In this episode we take stock of Shane Meadow’s movie output, and see if his examinations of English working class stories and characters have stood the test of time. Listen in to get our takes of varying temperature on Small Time, TwentyFourSeven, A Room for Romeo Brass, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Dead Man’s Shoes, This Is England, Somers Town, and Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee.
Shane Meadow’s first feature starts him off more or less as he will go on, on the mean streets of the Midlands, Nottingham here in particular, focusing on a gang of shady characters headed by Jumbo (Meadows) and Mat Hand as Malc, both petty thieves, but Jumbo has the added spice of wifebeating his, er, wife, Gena Kawecka’s Ruby. Malc’s partner, Dena Smiles’s Kate has had enough of Malc’s life of crime and hearing Jumbo’s violence through the paper thin walls of the council estate, and wants to leave.
Malc’s being slowly talked round to her position over the course of some small time car-boot larceny and drinking, but there’s always that one last job, in this case, it says here, raiding a small new age store that goes disastrously, leaving Jumbo, Malc and the rest of the gang facing varying kinds of music.
When we’re putting these directorial retrospectives often the primary interest in seeing their first feature is not so much seeing how they have improved (thankfully in this case, immeasurably), but to see if they are still interested in the same themes and ideas in Space Year This Year as they were back in the dim and distant past, in this case the mid nineties, and that’s certainly the case here, Meadow’s fascination with telling the underexplored stories of the disadvantaged English working classes, while not treating it as kitchen sink drama misery porn.
He’s also someone I’d argue often more concerned with characters than driving elaborately plotted narratives, and certainly the latter half of that is on display here – there’s not a great deal to Small Time, to be honest. It might just about qualify on the first half too, if only I could make out more that half of what people were saying. As is often the case with early, microbudget films of directors, there’s a few technical issues with miking and mixing that makes it a touch difficult to understand, particularly when Meadows is using the soundtrack as a driver (another repeated motif), to the point that I gave up trying to hear what the characters weer saying when music was blaring, which I think lead to missing whatever plans were made for that final heist. I felt liked I’d missed a few scenes, and I think that’s also why it’s tough to identify with or understand the characters’ actions and lives.
Small Time has been given some overly generous ratings on IMDB, to say the least, and while I won’t necessarily warn anyone away from watching it as a curiosity after viewing his later, better films, it’s one hundo percent not where you should be starting exploring his canon, unless you have a cheap wig and shellsuit fetish.
Alan Darcy is a vagrant living in an abandoned railroad car somewhere outside of a nameless but instantly recognisable English Midlands town; the kind of town where youth have very little to do outside of gathering in gangs around street corners, procrastination the least of their acts, fighting and vandalism the worst. Quite how Darcy, played by Bob Hoskins, ended up in that railroad car filthy, unkempt, and pretty much at death’s door, is the topic of TwentyFourSeven, the work which put Meadows on the radar as a British talent to watch.
We pretty much immediately flash back an indeterminate period of time to find two local groups of youths, one ostensibly benign, the other openly antagonistic, engaging in a fistfight on the abandoned playing fields that make up so much of Britain’s forgotten housing estates. Into the fracas comes Darcy, imploring both groups to engage in something more productive, namely the boxing club he’s setting up to give the town’s youth some purpose other than troublemaking. One impromptu penalty shoot-out later Darcy has won his wager, and so begins the legend of the 101 Warriors.
TwentyFourSeven sets out quite a bit of the template that Meadows would follow in the coming years, drawing on his own background and experiences growing up in a town just like this; absent and/or irresponsible fathers, wasted youth, urban deprivation. It’s cast of largely unknown faces, one or two British soap regulars and a decidedly fresh-faced James Corden aside, are fantastically authentic in their roles as the patchwork of working class characters whose stories gravitate around the 101 Warriors, and Hoskins to his credit blends in well among them.
Meadows’ penchant for working in a largely improvisational fashion pays a great dividend in immersing the audience in the movie’s air of authenticity, a fact that feels particularly refreshing in hindsight given that post Pulp Fiction seemingly every independent filmmaker and their grandmother were precision tooling their scripts to ape the smart-ass, pop culture reverential dialogue of the zeitgeist; to be sure, TwentyFourSeven is a lot closer to Ken Loach than it is Quentin Tarantino.
Shot in contrast-tastic 16mm black and white by Ashley Rowe, TwentyFourSeven also looks the part in that authentically grainy, lo-fi way the format tends to compliment the rough cast council housing and social subsistence which dominates this part of the English Midlands. It’s not a multiplex-pleasing look to be sure, but Meadows doesn’t strike me as the kind of director who’d be as interested in courting a Marvel movie as he is simply sharing his experience of growing up bereft of much guidance or opportunity. Here it fits the tone well, whether that’s intentional or, as one suspects, purely a function of budget.
