His interviewers evoke his formidable appearance: bald headed, sporting an inquisitive and mocking gaze and equipped with a sturdy scrum half physique. His detractors belittle his systematic use of Nottingham suburbs and the
But the true connoisseurs appreciate the importance of Shane Meadows’ work. What singles him out from his peers and makes him one of
Meadows questions the foundations of the English identity at a crucial contemporary period, the 80s, through his own experience as a rowdy youngster growing up in the suburbs of Uttoxeter. Though only loosely autobiographic, This is England (2006) is an accurate reconstruction of the political instability of a country oscillating between Conservative and Labour leadership before landing in Margaret Thatcher’s powerful hands. The opening credits’ feature a collage of 80s television news which skilfully illustrate the social and political preoccupations of the time. All the ills afflicting British society throughout the late seventies and early eighties are there - the strikes, the high unemployment, the inner city racial riots, the Falklands War and the class struggle born of an inadequacy between a mostly working class population and its impotent monarchs.
The director’s other films are not as politically charged, but they tackle themes that are intrinsically English and resolutely contemporary. The settings of Meadows’ stories borrow from Ken Loach’s realism. A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) opens in a Kes-like manner, with its two main protagonists, Romeo Brass (Andrew Shim) and Gavin “Knocks” Wolley (Ben Marshall) discussing family feuds under a delicately chiselled tree, with a typical misty green Northern countryside in the background. As soon as the title appears and The Specials’ “A Message to You Rudy” plays, Romeo and Gavin (and the audience) are transported back into the urban greyness they walk everyday. The visual contrast, like in Loach’s 1969 feature, is also a social one. The kids live in a council estate, far from the picturesque British views advertised in glossy tourist brochures, and they experience far worse than having to choose between strawberry jam or marmalade at breakfast. Romeo (like Shaun in This is England) is longing for a substitute for his absentee father, while Gavin will experience a two-year isolation because of his physical handicap.
Menace looms and violence explodes in Meadows’ unflinching portrayals of loners, orphans and messed-up youths. In 24 7: Twenty Four Seven (1997), most of the bored Nottingham gang coaxed by Alan Darcy (Bob Hoskins) into his local boxing club will ultimately be decimated by the violence inflicted upon them within an unsympathetic and over-competitive society saturated with drugs and crime. As the Stranglers foretold in their 1977 anthem “No More Heroes”, the old values of conservative
And that’s how Meadows’ magic operates. From life observation and personal memories, he elaborates poignant characters with the help of his best friend and co-writer Paul Fraser (whose childhood infirmity was the inspiration for Romeo Brass) and fellow musician and actor Paddy Considine (whose original idea was the starting point for 2004’s Dead Man’s Shoes). Meadows’ characters may seem predictable but the motivations behind their stark actions and violent reactions are complex. Brilliantly assisted by cinematographers Ashley Rowe and Danny Cohen (for his first and last two features respectively), Meadows stages the rise, fall and redemption of these tormented souls among the soft black and white expressionist shots of 24 7 or the rain laden blues, greys and greens of Lancashire in Dead Man’s Shoes.
Music is another component of the magic. Omnipresent and potent, it permeates the films, propelling the action and creating an uplifting counterpoint to the drama.
As well as Scottish filmmaker Lynn Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999), the
Remembrance may be the tool for a community to let go of its past and built a better future, but Meadows’ films, if they acknowledge the power of dream and determination, also work as alarming documents on the state of a region. A pillar of this documentary aspect is the exceptional cast, which the director partly re-hires from one film to another. His approach to casting is similar to Ken Loach: “local” talent is preferable in order to preserve the authenticity of the environment he depicts. Considine (Morrel in Romeo Brass and Richard in Dead Man’s Shoes), MacClure (Ladine Brass, and Lol in This Is England) and Shim (Romeo Brass and Milky in This Is England) are the best examples. Meadows has a relaxed approach to working with his actors. Showing them the script, he loosely directs them, encouraging their personal input and improvisation in the name of authenticity. 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot would argue that the greatest actors are those who can distance themselves from the material they’re performing. The emotional involvement of Meadows’ cast in the harrowing material nonetheless works wonders, eliciting confident performances which encapsulate the eccentricities of his films.
If his determination to explore the smallest and seediest areas in