Comparing montages in the ESL-EFL classroom with Shane Meadows’s This is England
I have recently finished watching This is England ’90 on DVD. Clearly I am a bit late in the game, the series having first aired on Channel 4 in 2015. A long-time fan of director Shane Meadows, it is purportedly the final installment of a saga that began with coming-of-age movie This is England (2006, above), set in the aftermath of the Falklands War. Examining the racism and disaffection of the early Thatcher years, it was followed by three mini-series made for television: This is England ’86, ’88 and ’90.
Meadows’s switch from cinema to television has obviously proved a fruitful one, even if I prefer his early films, notably Room for Romeo Brass (1999), Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and, of course, This is England. Sometimes the television series veered towards soap opera and it could occasionally be relentlessly bleak in its examination of grief and trauma. But not unlike in the films of Mike Leigh, the darker material is often tempered by humour and humanity.
The original cast of Shane Meadows’s This is England
As someone who grew up in the 80s, I noticed some glaring anachronisms in the series, but much did ring true. If I have one major complaint it is the heavy-handed use of incidental music. There was enough drama happening on screen for the viewer not to need it underscored by doom-laden orchestrations.
Criticisms aside, I am glad I caught the final episodes, which chart the darker side of the early 90s drug culture. It was not all about being “sorted for E’s and whizz” and leaving “an important part of my brain somewhere in a field in Hampshire” (as the Pulp song goes). As the title sequence to This is England ’90 shows, the country was in the midst of a heroin epidemic which, accompanied by increased homelessness, unemployment and Thatcher’s infamous Poll Tax, forms the toxic backdrop to the series.
The title sequence to the final series is also interesting in that it recalls and somewhat bookends the montage that began the original film. To the dulcet tones of The La’s’ There She Goes, we bid fairwell to Margaret Thatcher, no longer the figure laying waste to the post-war consensus in the original title sequence, which features archive footage of her in a hard-hat actually manning the controls of a JCB digger (see below).
Visibily older and wet around the eyes, we get an extract of her farewell speech in front of Number Ten Downing Street, juxtaposed with a changing British cultural landscape. Gone are the violent skinheads of the film, replaced by the new hedonism of Madchester-Baggy; the unrest of the miners strikes echoed by revolts against the Poll Tax.
Both montages seem to have potential for the ESL-EFL classroom as a way of not only generating discussion about British society but also about the narrative arc suggested, the rise and fall of politicians and their legacy. Without requiring any in-depth knowledge of the country and the period, the two title sequences also present opportunities for a more universal discussion about social contrasts, and the intersections between politics and pop culture. For detailed ideas about how to structure a course around the film in its entirety, there are already some great resources online.
The theme would better suit high school age pupils, students and adults.
Depending on the age group concerned, you could do a brainstorm on one of the following themes (or have different groups work on different brainstorming themes):
- The 1980s
- Margaret Thatcher
I generally like to ask students what comes into their mind first when confronted with the subject. Rather than just soliciting words for a mind map, have them choose a “top five” brainstorming ideas in pairs and be ready to justify their choices. This way their responses are more focused and there is more interest in comparing their choices to those of other groups.
Put the students into pairs or small groups and show them the opening sequence of the original film.
Have them share their observations around some simple prompts, such as:
- social issues
- popular culture
You might want to play the clip twice as the montage is quite rich in information. You could play it once with and once without the music, too, to elicit ideas about its effect on the imagery.
You could also have students predict what the film could be about.
Once students have shared their ideas in small groups or pairs, solicit suggestions from the whole class, noting down useful vocab and structures for all to see.
Tell students they are going to watch a second montage about England seven years later. Depending on the age of the students, you could ask them to predict in what ways society might have changed.
Show them the clip and have them share their ideas in small groups/pairs again, around the same prompts. Have them compare the changes in each category shown (popular culture, politics, society, etc.) This time also ask them what impression of society the filmmaker wanted to give. Is it mostly negative or mostly positive?
You could do one or a combination of the following tasks in groups:
- Have students research and present a particular issue or trend shown in one of the sequences (the poll tax, for example, or Madchester, the Strangeways riot etc.)
- Have students imagine and present a similar sequence for their country (either today or in the past). What contrasts would they show? What music would they choose and why?
- Have students imagine and present a story and/or characters for a state-of-the-nation film based in a particular era. What kind of characters would they choose and why? What situations would they face?
- Students might need help with vocabulary related to British political institutions (Downing Street, Prime Minister etc.) and social conflict (strikes, protests etc.)
- Sequencing words to explain a montage/narrative (then, after [that], next, finally etc.)
- Second conditional (i.e., “If I made a film about my country, I would …”)
- Comparatives (“more optimistic/pessimistic than”, “poorer than” etc.)