it still offers plenty of recognisable events and moments and characters. The characters (and more to the point, the actors) are what makes the new series a potentially interesting proposition. No-one can deny that Meadows has a real skill in working with young people and finding new talent.
My problem comes with the setting of This is England. For a director who is seemingly valued for making ‘gritty’ ‘authentic’ films, it’s the least authentic Northern town I’ve ever seen. And the problem comes with that word, ‘Northern’. Although I have heard it said the film is set in Nottingham, or Grimsby, or various other places, I don’t recall the film ever stating its location, presumably as it’s meant to be something of a northern everytown. That would be OK, I guess, were it not for the glaring problem that all the actors/characters come from totally different places and therefore the film is a mishmash of accents: Grimsby, Bolton, Liverpool, Leeds and a good half a dozen others. If you’re not a Northern Brit you might not notice, but if you are, it becomes really grating.
You see, I grew up in a Northern town and I live in a Northern city. Both Grimsby (where the lead, Thomas Turgoose is from and where some of the first film was shot) and Sheffield (where the TV series is shot) are places with a strong local identity – as are most northern places. If you’re not a university town, chances are the accents you’ll hear are all the same as yours, other than a handful of immigrants (and in Grimsby in the 80s those could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Each school had one token Asian family at most, and chances were, they ran the corner shop). Other than amongst uni student communities – and those communities depicted in This is England are a far cry from that – you would never hear a hotchpotch of so many accents in one place. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to say it could be anywhere in the North as well, but it just ends up sounding like nowhere in the North. Or maybe it was just a case of assuming most people would think all Northeners sound the same, in which case, shame on you, Mr Meadows.
In a Northern town, everything is familiar – the same shops, buildings, the one small town centre, the food – you know where everything is, who everyone is and what everything looks like. Yet in the TV series, the suburbs of Nottingham and the beach of Cleethorpes (at least I am assuming that’s where the beach was) from the film are being replaced by the all-too iconic vistas of Park Hill and Gleadless flats in Sheffield. This is crazy. Park Hill is synonymous with Sheffield (and so is Gleadless to a lesser extent). You show Park Hill, then you are in Sheffield. End of.
Except we can’t be meant to be in Sheffield because none of these locations were featured or mentioned in the film, nor was much Sheffield lingo used – but by using such iconic, place-specific buildings, you are immediately removing the feel of an ‘everytown’ and evoking thoughts of a very specific place. If you know Park Hill and Gleadless then you would also know The Hole in the Road and Kelvin Flats. You’d eat breadcakes and hot pork sandwiches and Hendo’s. If you knew Cleethorpes Beach then you would also know the Bully and Top Town and you’d eat haddock but never cod.
Each Northern town has its accent, its local landmarks, its slang. The least Meadows could have done was invented brand new ones for his ‘everytown’ and avoided using ridiculously familiar places and passing them off as elsewhere. Either make a new town and create its own dialect and landmarks, or bite the bullet and set it, properly, in a real place, using real slang and real accents and real local landmarks. This is England is neither one thing or the other and as such just doesn’t feel real.
You might argue that other films and TV series do this; pass somewhere off for somewhere else. Yes, they do (and sometimes, as in The Last Train, where Sheffield stands in for Chesterfield this is jarring and daft), but when what you’re presenting is meant to be the authentic experience of living in a Northern town, then to pass off something as inauthentic as This is England makes a mockery of the enterprise.
I’ll still be watching the series: local pride in Turgoose and in Shefftown means it’s inevitable. Because I know what it’s like to be from Grimsby – you cheer on everyone from your hometown – Julie Peasgood is practically our Queen! And I know what it’s like to be from Sheffield – you relish every chance your city gets to be on telly, if only to show those buggers in Leeds – but I imagine I’ll be shouting at the telly throughout.
I know what it’s like to be an authentic Northener. It’s a shame Nottingham-bred Meadows seems to have forgotten.