Features Magazine

Unlikely auteur of mercy

Dan Hitchens makes the case for film director Shane Meadows as a genius of Christian art

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the final episode of Shane Meadows’s This is England ’88 there is an astonishing scene, so beautiful, so moving, so theologically sophisticated that I can scarcely believe it actually appeared on British TV. 

Throughout the series Lol (short for Lorraine), played by Vicky McClure, is in the depths of suffering. (This article contains major spoilers, as the TV announcers say, “right from the start”.) Submerged in post-natal depression as she looks after her baby daughter, who was conceived during a catastrophic fling with her then-fiancé’s best friend, Lol is also haunted by horribly lifelike visions of her late father, who she killed with a hammer after he tried to rape her. 

Perhaps it’s worth saying at this point that Shane Meadows’s subject-matter tends to be fairly heavy. Meadows believes there is more darkness around than people like to admit. One of his teenage friends in Uttoxeter was persecuted by a gang who got him addicted to drugs and bullied him into suicide. And, shockingly to Meadows, the town just forgot about it: ten years on, the whole episode was never referred to. 

So in 2004 he made Dead Man’s Shoes, a riveting masterpiece I never want to see again in my life. The actor playing the gang leader, Gary Stretch, found it a harrowing experience and told Meadows he was struggling to inhabit such a monster. As Stretch recalled recently for a Telegraph making-of story, the director told him: “You know, Gary, if you’re gonna be bad, be really fucking bad.” That is a fair summary of Meadows’s artistic approach — though it misses out the really crucial bit. Meadows does not portray evil for its own sake. He portrays it because, unless you have understood how much wickedness there is in the world, how can you understand what it means for Jesus Christ to enter into it?

Yes, I am still going to tell you about the astonishing scene in This Is England ’88. But I want to pursue this point a bit further, because it has gone mostly unnoticed. With the honourable exception of the film studies professor Robert Murphy, not many people appear to have understood the religious dimension of Meadows’s work. After all the plaudits, the awards, the acclaim for Meadows’s brilliance as a social realist, it is still not widely recognised that he is also a genius of Christian art. 

This may seem an unlikely title to bestow on a middle-aged bloke from Staffordshire with no known religious convictions unless you count his passionate love of Notts County FC, whose films include scenes so graphic as to make any conscientious Christian grateful for the skip button. But they also contain exceptionally vivid depictions of conversion and redemption, of sainthood, and of the undeserved forgiveness which stands at the centre of the Christian story.

We’re getting to the scene, I promise. Lol, burdened with the crimes of her past and the terrible things inflicted on her, goes to the NHS clinic for her mother-and-baby checkup. The nurse spots that something’s wrong and tries to help, and Lol bites her head off: “So you’re a fucking psychiatrist now?” But the nurse, Helen, forgives and perseveres, and they become friends. 

According to Professor Murphy’s article (“After laughter comes tears: passion and redemption in This is England ’88” in Shane Meadows: Critical Essays, 2013) Helen appears to be “a member of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement which began in the late 1960s”. Whether she is or not, this intelligent, attractive, down-to-earth woman is, to the best of my knowledge, the most successful attempt made by any recent British TV series to depict a saint. 

We hear Helen, in voiceover, quoting Scripture

We hear Helen, in voiceover, quoting Scripture: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God has raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” She is praying, it becomes clear, for Lol: “Lord, I don’t always understand your ways, I don’t know why my friend has to suffer, but I trust you … Let Lorraine know that you are there with her through this difficulty, give her strength, and may you through this difficulty be glorified in her life and also in mine. Amen.” 

But the “difficulty” is worse than she knows, because Lol has left a suicide note and taken a massive overdose of paracetamol. Lol’s friends have found her and rushed her to hospital, and now she is convulsing, as in an exorcism, on a hospital bed as a doctor struggles to fit a stomach pump. 

Helen’s prayer goes up, a church choir chants distantly, an evil voice mutters inaudible words, and we see a succession of images: the demonic figure of Lol’s late father who abused her, random memories from her childhood, the rape and violence and betrayal which have almost destroyed her; and the sins of her friends’ lives, and images of famine victims in Africa, of mothers weeping for their sons killed in war. 

And then we see a statue of Christ on the Cross, the one who takes the sins of the world onto himself and redeems it, and we realise that there is a crucifix by the hospital bedside too. A scream blurs out into white noise, Lol gives one final convulsion as the poison is expelled, and she awakens. It’s Christmas morning in the hospital. 

