Made in England

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.

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12 thoughts on “Made in England

  1. I doubt people who live in LA and see their local landmarks and buildings pose as New York or any other US city in most TV shows get too worked up about it. Same goes for regional accents, you only notice the subtleties when you hear them every day.
    What you describe happens in almost every TV program and film, it’s just you might not notice as this is ‘your’ part of the world they’re portraying ‘unfaithfully’ in their work of FICTION.
    Get over it, it’s called suspension of disbelief.

    • Yes, of course it happens in most TV shows, films and novels, but if I lived in New York or Baltimore or wherever and a ‘gritty’ ‘realistic’ drama was made in my ‘hood, I think I’d have the same reaction, to be honest. I know you only notice regional accents when you’re from that region/country but so what? Is there anything wrong with expecting a bit of accuracy from things that have the clothing of being realist and accurate? If it’s meant to be anytown then it’d be easy enough to not use very notable places (such as Park Hill or Gleadless) or try and use more generic-sounding accents. Seems he’s trying to be realistic and generalistic all at once, and it doesn’t really pay off.

      Something like Kidulthood, in many ways not as accomplished a film as this is England, is set in a similar environment – young people ‘coming of age’ in rough areas, but it’s clearly set in London. There’s not a bit of Bristol and a bit of Surrey and a bit of Cornwall all lumped in with it as a kind of ‘everysouth’. I’m sure people living in London would be able to point out whether or not that film is an authentic portrayal of the areas it’s set in, I would imagine it’s not flawless – but the idea of a generic North is as much a false one as the idea of a generic South. Ask someone from Grimsby if they feel they’re the same as someone from Hull; ask someone from Liverpool if they feel they’re the same as someone from Manchester. Local identity and the emphasis on difference between your town/city and those nearby is a big deal up here.

      Am not disputing that Meadows is a great talent-spotter and brilliant at working with new young actors. That’s his real skill. He can tell a good story and get your emotions going. But I take issue with all the people clamouring that he’s portraying things that are real and authentic. He isn’t.

      • But, is HE saying he is? Or is it just southerners? I don’t know if he’s going for re-enactment accuracy, or if he’s trying to evoke a sort of northern 80s vibe that he remembers from his youth.
        You can’t please all the people all the time. Meadows was obviously happy with his decisions, and so are the vast majority of the viewing public, by most accounts.

  2. Well, that’s where I’m not 100% sure. Certainly it’s what others are claiming FOR him. I have read interviews where he talks about ‘this northern town is like…’ which suggests at least some level of striving for authenticity. *Shrugs*. I dunno, I probably have more of an issue with the way he is hyped and fawned over than the guy himself and his work.

    I enjoyed ’86 by the way, though the above niggles remain. He might not be that good at evoking a sense of place that feels ‘right’ but he does have some great actors and creates some memorable characters.

  3. “I know what it’s like to be an authentic Northener. It’s a shame Nottingham-bred Meadows seems to have forgotten.”

    Maybe the ambivalence comes from the fact that Meadows isn’t a Northerner. Nottingham isn’t part of “the North”. It’s a Midlands town, and whilst it’s very much on the frontier between the North and the Midlands, it’s still very definitely Midlands. Most people I know from the area would never consider themselves to be Northern.

    As a Midlander, the film had a real sense of place to me. I found it odd to learn that so much of the film was filmed in the North, because the whole atmosphere (particularly the music) reeked of the Midlands to me, especially from what I’ve heard from my parents, who were teens during the time the film depicted. In fact when Thomas Turgoose was throwing stuff into the sea at the end I double-taked because…we don’t have the sea in the Midlands. I never really noticed the accents thing because…again, Midlands. Particularly in the Northern and Eastern Midlands you get accents from all over the shop.

    I think Shane Meadows made a film about the Midlands. I think he made it more explicity “Northern” to make it more commercial and to get people interested. Outside of Shane Meadows I can’t think of any sort of tradition of portraying my region in televison or film (I guess there’s Doctors). Everything’s North or South, outside of the occasional cozy dozy Brummie.

    If he’s offended your sense of Northern authenticity, it’s probably because people would rather see and fund a film that’s inauthentically Northern than authentically Midlands. And I think that’s more a cause of offence for Midlanders than Northerners.

    • Ah, yes, good point. Southerners always refer to people from the Midlands as being from the North, and he himself has spoken of the film being set in a Northern town – but perhaps he can’t escape his Midlands-ness (which has certainly permeated other films of his) and instead we’ve got a Midlands-North fusion thing going on. As you say – no sea in the Midlands.

      I don’t think stuff is often ‘Northern’ or ‘Southern’: There are a number of things that are region-specific: lots in London (obviously), Carla Lane’s stuff (Liverpool), Queer as Folk/Corrie (Manchester), Full Monty (Sheffield), Skins (Bristol), Torchwood (Cardiff), Sugar Rush (Brighton) all spring to mind, though I guess there is an argument that they are still all a heightened version of reigionality.

  4. Have you ever been to the midlands? everything about us is confused. I grew up there and hate that people think we all talk like brummies. it’s a complete mishmash and to me, someone who has a lot of friends from Nottingham way, all the actors in that programme sounded everybit from notts way. Have you really got this much of a bee in your bonnet about this?

    • Well, no, it doesn’t keep me awake at night or anything – but as monkseal says, is it meant to be “the Midlands” or is it meant to be “the North” (neither of which exist in a generic form anyway – Birmingham and Nottingham are just as different as Manchester and Hull, for example)? The blurb, and Meadows himself, describes it as Northern rather than Midlands, but it’s not very authentically either – and using Northern landmark buildings, the seaside etc also makes it a strange mishmash. If it’s meant to be a weird mishmash of everywhere Northern and Midlandsy, then fine, but it’s not being promoted as such, either by media outlets or by Meadows himself.

      Thing is, there’s a lot to commend both the film and the TV series, but in a weird way the fact that some aspects are so good makes the glaringly weird location/accents issue stand out more.

  5. Great and valid point well made. I am finding the tv series utterly annoying due to this obsessive inclusive and mixed up approach. The one where they visit the midlands offered no experience of the midlands at all; few local accents, landmarks or expressed culture. Why were so many strong Liverpool accents not balanced a few brummies?

    I found the film watchable but questionnable and am finding the tv series unwatchable.

    It’s a shame, but I live close to where this is being produced. Was excited and proud for Sheffield, until I watched it. Shame Mr Shane!

    • Thing is, there’s a lot to like about the TV series so far, and elements of the film that are good, too, but the lack of a sense of place makes it all very jarring. I genuinely wouldn’t mind so much if the hype and interviews all acknowledged that it’s a (deliberate?) mishmash of places/experiences, but they don’t.

  6. I just wanted to point out (since some people seem to be placing such importance on a sense of place) that Shane isn’t from Nottingham; he’s from Staffordshire. Also, the filming of the flats wasn’t in Grenoside, but in Gleadless Valley.

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