Britain’s most electrifying TV show is made in a world of decaying council estates, violent bystanders and escaped parrots. Jimi Famurewa visits the set of This Is England ’88
Out of the f*cking way,” blurts the visibly drunk man who’s pushed open the back door and is trying to force himself past a mountainous security guard into the smoky Sheffield pub. ShortList shuffles to a clearer — and we’re not ashamed to say, safer — vantage point just in time to see him spit some more choice words, fling a can of lager at the kerb and swing an arm at the bouncer before the door slams shut.
The packed room of crew, cast and extras, including director Shane Meadows, who is currently perched on top of a stepladder with a camera, have turned to see what the commotion is.
The door swings open again, But this time it’s executive producer Mark Herbert, who enters looking flustered. He summons a man in full Eighties attire — a faded black vest, Dr Martens and Jeremy Clarkson-worthy jeans — to stand by the door. It turns out he’s the landlord of the pub (playing an extra in today’s scene alongside Meadows’ parents and about 50 others) and he’s going to be on sentry duty so that filming can carry on.
“It’s a rough estate,” explains Herbert with a shrug. “It’s just a case of knowing how to deal with it. He’s gone now, but the landlord knows the guy, so it’s better if he talks to him than me.” With that, Touch Me by Sam Fox is back on the stereo, members of the assembled crowd light cigarettes and the business of filming today’s karaoke montage can recommence.
It’s a nerve-jangling example of life imitating art. But it sums up the experience of creating the world of Shaun, Woody, Lol and co. As we learn after a long day on the set of This Is England ’88, chaos, realism and unexpected bursts of daft humour are all part of the Shane Meadows way.
’TIS THE SEASON
Earlier that morning, we’d arrived to grimly foggy weather and the excited bustle of a busy day’s filming. Designed to bridge the gap between This Is England ’86’s unflinchingly brutal conclusion and the drug-addled euphoria of the promised (and probably final) 1990-set series, this trio of festive episodes finds the characters we first met in 2006’s coming-of-age classic film in transitional mode.
“We’re separating the gang,” Meadows explains later. “Certain people, as a consequence of events in ’86, have got to grow up.” It’s this uncertain atmosphere, with central couple Woody and Lol having gone their separate ways, that feeds the scene we’re about to watch being filmed. In it, Milky (played by Andrew ‘Shimmy’ Shim, a newly-trained cage fighter who shadow boxes between takes) strolls into the local for a stilted reunion with his friends after a stint working in Holland.
The pub isn’t stuffed with period-clothed extras yet, but the tables are laden with cans of Kaliber ready to be decanted into pint glasses. There are posters advertising a forthcoming meat raffle, and it has the highly flammable combination of tinsel, extra-hold hairspray and tracksuit material that characterises a late-Eighties Christmas.
Meadows squints at a monitor as he lets two cameras bob and weave while he films long, seamless takes. He’ll film close-ups later, but it’s a surprisingly fluid and unobtrusive way of working.
Michael Socha (peroxide-quiffed Harvey) and Andrew Ellis (group whipping-boy Gadget, now sporting a bubble perm and wispy moustache) improvise dialogue about an odd medical complaint before Milky’s entrance, and induce some stifled laughs off camera.
“Right, you’re warming up nicely now,” grins Meadows after a particularly lewd exchange. “Let’s keep going.” There’s none of the studious quiet and vocal warm-ups you’d expect on the set of a Bafta-winning drama. Meadows clearly gives his cast — a rowdy jumble of untrained kids and drama-club tykes from the Midlands and the North — a free rein that lets them flourish.
“He’s f*cking incredible,” enthuses Joe Gilgun (charismatic group leader Woody), puffing on a cigarette in his trailer later. “I will never work with anyone like him again. He trusts us to the point where he lets us run wild.”
Thomas Turgoose, who plays Shaun, a thinly veiled version of Meadows, nods in agreement from the door. “We know each other and Shane so well that we can just be,” continues Gilgun. “It sounds daft, but that’s what we do. We’re f*cking living it, man.”
PRANKS AND PARROTS
The group’s tightness comes from their shared history in This Is England’s various incarnations. In the five years since the original film’s release, the stories on-screen have mingled with the lives off it so much that, as they admit, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.
Turgoose’s first audition, where he demanded a fiver to attend, is the stuff of modern folklore. And today he fondly remembers being star-struck when he met Stephen Graham. “The only famous people I knew were people from Grimsby that’d been on Jeremy Kyle,” he says with a laugh.
Now he’s a working actor rather than a troublesome 13-year-old, and his story (and by extension, that of reformed tearaway Meadows) is reflected in Shaun’s main This Is England ’88 plotline — toiling with drama classes and plays at college.
And when Turgoose’s mother passed away before the film came out, the cast and crew actually did become his surrogate family.
“I took on that role in a sense,” admits Jo Hartley, who plays his onscreen mum Cynthia. “He’s like my son, but he’s like my little brother as well.”
“He was this little dude and he was having a tough time, so we looked after him,” says Gilgun, halting his machine-gunned gags and relentless mick-taking for a rare serious moment. “He was a baby. Now he’s this big guy that you can smoke dope with.” Laughter fills the trailer, and Channel 4’s nearby publicist reddens slightly.
It’s a comment that proves it’s not all sombre introspection and poignant irony on the set of an intensely gritty drama. Last year, for example, the preceding series was halted when Gilgun’s pet parrot Ian (who, handily, is also Woody’s feathery sidekick) escaped.
