ARTS & CULTURE

 This Is England and the characters and eras we know intimately 

As the Shane Meadows drama returns, Eve Barlow examines our obsession with TV that allows us to relive our pasts

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By Eve Barlow on

Growing up, my family would sit down over a meal each Sunday to catch up on news. The Barlows, yes. But also, the Duckworths, the Platts, the McDonalds… Sometimes, over on BBC1, we'd check in with the Mitchells and the Fowlers, but it all depended on who was at dinner, because one auntie had deeply complicated beef with the EastEnders lot. Our relatives over on Coronation Street, however, were unanimously adored. When they hurt, we hurt. When they celebrated, we had seconds of crumble. They were living in our homes – it would be rude not to indulge them. The desire to invite TV characters into our lives is nothing new, but the return this Sunday of Shane Meadows' exceptional film-to-series This Is England 90 reminds us just how far we've come in quality of house guest. Maybe they don't venture round as often (This Is England 90 will last four episodes and follows two series titled 86 and 88) but, when they do, we cancel all plans, focusing attention on Lol and Woody, Harvey and Gadget, Thommo and… budge up, there's enough room on the metaphorical couch for everyone.

It's no revelation that British soaps have been suffering. Check out EastEnders' latest promos featuring a returning Kathy Beale, looking like she's been dug out of one of Arthur's Albert Square allotments for a desperate return to former figures glory. The feature-length movie quality of the likes of Mad Men, Game Of Thrones and This Is England – which has all the formatting of a classic soap, but one you wouldn't dare miss a second of – means fewer viewers are watching TV in real time, gorging themselves in sofa-fests through the magic of Netflix or Apple TV instead. This Is England 86 had an average rating of 2.5 million viewers, 38 per cent higher than average for the broadcaster's 11pm slot. Imagine if it was on at tea time.

Hollywood's finest are voting with their feet, too. Kirsten Dunst – joining the cast of Fargo – is the latest addition to a club currently inhabited by Kevin Spacey (House Of Cards), Halle Berry (Extant) and the entire cast of True Detective, who recognise that TV allows them to get closer to those on the receiving side of the screen. Unless you're in an end-of-the-world epic, there is *far* more anticipation for telly, which is reflected in billboard advertising and TV spots. Playing TV characters buys actors more privacy too, as the focus on them shifts to an endless fascination with their fictional counterparts. Who wants to see Emilia Clarke on the cover of a magazine talking about her love life? You know, the actress who plays Khaleesi in Game Of Thrones? Khaleesi, on the other hand, should definitely be on magazine covers revealing her “Top Secrets For Keeping Dragons Satisfied”.

1990 was a long time ago. But, by sending the characters we've invested so wholeheartedly in back there, it brings us closer to them

Beyond the higher quality and bigger names, it's the scene-setting that renders these shows compelling, forcing all the action to happen in a historical timespan. Where soap operas pride themselves on the real-time unfolding of everyday lives, This Is England displaces us to a previous age, confined now to our not-so-reliable memories. Soap operas rely on the ludicrous (embezzling, kidnapping, endless pregnancies, fires) to pervert the norm, otherwise they'd be even less watchable than reality TV. This Is England 90, however, sees our heroes deal with the fallout from Thatcher, the birth of ecstasy and rave culture with anthems from Mantronix, Technotronic and The KLF. It will take in a FIFA World Cup for which New Order wrote England's song, World In Motion. It'll also touch upon The Stone Roses, who emerged with their debut self-titled album the year previous, bridging the gap from one decade to another, reinventing the concept of rock. 

In 1990, X was an album by INXS, not Ed Sheeran. It was the year Rita Ora was born. 1990 was a long time ago. But, by sending the characters we've invested so wholeheartedly in back there, it brings us closer to them. They relive our past. There's a far greater elegance to looking at history through the romantic lens of Thommo and Lol than analysing relics in a stale documentary fashion. Who wants to go to the Natural History Museum alone on any given Sunday when you could go play among the dinosaurs with the best mates you never had? 

This is England '90 starts on Sunday 13th September at 9pm on Channel 4

@Eve_Barlow

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