“This Ain’t Acting” – On The Set Of This Is England ’88

Adrian Lobb visits the set of This Is England '88 to talk to the cast, who are in extremely high spirits

At the unit base of This Is England ’88 in the shadows of Sheffield United FC’s Bramall Lane ground, among the trailers that house them, the catering bus that feeds them, and the wardrobe and make-up trucks that transform them, the young cast is running amok.

The statue of Derek Dooley in the car park has been adorned by one rampaging actor, another actor is riding a bike down the stairs from the producer’s trailer, a bottle of whisky has been discovered and, with just a few days remaining on the shoot, the feeling is that this series will eclipse even This Is England ’86. In the words of Joe Gilgun, who plays Woody, ‘it is just sexy chaos’.

The only time the good-natured carnage stops, mid-ruckus, is when Shane Meadows strolls through, parting the waves of de-mob happy actors. And even then, no sooner has he turned the corner than a water fight between Thomas Turgoose (aka Shaun) and Andrew ‘Gadget’ Ellis – that will end with a drowned iPhone – continues in earnest.

To talk to any of the cast is to be on the receiving end of a righteous rant about writer-director Shane Meadows, who returns to the stories of his youth – told via the gang of Lol, Woody, Milky, Shaun, Smell, Gadget, Harvey, Trev, Kelly, Banjo and Combo – for the second time since 2006’s Bafta-winning film, This Is England. Not that hushed tones and hagiography are the way things are done here…

‘The fucking man’s a genius – he is a stupid, chubby little genius from Uttoxeter and he loves us all. We are very lucky,’ says Gilgun. ‘I hope to god I meet another man or woman like Shane, because, especially for this actor, it is the most incredible job you will ever be given. I will never, ever get to work like this again.’

So what is it about working with Meadows that is so different? Is it the improvised nature of much of the work and the way scenes are changed and rewritten on the spot, or allowed to go in unforeseen directions? Or could it be the way in which the actors are encouraged (forced) to really live the roles?

Certainly for TIE88, which picks up the story 18 months after the previous series, this final point has had a tremendous impact. Without giving too much away, the gang are still dealing with the consequences of the traumatic events of the 1986. As Christmas 1988 approaches – ‘tis the year of ‘Mistletoe and Wine’, folks – Woody is estranged from his old gang and, according to Gilgun, ‘clad in the sleeveless cardigan of sadness, a shadow of his former self’. Lol (played by Vicky McClure, who picked up a Bafta for the role) is, unsurprisingly, struggling to move on after killing her abusive dad – ‘she is totally on her own at the start,’ says McClure.

And while Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is studying drama at college, and starring in a play, just as Shane Meadows did in real life, the rest of the gang continue on their merry way.

The mutual love and trust built up over the years and so evident on set means that the cast are willing to go to extreme lengths in the cause of realism. For Gilgun, who thrives on his position as de facto gang leader, this meant being isolated from the rest of the cast.

‘I haven’t been allowed to see them at all out of hours,’ he says. ‘Which was heartbreaking, because I knew they were out having a great time.

‘And I haven’t spoken to Vicky this whole process, and that has been really fucking hard. I hated it. When I’ve seen her on set, she looks sort of – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – haggard. And I can’t work out if she is angry with me or what because we can’t speak. It’s mad what it has done to me. But it’s all about this climactic scene on Friday. There is a lot of pressure on that scene.’

For McClure, this has been as emotionally exhausting as last time. Talking to her during her lunch break, tears are still visible in her eyes. It feels intrusive, awkward, wrong to be here. We keep the interview brief, not wishing to take her out of the zone with more key scenes to film in the afternoon.

‘Me and Lol are very tight,’ she says. ‘There have been moments in he last few weeks when I have been so involved with the character. It is a dream job, but what we do isn’t normal.

‘I haven’t spoken to anyone the entire time we have been here. On base, outside of work, in the hotel, I’m not allowed to talk to certain people. But you can’t buy that impact. The isolation of living on my own for a few weeks fed into the work. If we had been going out having the craic every night, it would have been different. Not as organic or emotionally real. So it is all in the aid of the art.

‘We have that weird feeling of enjoying the pain. You know it is not real, but because you are living it and breathing it you really hurt. And it is so important to do justice to women out there who are really suffering.’

Still, she’d go back for more in a heartbeat. Shane Meadows said last year that his life stopped being interesting after 1990 (although Gilgun reckons ‘that’s nonsense. His life is a series of mental incidents. The man is fascinating’), meaning the last we’ll see of the gang is likely to be at an acid house party somewhere off the M6.

‘I don’t think This Is England should go on forever, I think 1990 would be the end of it,’ says McClure. ‘But if Shane told me we were turning it into a Coronation Street, then I would be there. I love working with Shane, I love being Lol, and I love everybody here. It is a dream job – but what we do isn’t normal. I don’t know if my body could take it, or my brain. I’m just fucking forever honoured to play her.

‘I think she deserves a happy ending, though, god yeah. Otherwise the world would crumble and it would be a very depressing place.’

So watch out, Sheffield, the gang will be back in 18 months time for more mayhem.

‘We get into trouble, we get into all kinds of shit because we are genuinely like the gang,’ says Gilgun, who has been reunited with most of the gang now, and is flying high. ‘But as a result of that lifestyle, you get what you see on the fucking TV. We did a fight scene the other day and it was just an actual fight – an hour and a half spent with the stunt coordinator for fuck all! Everybody just piled in.

‘I’m not kidding. What this does to you, it psychologically plays with you really badly. It’s not just acting. This ain’t just an acting job – but it is the most incredible experience you will ever go through…’

This Is England ’88 continues on Channel 4 tonight (Wednesday) and Thursday.

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