If I have a criticism of TwentyFourSeven it’s that visiting it again now some quarter century later I find it somewhat lacking in sophistication, but again I’d probably contend that this is not Meadows’ primary concern. What TwentyFourSeven lacks in nuance it more than makes up with a vital humanity that feels lacking these days, and while it’s arguably one of the lesser films we’ll discuss this episode I’d still recommend it to pretty much anyone.
In, naturally, the Midlands, 12-year-old Romeo Brass (Andrew Shim) lives with his mum and sister, and spends most of his time with his next-door neighbour and best friend, Knocks (Ben Marshall). Things rub along pretty normally for Romeo for the bulk of the time, with his biggest issue being accused of eating the chips he was supposed to bring home from the chippie for his mum and sister (a slanderous charge, of course, and countered only by the fact he didn’t eat ALL of the chips, just most of them).
Two things occur, though, which, in various ways, upset Romeo’s life: his absent father (Frank Harper) returns seeking a relationship with him, something in which Romeo is interested in having absolutely no part; and he begins a friendship of sorts with Paddy Considine’s Morell, a strange man more than twice Romeo’s age, though he’s not strange in the way that might immediately make you think.
Morell takes on Romeo as something of a protégé (it’s not hard to imagine him seeing himself as some sort of Mr Miyagi) and something of a friend – he appears to have no others – as well as a go-between, seeing Romeo as a means to begin a relationship with his attractive older sister, Ladine (Vicky McClure), to whom Morell has taken a fancy.
Morell’s unhealthy presence creates a distance between Romeo and Knocks, especially when Knocks becomes bedbound after spinal surgery, leaving Knocks perfecting magic tricks alone in his bedroom, and Romeo being trained as some sort of… ninja? At least in Morell’s mind.
The strange undercurrent that follows the at first pathetic but likeable but later capricious Morell surges to the surface after his date with Ladine ends poorly, and suddenly things take a darker, violent and more sinister turn as he takes out his humiliation on a number of innocents.
While I really quite enjoyed A Room for Romeo Brass, it is a film of two difficult to reconcile parts. The two kids are great, and their awkward yet also effortless, on again off again friendship feels very natural and real, and their drifting apart and then back together again is entirely believable, and didn’t need the catalyst of an outside influence to ring true.
Paddy Considine, in his film debut, is also really good, albeit that it seems he doesn’t quite have his acting skills completely honed and dialled-in yet – there’s humour, threat and even a little pathos in Considine’s performance, even if Morell’s description of the physical abuse he received at the hands of his father feels like a not overly-sophisticated attempt by the writers, Paul Fraser and Shane Meadows, to explain his character.
I just don’t get why both of these things – the childhood friendship and the violent, perhaps mentally or emotionally disabled, outsider – are in the same film. If Meadows is trying to say something then he’s doing so in ways I’m failing to interpret, but I did still enjoy it. I just wish I had more answers to the questions the film leaves me with.
What if a Western was set in Nottingham and was a rom-com? Well, that’s an odd question, you weirdo, but turns we have the answer in Meadow’s 2002 joint Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. The stranger from out of town in this case is Begbie, or, well, Robert Carlyle’s Jimmy, who has seen the love of his life, Shirley Henderson’s Shirley turn down a televised proposal from her current boyfriend Rhys Ifans’s Dek. So affected is he by this that he abandons his fellow gang members, headed by James Cosmo’s Billy, when a clown robbery goes wrong. It may or may not have been official clown business. Hard to say.
Fleeing the cops, and eventually his gang, he tries to inveigle his way back into Shirley’s life, and that of his daughter’s, much to Dek’s discontent. He’s seemingly far too soft to stand up to Jimmy’s hard man act, and suffers a collapse of self esteem. Much of the film is then focussed on Dek building up his courage to confront Jimmy and save his relationship with Shirley, which is perhaps also echoed in the strained supporting relationship between Jimmy’s foster sister, Kathy Burke’s Carol, and Ricky Tomlinson’s Charlie.
Like a lot of Meadows’ work, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is not exactly over-encumbered with plot, this having more or less the minimum viable frameworks to bounce a few characters together, and I suppose it works well enough for what it needs to do. While it does have more than a few moments of emotional and dramatic heft, for the most part it’s kept fairly light and breezy and makes for an enjoyable, if not life-changing or genre-redefining experience.
