Posted at 6:39 PM on September 7, 2007
by Euan Kerr
Growing up in Scotland I only ran into skinhead gangs a few times, and thankfully only in passing. You had to quickly check out if the face above the boots and the braces (suspenders) was open and smiling or crunched up in a snarl. Either way you tended to want to leave, faster if there was a whiff of anger in the air.
Skinheads were the crazies you saw at soccer matches, charging the opposing fans, fists and boots flying. Some of them howled foul racist and sectarian threats at anyone they felt wasn't one of them. They enjoyed being feared.
They also had a sense of sartorial style which was very attractive to some people. They might have been looking forma punch-up, but they turned up in tailored jackets, pressed shirts and pants with carefully cleaned boots.
There were skinheads who would tell you that they were part of a working class movement who were just expressing their pride in their roots. There were the anti-racist skins too, leading the charge against the people who tried to recruit new members for the ultra-right wing gangs.
It's the story of Shaun, a 12 year old kid adrift in a northern English town. His dad is dead, killed in the Falklands war. He's bullied at school, and he's clearly facing clinical depression.
By chance he falls in with a group of skinheads led by a lanky lad called Woody who feels sorry for Shaun and forces the rest of the gang to treat him with respect.
Shaun's life turns right around. Yes, it's a gang, but it's a pretty friendly gang. They smash up deserted houses, but they are also unfailingly polite to people like Shaun's mother. Shaun even gets a girlfriend. For a while things are looking up.
Then Combo arrives. He's an older, hardline skin who just got out of prison. As Combo challenges the group to think about what they stand for Shaun has to make some tricky decisions.
Shane Meadows has created complex characters dealing with the everyday horrors of poverty and boredom. He does it well too, showing the humanity of even the least likable characters.
He's also found a remarkable star in Thomas Turgoose, who got the role of Shaun shortly after having been turned down for a part in the school play. Turgoose can turn on the effervescence and incandescence of pre-teen life and he's amazing to watch.
I spent some great years in London doing graduate studies and initially working fot the ICA on the Mall in the West End. While working there I had the chance to meet and go work for some young Brit filmmakers who were pushing the definitions of film language, making working class movies, and putting them up on Alan Fountain's 11 Hour slot on the newly franchised Channel 4 and Film Four International.
One of the filmmakers I worked with was Barry Bliss who made the film FORDS ON WATER in 1982, a gritty little black and white film he wrote with Billy Colvill starring Elvis Payne and had Pete Postlethwaite as his boss. THIS IS ENGLAND remind me of the working class movies from the early 80s when Channel 4 was born. Bliss' film was considered a comedy about unemployed youth from Northern England, a genre that evolved into films like FULL MONTE, YOUNG ADAM and TRAINSPOTTING for which Ewan McGregor became famous as well as the early films of Mike Leigh like HIGH HOPES and LIFE IS SWEET.
When I was working at the ICA there would freqently be groups of National Front Skin's who'd hang out on the Mall and sniff glue and paint from brown paper bags. Glue creates a hysterical buzz and so they could be fairly unpredictable and you'd always have to keep an eye on them. Good thing those Skinheads didn't have access to guns.
The most terrifying thing about the NF Skins on the Mall was that after repeated use of toxic inhalants like glue, their lungs would collapse leading to respitory failure and often death. As much as we dispised their politics and treated them with less fear than suspicion, we'd find ourselves trying to save their lives between screenings of films about working class life in the ICA cinema.
That's soooo 80s as the kids today say.