This is England- Film Review by Paul Wheatley
“SKINHEAD!” The very word conjures up images of young men – sometimes women – with shaven heads, Doc Martens, screaming music and one hell of an aggressive attitude. Ah, yes. And don’t forget the neo-Nazi politics. But is this frightening portrayal altogether accurate?
is that the skinhead movement has always been a lot more complex, a lot more layered. And the secret history of the skinheads might even cause those hideous neo-Nazis pause for thought – at least for a second or two.
For the many people who danced to the thrilling music inspired by the mod and skinhead movement of the 1960s, Meadows’ film is a welcome attempt at rebalancing the purely negative image skinheads have. This is England is a partly biographical account of the early life of its creator, Shane Meadows. ‘Ultimately,’ Meadows told Close Up Film ‘the skinhead side of the film is what I wanted it to be, which is to show skinheads as they really were. Basically as a SKA-Trojan-reggae embracing culture that through the course of the 1980s moved from Oi! music to bands like screwdriver [an extremely racist skinhead band]. People who became skinheads didn’t understand where it came from. They always thought it was a racist thing.’
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of cultural and musical revolution in Britain. Punk exploded, mods, with their sharp suits and scooters, made a dramatic comeback, and SKA and 2 Tone had kids dancing themselves to a standstill.
Gary McManus, from Redcar, in the north east of England, was a teenager in the 1970s, when the second wave of the skinhead movement took off in Britain. It was during this second wave that the image of skinheads shifted decisively to its now familiar association with far right politics. ‘In the 1970s,’ says McManus, ‘when I was in my teens, England was a great place to be. Every youth movement you could imagine was kicking about and most young people were associated with one tribe or another. I was one of thousands who spent my free time riding scooters and listening to punk, mod, rocksteady and SKA.’
The original skinhead movement emerged from the Jamaican immigrant community in Britain and with the mod movement in the early 1960s. Mods wore stylish suits, rode scooters, had fancy hairstyles and had an eclectic taste in music: jazz, R&B, Tamla Motown and Jamaican ‘rude boy’ rocksteady. For many working-class mods expensive suits – and even haircuts – was out of the question so they had to make do with Sta-Press trousers, button-down shirts (Ben Shermans), braces and very short hair. These ‘hard mods’ were the first skinheads. They retained many mod influences and were heavily influenced by the Jamaican rude boy scene and by SKA.
But as McManus vividly recollects, by the early 1980s, the skinhead look had been partly taken over by the racist far right. ‘The first time I really experienced political extremism in the skinhead movement,’ he says, ‘was at a Specials gig in Leeds in 1980. It was the first time I’d seen skinheads wearing combats or bleached jeans and wearing Doc Martens up to their knees. They still wore Fred Perrys and braces but they weren’t proper skins, they were boneheads. This was a Specials concert and they were all shouting “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” The daft bastards must have been half blind because half the members of the Specials were black.’
As far as most people in Britain were concerned, by the mid-1980s racism was the raison d’être for the skinhead movement. For some skins, McManus remembers, ‘the dress sense had changed to a more punk look, the music had changed from Ska to Oi! – or worse Screwdriver – and the only thing that was the same was the name: skinhead. You had two distinctly different lifestyles under the same name.’
So, largely ignored by the mainstream media, the truth, as McManus alludes to, was that alongside the rise of the far-right skinhead movement, during the 1980s many skinheads were still unpolitical or politically moderate. Most importantly, the majority of skinheads were more interested in the great music and style than in politics. This is England is a timely reminder of the complexities of the skinhead movement. Best of all, it reminds us that “SKINHEAD!” doesn’t have to mean neo-Nazi.
Shane Meadows’s This Is England was released in 2006, and on DVD in 2007. His most recent work is Somers Town, a primarily black and white film about a teenager from a run-down London neighbourhood who befriends a young Polish lad.