How 'This Is England' Became The Greatest British TV Show Of The Decade

Shane Meadow's epic drama is over. Sam Parker reflects on three seasons of sustained brilliance. Contains a great many spoilers

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Countless TV shows have mined the extremities of human experience to create drama. Rape, murder, drug abuse, acts of horrible violence: we're so used to seeing it on our screens, we are almost numb to it.

What made This Is England different is that it tried, harder than any other show on British television, to show the consequences of these terrible moments. The show's co-writer and director Shane Meadows is not just interested in the dramatic money shot – Combo erupting in violence, Lol killing her father, and so on – though he does these brilliantly (has there ever been a more disturbing scene in British TV than Mick raping Trev?). Instead he is interested in the fall out. He is interested in what happens next.

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That is what This Is England '90 was all about, and what made it the most ambitious – and yes, as a consequence, uneven – series of the three to date.

It was all there in that dinner table scene in episode three. Ten minutes of unflinching fall out, the secrets buried in the group tumbling out over the plates of leftover sprouts. In the midst of that scene's almost unbearable verisimilitude, the multiple explosions and aftershocks – Kelly's raging denial, Chrissy's shame, Shaun's incomprehension – in the middle of it all Woody tells Milky: "Forgiveness is fucking underrated, mate". And of course if there is any lesson in This Is England, this is it.

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For this final series we found Woody and Lol finally in a good place. They have forgiven each other and themselves. This Is England's boldest and greatest achievement – its willingness to explore the ways in which childhood trauma shapes and distorts a person's adult relationships and life – had reached something like closure, as Lol found some measure of peace with the legacy of her sexual abuse. The way Vicky McClure subtly shifted her portrayal to reflect this was the perfect way to cap what has been the show's standout individual performance. Over the three seasons she has been incredible.

As we were promised, this allowed the other characters to take centre stage, and while Chanel Cresswell (Kelly) and Andrew Ellis (Gadget) made a good stab of it, replacing Woody (Joe Gilgun), Lol and Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) as the show's beating heart was always going to be difficult. They are too affecting, those three, even when life is going reasonably well.

If there is one criticism to be leveled at the finale, it is that Kelly's storyline felt a little washed over. What happened in the weeks between her shrugging off Gadget's attempt to help and her showing up at Lol and Woody's wedding, ready to reconcile? Did she really stop her descent into heroin use, as she told Lol? Either way, why didn't we see it?

For the first and only time, it felt like Meadows had pulled a punch. As good as it was to see the gang reunited and back where they belong at the end – dancing and hugging and drunk – it didn't feel fully earned. The season's best episode, which ended with Kelly gazing at a perfect British pastoral reflecting on her first experiment with heroin, promised so much. If only we'd been given as much time with her as we did her sister. Instead too much ellipsis robbed Kelly's storyline of its emotional impact.

Which of course leaves Combo, This Is England's elephant in the corner, its perpetual looming presence. Stephen Graham has described the character as his best work to date – better even than his celebrated turn as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire  and it is true that the show always seemed to go up a gear whenever he appeared on screen, deployed sparingly but to devastating effect by Meadows. Is there a more instinctive, compelling British actor working today? It feels like an injustice – a certain amount of snobbery, perhaps – that most people barely know who he is while others sleep rough to watch Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican.

It is a small miracle of story telling that in the course of watching This Is England the film and its three follow up TV series, we get to a point where it is heartbreaking to watch Combo, the racist thug who beat a teenager almost to death, being carried away to his own end, crying that he doesn't want to die. How difficult it was to watch the maelstrom of emotions that passed wordlessly over Graham's face as he sat in that van: traces of the defiant hard man Combo used to be, resignation to a fate his new, reformed self feels he probably deserves, and finally, of course, awful, naked, human fear. Milky (Andrew Shim) – always the weakest link in the cast for me – got his revenge, but now must live with the guilt. Forgiveness is underrated.

In the end, it is hard to think of another TV drama with the emotional impact of This Is England, even those that have sprung out of America's boxset golden age. Meadow's ear for comedy and his gift for social realism were the counter weights around which this cast of largely untrained actors assembled to develop their curious, idiosyncratic, utterly joyful chemistry. They genuinely loved each other, and so we loved them too. And while the Maggie montages and the fan boy soundtrack sometimes fell short of the title's bold proclamation – while I am not sure Meadows quite managed to tell the definitive story of 1980s / 90s England – he managed to capture the spirit and humanity of an English working class so often denied either in our polluted public discourse. They were flawed, mad, beautiful and yes – unmistakably English. How we'll miss them.