'This Is England '86', and punks and skins on the screen

The idea for this article came to me the other day was I was watching the first episode of Shane Meadows new TV series, ‘This Is England ‘86’, which of course is the follow up to his excellent 2006 film ‘This Is England’. That film, set in the year 1983 (coincidentally the year of my birth) focused on a group of young skinheads in the Midlands in the aftermath of the Falklands War, and the insidious affects of one of their number returning from a stint in prison poisoning the group with the racist ideas and National Front associations that would forever (often wrongly) be associated with the skinhead subculture. 

As someone who has spent a large part of my life involved in the DIY punk subculture of the UK, and partial to my short hair and cherry red DM’s, it got me thinking about the representations of both the punk and skinhead scenes on film and TV. ‘This Is England’, I always felt, did a wonderful job of showing that the skinhead subculture was not a racist one, coming as it did out the ‘Spirit of ‘69’  and a working class movement responding to the ska sounds that were flooding into the UK from Jamaica (Symarip, Desmond Dekker, Toots & The Maytals etc). Later, yes, poisonous elements did creep in, and yes, much of it will forever be associated with Oi and Streetpunk. Anyway, the film did a great job of showing that schism and exploring the issues around it, and is one of the best British films of recent years.

So the new Channel 4 series is very welcome, and I am keen to see how the rest of the episodes pan out. It has got me thinking though of the slight oddity of spending a great deal of my time within a specific subculture that really seems to have very little mainstream representation (which of course has its benefits), or even on film and television when in fact both punk/ska/oi/whatever has been incredibly important in recent British social history. I am aware that British cinema does still seem to be dominated by either yawn-inducing period dramas or Working Title middle-class rom-coms that I have the sneaking suspicion are made for Americans or people who have forgotten what Britain is actually like. 

There are some good representations and explorations in the world of literature, and I would highly recommend John King’s two novels on the subject, Human Punk and Skinheads; despite my reservations about King’s notion of ‘Britishness’, these novels are great depictions of the importance of these subcultures in the British working-class, and I found them much more palatable than his football-centred novels (probably because I hate football).

In fact, thinking about this more, it struck me that in fact the skinhead movement, mainly due to its right-wing associations and therefore shock value interest, seems to have had more appearances on film than the punk movement. Maybe this is because once punk rock moved beyond its initial childish shock-burst of the Sex Pistols, and The Clash became rock stars, then it became deeply political and left-wing; presumably a subject that anyone wanting to make a successful film about may shy away from? There does seem to be a tendency in the mainstream only to focus on left wing movements long after they are dead and buried and assigned to the annals of history. With its direct link to the animal rights movement, the squatting scene and anarchism, it is no wonder that the DIY punk world in the UK is completely invisible to many.

This is a thought that needs to be discussed at length, but for now here a few selections that if you haven’t watched, I would urge you to do so (assuming you have any interesting this subject).

Made in Britain (Alan Clarke, 1982)

Famous for launching the career of Tim Roth, playing the role of Trevor, a young 16 year-old white power skinhead fuelled by rage and kicking against the system of early 1980’s Britain with all he has.

The character is at odds with the prevailing view of skinheads as unintelligent thugs, being both intelligent and articulate, able to understand his situation yet too angry to do anything about it.

Directed by Alan Clarke, who made the excellent ‘Scum’ and ‘The Firm’, ‘Made in Britain’ is a deeply intelligent, sometimes shocking look at the failings of the British education system and society in general. Watch it.

Sid & Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)

There really don’t seem to be many non-documentary films about British punk rock, which to me seems more and more of a missed opportunity. Anyway, this is both Alex Cox’s most famous film and probably the best film that has anything to do with ’77 punk. Surprisingly touching and most definitely not ‘the story of the Sex Pistols’.

16 Years of Alcohol (Richard Jobson, 2004)

More Wong Kar Wai than Ken Loach, Jobson’s debut focuses on the life of Frankie, an ex-skinhead attempting to escape his violent, alcohol fuelled past (which he can never quite do). Beautiful and touching at times, and a world away from the grittiness that characterises most films about the British working class.

This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006)

The aforementioned Shane Meadows classic, the best of the bunch in my opinion. Except for the ending of having the Union Jack thrown into the sea which seemed too neat an ending (which is why I’m glad the TV show is continuing the story).

There are lots of documentaries on the subject, and many other films that focus on these scenes in the USA, Australia and Europe. I feel it’s a rich subject that hasn’t been given enough attention on screen – you’re far more likely to encounter films on the post-punk era such as the excellent ‘Control’, about Joy Division and Ian Curtis, than any that focus on the difficult and tricky subject of left-wing punk. Any glaring omissions I’ve made, let me know.

Oi oi etc.