“He f*cked right off,” laughs Gilgun. “I went home and had a right cry on my own. It was a truly pathetic actor moment — ‘My exotic bird’s gone.’” In the end, thanks to posters, an epic search and what Meadows brands a bit of “Dunkirk spirit”, the parrot was found on a nearby estate and returned safely.
There have been onset pranks as well. Ellis explains how they gave an unsuspecting runner several heart attacks by slyly removing Socha’s false tooth after a bout of between-take parkour. Meanwhile, Herbert is currently having fun convincing the cast that a series of on-set videos they’re making for the website are being filmed in 3D. “It’s all b*llocks,” he whispers to ShortList at the precise moment that, as if on cue, Ellis thrusts his hand at the camera in a moment worthy of his helpless character.
SUFFERING FOR THEIR ART
This wild backstage atmosphere came to a head with an infamous night out that drew the wrath of Meadows.
A spate of boozy This Is England ’86 evenings had meant they were a whisker away from being thrown out of their accommodation. “It was going to cost us £13,000,” recalls Meadows, shaking his head. “So before they went out we made Joe and Shimmy what we called ‘The Gatekeepers’.”
Joe Gilgun picks up the tale with a chuckle. “They were like, ‘Joe, you are The Gatekeeper.’ I was stoned out of my mind. Do you remember that bit in The Big Lebowski when he goes, ‘Her life is in your hands, Dude’? It was like that. So I thought, ‘F*ck, I’m stuck with all these tw*ts.’”
“The funny thing is we all went out, got back at 5am and the first person to get out of the taxi and throw a can of lager was Joe,” laughs Turgoose. “He was shouting, ‘I’m p*ssed and I don’t care who knows!’”
“I remember walking into these railings and thinking, ‘That’s the opposite of what I’m meant to be doing,’” adds Gilgun. A stony-faced Meadows broke up the party — while wearing just his pants, he recalls with a rueful smile — and threatened to move them to “the sh*ttiest hotel in Sheffield”.
They all claim things have calmed down somewhat this year. “I know we’re going on like it’s all rock’n’roll,” says Gilgun. “But you’ve got to be sensible and professional.”
It also helps that Meadows has divided the group in order to make the splintered nature of the gang in This Is England ’88 more convincing.
Vicky McClure (who plays the emotionally battered heroine Lol) and Gilgun are living separately and have been cut off from the gang in order to enhance their performances. It’s a bold piece of method direction.
“I’m struggling with it,” admits Gilgun, who’ll later be filming a scene where he rides his moped to the pub before leaving when he sees the gang at the bar. “But we are here to work and if it wasn’t for the job, we wouldn’t be having this awesome time.”
“It’s weird,” says Ellis. “Even off-screen Joe’s like our leader. If he says we’re going to the pub, we go to the pub.”
McClure, who isn’t on set today, has struggled as well. Later on she talks about an argument she had with Meadows after spending time with other members of the cast in a nearby restaurant without him knowing. “It’s all worth it, though,” says McClure. And as the proud owner of Bafta, TV Choice and RTS Awards for Best Actress, she would know better than most.
Back in the pub, our time is nearly up, and the cast are preparing for the day’s climactic karaoke scene. Hannah Walters (who plays lascivious local Trudy and also happens to be Stephen Graham’s real-life wife) is practising Touch Me in a jumpsuit that she’s describing as “wipe clean”.
Not everyone is happy with this year’s new costumes, though, as skinheads and skinny jeans make way for the pomp of the Eighties.
“The hair took two hours,” says Ellis, showing off his Kevin Keegan-grade perm. “I had proper rollers in. I looked like Nora Batty.” And earlier in the day, Gilgun was mercilessly ribbing Turgoose about one item in his wardrobe.
“I look a bit Hitler Youth at the moment, what with the ’tache, but Tomo’s jeans are interesting,” he says. “I’ve noticed that the gentleman who wore these jeans prior to Thomas was quite well-endowed.
To the point where his penis has faded the jeans at the crotch.” Turgoose snorts with laughter.
“You’ve got to really look, but it’s there,” adds Gilgun, turning to Turgoose. “He wore them every day, that man, and now you wear them every day. Technically you’re touching d*cks with a big phallused man. A stranger. But whenever I want to do it, you say it’s weird.”
Away from dubious second-hand clothes, there’s another sign of the cast’s commitment to the cause adorning their bodies. A lot of the tattoos they sport are real — including the ‘Lol’ on Gilgun’s hand, the crosses on most of the actors’ fingers and the full cast list on Turgoose’s backside that we, thankfully, only hear about.
There’s no doubting that this goes beyond making life easier for the make-up team. This Is England is clearly so much more than another job to those involved.
“One of my tattoos is for Shane and Mark, because I never want to forget them,” says Gilgun. “I’d still be plastering if it wasn’t for them. Little Tom was playing in an arcade, having a tough time of it, and they found him. Michael’s not had it easy. All of us have been affected. And as a result you’ve got this volatile undertone. But it really helps. If I have to cry in a scene, that’s not just Woody doing it, that’s Joe crying as well, man. I’d never trade in my anxieties because if it wasn’t for that, I couldn’t do it.”
Turgoose cuts in. “It’s kind of like you owe your future to your past.” It’s a neat sentence that boils down how the tragicomic messiness of real experience has wormed its way into an unmistakably authentic project such as This Is England.
“That’s some Buddhist sh*t, mate,” says Gilgun, interrupting the thoughtful silence. “So do you wanna touch d*cks now, or what?” The roars of laughter return to the trailer, and it’s back to business as usual.
Watch the first episode on December 13th at 10pm on Channel 4.