Carlyle and Henderson come out of this the best, really, portraying a fairly believable experience and getting across the reasons for their previous attractions and break up well enough through small actions and reaction, rather than exposition dumps. Rhys Ifans’s Dek is rather less well served, and perhaps a touch too broadly written and played, but I suppose that rather goes with the genre territory.
Overall, I’m not sure there’s an awful lot more to meaningfully say about Once Upon a Time in the Midlands – it’s a reasonably enjoyable comedy, that refreshingly eschews the mawkishness that similar works like Brassed Off and The Full Monty arguably tended towards, if my memory serves. And you and I know, there’s no guarantee that it does.
Worth watching, but by no means the most vital part of Meadows body of work. A left shin, perhaps.
If Steven Soderbergh decided to one day come to the Midlands and film a no-budget rural revenge thriller, which let’s face it is the kind of thing Soderbergh might conceivably do, then it might look a lot like Dead Man’s Shoes, Shane Meadows’ 2004 collaboration with Paddy Considine who here both stars and adopts co-writing duties.
Considine plays Richard, a returning soldier who stalks the Derbyshire village of Matlock looking to avenge the treatment of his disabled brother Anthony at the hands of a gang of petty local drug dealers. Through the use of grainy black and white inserts which recount the abuse of Anthony, Meadows gradually builds some understanding of why it is Richard is quite so vengeful; vengeful enough, in fact, to don an old Russian gas mask and set about openly taunting the gang, cultivating a sense of inevitable violence before finally picking the gang off one by one with axes, knives, bare hands…whatever feels appropriate at the time, really.
It’s nothing new, really, and Dead Man’s Shoes is just about as bare bones as it gets. Meadows and Considine don’t seem particularly focused on embellishments of plotting, and once again the sense of a cast left to improvise the majority of their dialogue suggests that any script which might exist is probably more a slight set of stage directions. Where the movie does make an impression is in its willingness to spend time with the cast of antagonists; indeed I’m fairly convinced we actually spend more minutes in the presence of the gang than we do with Richard, and that’s not something your average revenge thriller can claim. Once again Meadows is working with a cast of relative unknowns, though one or two faces have that familiar feeling which, for a UK audience at least, suggests they’ve probably been on an episode of Casualty at some point or another in the last thirty years. Once again the improvisational nature of their interactions lends a veneer of believability to what is, at times, a slightly daft story, so while Richard is teleporting in and out of homesteads like Michael Meyers we are at least distracted by the authentic dynamic between manipulative gang leader Sonny and his weak-willed crew of sheep.
Speaking of atypical revenge fare, you’re also unlikely to find Liam Neeson portraying a hero quite as unsympathetic as Richard as he travels the world mopping up pesky cardboard cut-out Arabs, blathering on about his particular set of skills. You know who has got a set of skills? Paddy Considine. I’ve always found him a uniquely compelling screen presence, and here he’s no different, balancing a sense of grief-fuelled nihilism with an utterly believable aura of danger and an abandoned sense of morality that the character himself acknowledges to be unacceptable in the film’s final act. Again, it’s not a complexity you’d expect to encounter in a film built on a premise so slight, but it goes to demonstrate what can be achieved when a director with Meadows’ intuition is willing to put their trust in an actor of Considine’s considerable calibre.
I’ve always really appreciated Dead Man’s Shoes as an example of the type of filmmaking almost anyone could attempt, these days with not a lot more than an iPhone, but which when executed well still has the power to unsettle. That’s not to say it doesn’t require a huge amount of skill and talent, but Dead Man’s Shoes is one of those movies that is powerful while making the pursuit of movie making feel accessible.
In an unidentified Midlands town in 1983, 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is struggling – he seems to have no friends, is bullied at school and is grieving the loss of his father, a soldier who died in the Falklands War. A chance encounter on the way home from school one day brings him a group of friends, in the shape of a disparate group of skinheads, led by the adult Woody.
The group, Woody in particular, are enamoured of Shaun’s spunk and attitude, and they take him under their collective wing, turning him into a skinhead in miniature, and with only the minimum of patronisation. Shaun begins to flourish with this new group of peers, but the fun times end and make way for something much, much darker with the unexpected arrival of Stephen Graham’s Combo, recently released from prison, another skinhead but this time of that type most associated with the National Front and British National Party in the 1980s.
Combo’s behaviour and polemic splits the group, with some, Shaun included, being swayed by his nationalist swill and ideas of what England is or should be, and those that remain with Combo partaking in such wholesome group activities as attending National Front meetings and terrorising South Asian shopkeepers with machetes.
Shaun grows up a lot in a very short space of time, and receives quite the education around Combo, but he learns the truth about such people in a shocking scene in which a switch seems to flick inside of Combo and he violently attacks the one black member of Woody’s skinhead group.