Shortly after, Helen is at Lol’s bedside while she sleeps, and again the silent prayer goes on, asking that Lol will “listen and understand” the Gospel. “By delivering her from the mouth of death, God has begun work in Lorraine’s life, and may this continue until the day of the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I love this scene not just because it manages to put on screen the Christian understanding of the Cross — the event that stands at the centre of human history, into which all our sins are poured and from which alone comes our hope — but also because it is the central image, the Rosetta stone, of Shane Meadows’s work. Everything he did before it leads up to that moment; everything after it is a kind of echo.

From the beginning Meadows’s work was a search for the real. His first cinematic model was Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, because it was about the kind of people Scorsese had known when he was growing up in New York. What Scorsese had done for Little Italy, Meadows would do for Uttoxeter. 

His very first productions, short films of ten minutes or so, were accounts of small town life, filmed on basic equipment and starring his mates from down the road. When those films came to attention and he got funding to make full-length features, he kept to the same model: no-frills filmmaking about subjects like a local boxing club (TwentyFourSeven) or a falling-out between a couple of 12-year-olds (A Room for Romeo Brass). 

Their reconciliation is one of the first whispers of what would become Meadows’s grand theme. Romeo says, “I wanted to come round and say sorry.” Gavin extends his hand a second before Romeo starts to speak, and they shake on it. Cut to the next scene: the two boys entertaining their parents with a comic play in the back garden. It’s a characteristic moment. Again and again, Meadows shows that the refusal to seek forgiveness, or to grant it, leads to anger, destruction, spiritual suffocation; but on the other side of forgiveness lies peace, friendship, creativity and joy. 

After Romeo Brass Meadows is offered a big budget to make a breakthrough movie, the romcom crime caper Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. Most people like the film, but Meadows hates it: the price of the big budget is having to give up control to producers and other scriptwriters. He resolves never to compromise again, to trust his instincts from now on. 

Dead Man’s Shoes is the result: a terrible, bloody revenge thriller about the refusal to forgive. Just before the credits roll, the camera pans over a Derbyshire hillside and the soundtrack switches from country music to a psalm setting by Arvo Pärt. An organ sounds eerily — a don’t-go-into-that-cellar sort of note — and then a voice calls out from a subterranean octave:

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine; Domine, exaudi vocem meam …

Or, in translation:

Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.

If thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it? For with thee there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of thy law, I have waited for thee, O Lord.

It’s hard to believe this is accidental, because Meadows then embarks on what becomes an epic project — the This Is England film, set in 1983, followed by three series, ’86, ’88 and ’90 — which takes up the subject of evil and forgiveness to a near-obsessive degree. 

By all accounts it was intense to act in as well

Watching the This Is England sequence is an intense experience. By all accounts it was intense to act in as well, with Meadows playing his usual mind games to blur the distinction between reality and fiction. Since Lol was meant to be depressed and isolated in This Is England ’88, for instance, Meadows banned Vicky McClure from socialising with the rest of the cast. (She was furious with him and sank into a deep gloom — precisely the intended effect.) The main actors had to write lengthy autobiographies for their characters. In the film, Joe Gilgun, who plays Lol’s boyfriend, has a tattoo of her name. The tattoo is real. “You all go mad,” was Gilgun’s summary. “Best and worst time of your life.” The results are unforgettable.

This Is England ’90, the final series of the whole story, ends with a chain of dramatic events: a man giving himself up to his persecutors, as Christ did; a prodigal child returning to their family, as in the best-known Scriptural parable of sin and reconciliation; a glorious wedding feast, the Bible’s image of heaven; and a guest excluded from the celebrations for one of the reasons Christ says some will be excluded — because they cannot find it in their hearts to forgive.

Meadows’s most recent series, The Virtues, bears the same relation to This Is England as a late Beethoven quartet does to a box set of the symphonies: it’s shorter, slower, less thrilling, but it gets under your skin. Yet again, it is about the life-defining moments when one can choose to repent, or choose to forgive. And as in This Is England ’88, the lingering image of the crucifix on the wall suggests how evil can ultimately be overcome.

What would happen if a truly great religious artist appeared in modern Britain? Would he be celebrated for the profundity of his imagination? Or would he be laughed at for having such an unfashionable hobby-horse? My guess is neither. I suspect that he would, instead, be completely misunderstood. People would rave about his films and give him baftas and write glowing profiles of him, and they would completely miss what he was actually up to.

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