This Is England ’86, the televised mini-series and sequel to Shane Meadow’s film This is England (2006) has just screened in the UK. It's set three years after the film took place and stars all the same actors, who are just a bit taller and have different sections of their heads shaved, and more scars (thanks to all the beatings they took in the film’s world of 1983). In Episode 3, the focus was not on skinheads and racial tension, but sexual tension, and how to negotiate sex in a world where most people get they want through violence, and anyone who tries otherwise just ends up hurting their friends anyway.
Shaun, for example, leaves home when he catches him mum in the act with her new boyfriend: something he can’t quite forgive in memory of his dead father. He spends the episode working through how he feels with Smell, who eventually convinces him that all women have needs and he should give his mum a break. Lol sleeps with, Milky, who is the best friend of Woody, her ex, and Milky spends the ep working out whether he values his new relationship with Lol over his friendship with the lonely and dejected Woody.
Three-quarters of the way through the episode, I was enjoying it, but felt a bit let down because it didn’t seem to have the same devastating tone that the film did. Shaun admitting his mum can have a boyfriend doesn’t seem to compare to skinhead Combo bashing the shizola out of black Milky on the big screen, especially when all the ads leading to the sequel’s screening were full of seemingly heartbreaking scenes to a backdrop of moving piano music.
Until: the rape scene. An absolutely shattering rape scene, perhaps the most powerful I’ve ever seen. Mick (Lol’s dad) rapes the teenage girl Trev in his lounge room, and it’s violent, and graphic, and she is utterly helpless against the strong, grown man who almost strangles her in the attempt to hold her down. But it's also clumsy and slow, and on an old couch while the TV's on. An awful act in the middle of suburban normality.
Although still reeling from it, I appreciated this rape scene because it was real, ie. it did not come across as a plot device to explore power structures and dynamics; it was not a metaphor (for example, for patriarchal racist England colonising and policing against the racial/gendered other) it simply said: look. This is real. And it happens while all her friends are at the pub watching the footy, it happens while her friends are negotiating sleeping with their ex’s best friend, and it happens with a man that she knows. It happens in real life while the rest of us are distracted with our normal lives.
Viewers were initially outraged, but shortly changed their tune. To quote some tweeters, “‘The last ten minutes of This Is England '86 was horrific. But I'm glad they had the b*lls not to gloss over the horror of the situation,' was how one tweet encompassed the sentiment, backed up by another: 'Tough stuff to end with but had to be done. This sort of thing goes on right now somewhere.'” (1)
I agree. And in all honesty I appreciated the innocuous conversations between Shaun and his mum by the end of the episode – I think it was just the producers being gentle with their audience.