After this Meadows reminds us that Shaun is still only a child; wiser, no longer innocent, but a child, and not irreversibly sullied. The film ends, in a nod to the end of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows,
with Shaun on the shore, discarding his English flag into the sea, bringing an end to this masterful amalgam of coming-of-age tale, historical drama and social document, a film that I think it’s hard to argue against being considered Shane Meadow’s greatest work.
While Thomas Turgoose, thirteen at the time of filming, rightly received the lion’s shares of the plaudits when This Is England was released, on returning to it, it is Stephen Graham’s performance that I find most compelling. He is believably menacing and dangerous, despite his stature, but in both writing and performance, Combo is so much more than a simple thug, and Graham shows him as a confused, lost and conflicted person, unable to contain a violent nature. He’s a terrible person, naturally, and nothing excuses his actions, but Graham shows that Combo can’t simply be explained as “racist scumbag” – something made him that way, and we can begin to guess at it through his portrayal. It’s really a very powerful performance, and also one that can’t have been easy – Graham’s father was half-Jamaican, and he’s talked before about the abuse he received as a child due to that.
Like The Clash song with which the film shares its name, this is not a positive and hopeful vision of its creator’s home nation, and it is, to be frank, bloody bleak. It is, however, superb and, something I recommend very highly indeed. In common with a lot of the director’s other work, though, it’s not quite as entirely downbeat as you might think, and there’s really more than a minor note of hope contained within for people, at least as individuals, if not in the collective. Powerful stuff.
Somers Town sees Thomas Turgoose returning as the imaginatively named Tom, a young ‘un fleeing from “the North” to Olde London Town, where the streets are paved with, in this case, beatings from a local group of youths. Tom soon finds himself sleeping rough in the titular Somers Town area, but strikes up a friendship with Piotr Jagiello’s Marek, over from Poland with his father, roaming the streets with a camera while his father works on the overhaul of the St Pancras train station to accommodate Eurostar, who funded the film, which may perhaps explain a few otherwise mildly inexplicable moments.
While Tom’s fleeing some family trauma and isolation, Marek has some of his own going on, worrying that his father is spending too much time drinking with his new friends and too little time with him, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the two wind up friends, strained only by falling for the same unattainably pretty waitress at the local cafe, Elisa Lasowski’s Maria, who’s a good five years older. Their various low-key scapes and escapades mixed with a touch of pathos make up the bulk of the slender running time, and most entertaining they are too.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – there’s not a great deal of narrative getting in the way of the character interactions here, and indeed almost nothing in the way of drama barring a couple of arguments and a closing act trip to Paris, via the convenient and reasonably priced Eurostar service, consult your doctor to see if Eurostar is right for you. Eurostar should only be consumed as part of a balanced diet, and your Eurostar may be at risk if you do not keep up repayments. Eurostar. It’s what’s for dinner.
Of course, I joke, and while I don’t think I could say that the Eurostar references are anything other than shoehorned in, they’re infrequent enough that this should not be written off as a glorified advert, as you’d be missing what might just be Meadow’s most charming and perhaps also his funniest film. It’s carried in large part by the charisma of Turgoose, whose cheeky wideboy act is a very enjoyable thing to watch, and marries well with Jagiello’s straight man act.
Jagiello also gets the best dramatic moments, his strained relationship with his obviously loving but troubled father and separation from his mother feeling all too believable, and a reminder that there’s more to unite the working classes from around the globe than there is to separate them. Which makes this a bit of a harder watch for near-communist Europhiles like myself in a post-Brexit world, but that’s not a fault of the film. It’s the fault of stupid racists.
Anyway, a charming little film, with great central performances from the young cast and also a very enjoyable supporting turn from Perry Benson’s ersatz Del Boy. It’s well worth putting on your radar. Some films are just nice.
After his genuinely quite sinister performances in A Room for Romeo Brass and, particularly, Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s nice to be reminded of Paddy Considine’s comedy acting chops. Here, in his third collaboration with long-time friend Meadows, he plays the roadie and wannabe talent-promoter, Le Donk, as he uses a job working with these “Arctical Monkeys all the young folks are into” at a gig in Manchester to try and engineer an opportunity for Scor-zay-zee (Dean Palinczuk), an unexpectedly gifted young rapper whom Donk has taken under his wing.
Recalling in style other mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap, Le Donk was shot in only five days and on a budget of less than £50,000, in the run up to what was a real concert, and is a remarkably accomplished film given those constraints. Key to this is Considine’s very committed, very funny and almost entirely-improvised performance.
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