Interview: Shane Meadows
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How soon after you started writing the original film This Is England did you realise that you had enough material to go back to the story if you wanted?
For every character in the movie, whether Combo or Shaun or Lol, we worked for weeks and weeks developing a back story and history and relationships. So each person had masses and masses of material and even though it might not come into the narrative, people are very aware of it. I'd never really intended to make a sequel or anything; it was just that you build characters with so much depth that whenever you revisit them you know that you've got that depth to bring out. But then the problem with a film is that you have to focus on Shaun you can't delve into every character's story. You can touch on them, but the film was autobiographical. Then once you start to do Q&As or start to talk to the press, you think, 'What happened to all those characters? What happened to the gang? Were the gang okay?' When you've got such great characters it's a shame to just cast them aside. So questions would come up at Q&As at festivals or in interviews, so it gets you thinking. And then the film became such a big hit on DVD that there was this demand. So I'd been speaking with Jack Thorne (co-writer) and I thought he'd be a good person to collaborate with. Once we started to delve into it with the actors and Jack, the stories just kept flooding out and you couldn't ignore them. But there was never a conscious effort during the first film to go and revisit it.
As Lol is the focus of This is England '86, how different was it making straight fiction rather than something that came out of your own life?
Because I wasn't going to direct all the episodes, I had to trust in the process of the way we work. Me and Jack (Thorne) had to hand it over to someone else, so the first difference was that we put a lot more effort into the early part, which is the writing and the story. It changed the way I worked compared to being with actors on set or the way we work in rehearsals. Because you're working within a framework where you've got a 48-minute episode and four ad breaks in between, four parts if you like, you have to have a little bit more development at the start. I think the first difference to the process was that for the film we didn't have our ending worked out while we were filming but we got there, whereas with this we had a little bit more structure. It's really liberating because, with the film, we always thought they were great characters but you can't focus on all of them because you've got to tell a story in 90 minutes. With a TV drama you're able to tap into other characters that you might not be able to in a film, and so that was great. You could actually leave a character for a whole half-an-hour and then come back, and I loved the fact you could do that. So the stories might not be as autobiographical as the film, but every actor, the writing, the team that we've built now, stayed true to those stories. I can't imagine what it's like to be Lol, to be a woman in 1986, but it's just a very long process and very detailed work with the actors, working in rehearsals.
Was the switch to TV always in your mind? Did it just feel like the right format?
It did. It was strange because I was never interested in doing a sequel because I've done a film, and the film sits on its own. What excited me was I loved the idea of doing a TV series, I love television some of the stuff coming out of America now is so good. We talked to Mark (Herbert) and Jack (Thorne) and said, 'How can it be different from the film?' It had to feel different from the film because if we repeated it, it would just be compared to the original. Whereas this, we're setting it three years later, we've got a couple of new characters, we're in a different format. That was exciting. If there was any time when I didn't feel creatively excited I just wouldn't have done it because I've got lots of films that I can do.
Do you think British TV is now seriously challenging cinema in terms of the quality of the filmmaking and the stories being told?
I know from Mark's (Herbert) perspective one of the issues is the complexity of cinema with all the small funding agencies, so just physically putting it together is hard. I've got a great relationship with Tessa [Ross, Controller Film 4 and Channel 4 drama] and then Camilla [Campbell, head of Channel 4 drama] stepped in and backed me. We set our stall out, we said straight up that it had to be us calling the shots and they had to back us. We had to have the same degree of creative control as on a film. And it's very rare, but we got it. That's what made it an enjoyable experience. So I think that if people continue to do that and be bold, we maybe can get there. It's all about backing those creative teams and people, and Channel 4 certainly put their money where their mouth was.
Can you tell me about the music?
What we liked about the music is that in 1986 house music was starting to creep in, the Beastie Boys were starting to come onto the scene, you've got a little bit of hip-hop, electronica. And because it felt like new styles of music were coming in, we had to reflect that in the story. But the truth is that, you know, right now, I still listen to things from the '80s, I still listen to things from the '90s. Obviously some of the gang are still skinheads, so we just thought, if it's good music they'll be listening to it they could be listening to stuff from the '70s, they could be listening to The Jam, which was '82. It doesn't have to be bang on, like, an extended version of 'Top of the Pops.' So we just tried to find a balance between what the characters would listen to and what was good, and what was changing at the time. We had to keep true to the idea that the gang has got an eclectic taste in music and some of them are still really into that old reggae and reggae's still there, but we've acknowledged that there's a changing kind of music. The gang's not just a skinhead gang the gang's a real mish-mash. It's like a family, they're not just skinheads anymore, some of them are into different things. It's just making sure that you don't have a soundtrack that isn't like 'The Hits of '86', because I've seen that before and I'm not that interested.