So This Is England is back again. How does it feel?
The expectation is crazy this time. I hope it lives up to it! [This Is England] 86 went out in 2010, 88 went out in 2011, and then the Stone Roses came in and derailed anything happening. So there’s a blessing and a curse to the gap. The curse could be that people might not be interested any more, but it feels like the opposite has happened. The blessing is that we’ve had a bit of reflection time, to look at all the stories, and to figure out how to do justice to the last series. If this is the last one, it needs to fulfil its promise. That brings with it a certain pressure. Over the last few years, the series, in its absence, seems to have grown into something bigger.
Do you keep going back to This Is England because you want to tell more of the story, or because it’s so much fun to make?
It’s a blend of both. I’d never go back if I didn’t have enough stories to tell. 86 and 88 were born out of a little bit of remorse that came from the film. With a 90-minute film, it sounds like a lot of time, but weirdly, when you’ve got all these incredible characters, you can’t follow ten lives, whereas a series is a beautiful thing, in so much as you can look at a lot of different people. One person can have an arc through one episode, it’s like their own feature film. Through 86 and 88 we investigated Lol much deeper – Shaun was less of a character, and that’s partly because my life wasn’t as dramatic in those years. In 83 I became a skinhead, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the Stone Roses, Madchester and the rave scene all kicked off, that things started to change again for me. The focus in this series shifts back to the younger characters a bit more. A lot of people get a chance to shine in this series in a way that maybe hasn’t happened before.
Were you constantly playing the Stone Roses on set during filming?
Yeah, and the cast were brilliant. They started downloading the tunes, you’d hear people walking around the set, walking through the caravans, and that sort of stuff was playing. They did their own research. I think because I’d done the Made of Stone film, a lot of them, simply by knowing me, had got to know the Roses music if they hadn’t already. Jo Hartley is friends with members of the band like Mani, so there were all these connections. Musically, the hardest thing to do on this one was a scene in the last episode where it’s like a classic disco in the 90s, and it’s meant to be shit music, and having to pick the best shit music, while still making it shit, was a real challenge. It’s difficult, our films are known for featuring great tunes, and we were sat there going “We’re going to have to let ourselves down to be realistic.” It brings a smile to my face though. There was a guy in Uttoxeter called Dave Dee, who had Dave Dee’s Double D Disco, and he’d do kids’ ones, grannies’ ones, and the Madchester nights. It was like one disco does all, so this was a homage to Dave Dee.
Was it difficult to get everyone together for filming, now that so many of the cast have achieved such success?
It was much, much harder than it’s ever been before. Not that they didn’t want to come back. But Michael Socha, for example, is in a Canadian series, and the modern system of working on a longstanding series is they sign you up for six series, and you’re bound to them. We were so lucky because one of the show’s producers, the main writer, I think, was a big fan of This Is England, and so released Michael when he was contracted to them. Michael’s character, Harvey, really grows in this series, and Gadget as well. I think Joe Gilgun was doing auditions in the States, Vicky McClure’s always busy, I think Stephen Graham was going on to Pirates of the Caribbean, so we had to be finished by a certain time. When we did the first film, most of them weren’t actors, so they weren’t all rushing off to the next thing. It was a lot more difficult. I would ordinarily shoot everything chronologically, and we weren’t able to do that this time. But it didn’t feel like it was to the detriment of the show.
You have a reputation for being very relaxed on shoot and letting things happen at their own pace. Are you really like that, or do you always have one eye on the clock?
I’m pretty laid back. Obviously you feel stressed, but what I’ve learned over time is that actors need confidence – it’s like a striker scoring goals – so if it takes fifteen takes to get something right, then it takes 15 takes. It’s quite a difficult process for actors to be able to give a natural performance when they are in a room with four cameras and 12 other people. Sometimes it does just happen in one take. There’s on part, in episode three, which is 20 minutes, all just one scene, and one take. We had eight cameras in the back of the room – it’s the biggest scene in the whole thing, to be honest – and to prepare for that was four hours. But we weren’t practising words, we were listening to tunes and trying to get them right emotionally. On another day we’ll shoot 30 pages and get ahead of schedule. If you’re on a BBC drama, you’ll do 12-pages-a-day. Whereas I think if we have to take from Peter today to pay Paul tomorrow, then that’s fine.
One of the real features of This Is England has been that you cast people from the area, many of whom weren’t actors. They’re the opposite of drama school kids. Was that something you did for artistic or political reasons?
Neither completely. Rhys Ifans once said to me “Look, I’m here to serve the story, and if it means I have to be covered in blancmange with no pants on, if it serves the story, that’s fine.” You do what you have to do to tell the story right. When I began, I was probably quite scared. I’d never been to film school. When I was first directing, and I didn’t have any money, I was directing people who I’d been with at college, or people who lived near me. They weren’t actors. I gained a massive amount of confidence from getting them to act. They didn’t have any preconceived ideas. So I then felt that working with people who didn’t really know how to do it was actually a kind of benefit to me, because I don’t really have a recognised technique.
The film and all three series are rooted firmly in the era of Thatcherism, we have a Conservative government in power once again, as a filmmaker do you see it as an opportunity to tell more stories?
I suppose if you look at massively important movements, especially in music – things like punk, against a backdrop of there being no electricity and no TV – you don’t know whether to slap Thatcher or thank her, for the sense of oppression that was going on. She was such an iconic baddie – she was almost like a Victorian baddie from a melodrama. In 1983, you had unemployment going through the ceiling, and the skinhead movement regenerated from being quite cool and listening to reggae to being fucking angry and looking like SS soldiers. In 1990 there was the poll tax. It’s like something from Game of Thrones. But having something to fight against can bring out the passion in people. Without Margaret Thatcher, would I be making films? What’s mental – and this was never intentional – is that 1990 is meant to be the last series, and it’s also her swansong, and the song that worked best with the credits was There She Goes. I’m not that clever, I tried ten or 12 tracks, and then I tried that, thinking “This can’t work, surely?” And she’s getting in the taxi and going away, and somehow she’s made herself a little character in This Is England, without me wanting her to be.
Your work is all very much of the gritty realist variety. Have you ever been tempted to make a romcom or an action movie or anything? Do you enjoy watching that sort of thing?
Oh I love real crap! I love America’s Next Top Model. I don’t like the middle, I either fall in love with old Russian cinema, and stuff like this amazing French-Czech animation, or I’m watching Made in Chelsea with the wife, or America’s Next Top Model: Guys and Girls season. I met Sat Bains, the Michelin-starred chef, recently, and he texted me that night, and he was picking up chicken Kiev and oven chips. It’s kind of like that.
This isn’t really going to be the last This Is England, is it?
Well, if it finished here, I’d have absolutely no regrets. But I can’t say never. It’s impossible to say never. I wouldn’t come back and do it a disservice. I wouldn’t come back and do 24-parts and make myself a multi-millionaire. There are temptations around to sell it off. I’ve done everything I can to make this feel like the end of something. I don’t mean like a fucking Emmerdale-style plane crash. Most of them make it through pretty unscathed. But at the same time, eight episodes could never be the end, it was the beginning of something else. Whereas this feels like an end. It has a full stop, even if it’s only in pencil.