The 2006 release of the British drama This Is England is what director Shane Meadows refers to as “the closest thing” he’d ever make to a political film. A reflection of the political zeitgeist of the time, the film follows a group of working-class teenagers from the East Midlands in their battle through the harsh economic realities of Margaret Thatcher’s England in 1983.
The film’s protagonist, Shaun, grapples with his identity without a father figure following his father’s death in the Falklands, and skinhead Woody quickly fills the paternal role and allows him into the fold of his gang. Donning a new Ben Sherman and a shaved head, Shaun finds himself deeply invested in the skinhead subculture alongside them.
The skinhead scene was characterised by the integration of West Indian immigrant communities that meshed within British working-class neighbourhoods from the 1950s onwards. The meeting of the two rapidly influenced youth culture through the sharing of music and style, and Meadows’ soundtrack takes you through the brilliance of that period, with ska legends like Toots & The Maytals and The Specials providing the perfect sonic setting.
Naturally, rocksteady, ska, and punk all feature heavily, with hits by Al Barry & The Cimarons, The Upsetters and UK Subs playing throughout. Woody’s group managed to eschew racism and actually revel in the multicultural offerings of the time, but Shaun idolises Combo, a more militant racist skinhead who has just returned from prison – which is echoed in the musical choices.
In the opening scene, rolling clips of 1980s England are set to the 1969 Toots and the Maytals‘ ska track ‘54-46 Was My Number’. The song contains lyrics about a spell in prison which echo Combo’s recent incarceration, and there’s a certain symbolism in the association with Combo and the West Indian music – as it highlights the irony in him joining a movement that began as an inclusive effort to merge immigrant communities with their white counterparts.
Other classics like ‘Come On Eileen’ and ‘Tainted Love’ reinforce happy moments, being the kind of background songs you’d hear in the pub – both of which reinforce the suburban environment. On the other extreme, Ludovico Einaudi’s devasting arrangements, like ‘Oltremare’, soundtrack the emotionally gutting moments, like in the aftermath of the vile xenophobic attack Combo commits against Milky, the only member of the skinhead group of Afro-Caribbean descent.
This attack culminates in Shaun rejecting Combo and his racist ideology, and the film ends with a shot of Shaun throwing the St. George’s Cross flag that Combo had stolen from the National Front meeting for him into the sea. Over sweeping shots of the ocean, Clayhill’s cover of ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ plays. A folky, gritter cover of The Smiths song, its pleading tone reflects Shaun’s entire misdirection with Combo: “Haven’t had a dream in a long time / See, the life I’ve had / Can make a good man bad.”
Shaun becomes the embodiment of the changing attitudes emerging in working-class society in the
1980s by escaping the cycle of violence and racial dissent Combo is trapped in. The musical choices not only celebrate the unity that skinhead culture stood for before it splintered into racist factions but sharply highlight how ludicrous it is that a movement built on community could end up this way.