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pages from a cold island: HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE THE BOOTBOY

Above: Shane Meadow's 2004 film, Dead Man's Shoes.
My woodwork teacher from school didn't teach me very much in the way of woodwork, but there's one aspect of his lessons which has stayed with me all down the years: the importance of having several jobs lined up in advance. Perhaps Shane Meadows - who at 35 is a year and a half younger than me, had a similar experience. Unusually among filmmakers, he always seems to know what he'll be doing two or three projects down the line - this might explain his speedy work-rate, the fact that he has already completed six features (and innumerable shorts) at an age when most of his contemporaries are still scraping together funds for their debut.
Meadows has always had an admirable work-rate, a determination to get stuff done even if it meant, in the very early days, the results were often decidedly rough-edged. He's prolific, but it would be stretching a point to compare him - at this stage - with either R.W. Fassbinder or Takashi Miike. Also, it's possibly premature to rank Meadows as Britain's next great filmmaker. But, realistically, who else is there? Among active directors under 50, the majority of plausible candidates have only one or two features under their belt: the pick of the bunch being Joanna Hogg (Unrelated) and Xiaolu Guo (How Is Your Fish Today?).
Above: Xiaolu Guo's How Is Your Fish Today?.
Meadows, however, combines talent with productivity and persistence. A down-to-earth East Midlander from a council-estate background - his wayward skinhead youth forming the basis for his biggest hit to date, 2006's This Is England - the teenage Meadows borrowed equipment from a local community group and immediately started churning out comic shorts featuring himself and his mates. The shorts gradually expanded in length, and the 12-minute Where's The Money, Ronnie? (1996) and the hour-long Small Time (1996) found their way into British film-festivals, leading to his first feature - boxing-academy drama Twenty Four Seven in 1997.
Starring Bob Hoskins and costing £1.5m, the picture was given a splashy Cannes launch and quickly became a critics' darling - but made very little impact with the British public. A similar fate awaited Meadows' followup A Room For Romeo Brass (1999) - which was my first experience of his work. There was clearly talent involved - not least in the terrific performances he obtained from his younger cast-members - but I found the picture's stabs at humour heavy-handed and the much-praised work by screen newcomer Paddy Considine more of an energetic audition-piece than anything else.
From my perspective, the jury was still very much out on Meadows - but when I saw his next movie, Once Upon A Time in the Midlands (2002), the verdict was grim. Meadows has always mixed comedy with drama, but here the emphasis was even more on the former than the latter - with disastrous results. I was stunned into rigid disbelief when my fellow critics started an impromptu ovation as the credits rolled at the end of a morning press-show at the Edinburgh Film Festival (an exceedingly rare occurrence at any press screening.) Bizarrely, when the reviews came out, they were nearly all as dismissively negative as myself - and, as with Twenty Four Seven and Romeo Brass, the picture sank without box-office trace.
Two years later Meadows was back in Edinburgh with Dead Man's Shoes, in the interim having expressed his disappointment with how Once Upon a Time In the Midlands had been re-cut by the studio against his wishes. I gave him the benefit of the doubt - and once again found myself stuck to my seat. This time, however, it was because I was in near-uncontrollable floods of tears (it took me several days to fully recover.) A shatteringly poignant tale of revenge and loss - co-written by its (never-better) star Paddy Considine - Dead Man's Shoes is easily one of the best British films of the last 20 years. Sensitive and delicate but unpretentiously gritty, its narrative ingenuity (it would be cheapening to call what happens a "twist") placed firmly at the service of character.
I was disappointed - but not surprised - when Meadows was pipped to the Michael Powell Award (for the best new British film at the festival) by Pawel Pawlikowski's somewhat inferior My Summer of Love. Worse, the film was horribly mishandled by its distributor and marketed as some kind of slasher thriller - a crass gambit which resulted in Dead Man's Shoes becoming Meadows' fourth consecutive commercial flop.
But then came This Is England, Meadows' most personal and accessible work, built around a wonderful performance from 12-year-old Thomas Turgoose as Meadows' surrogate 'Shaun Fields.' It made more money than all his previous releases put together, earned Meadows the BAFTA for Best British Film, and also drew him to the attention of a wider international audience - overseas festivals scrambled to assemble retrospectives of his crowded oeuvre. For me, while it represented a slight but definite comedown after Dead Man's Shoes, it's a solid, likeable picture - one which encouragingly suggested that Meadows was finally moving away from the inconsistency that had marked his earlier career.
Above: Meadows' most recent film, Somers Town.
This impression was confirmed by Somers Town, one of the most charming and delightful releases of 2008, again showcasing the talents of young Master Turgoose. Originally intended as a short promotional film for the Eurostar London/Paris rail-link, Somers Town - the story of a friendship between a Midlands runaway and a Polish lad in a scruffy area of north-central London - grew into a 70-minute mini-feature and enjoyed a respectable stint in British arthouses (alongside Paddy Considine's grim short Dog Altogether.) I first saw the film in Berlin in February, where it was shunted off into a teen-oriented sidebar - and, at the climax, found myself more tearful than I'd been in any cinema since Dead Man's Shoes.
The Eurostar connection has raised eyebrows in certain quarters, though this was perhaps primarily an instance of the British's press identifying a "tall poppy" in need of a little trimming. It's odd, however, that Meadows has so far escaped any criticism for accepting funding from a rather "dodgier" source - he's just done an advert for ASDA, the supermarket giant owned by the American company Wal-Mart.
Not that Meadows would have time to dwell on such carping. He has a no-budget DV experiment called Le Donk in the can, and has finally begun work on his pet project. This is a bareknuckle-boxing epic entitled King of the Gypsies, starring his old pal Considine - who has jocularly referred to the movie as "Shane's Gangs of New York." When I interviewed him in Edinburgh in 2002 - in conjunction with Dead Man's Shoes - he explained his likeably clear-eyed approach:
"I've got a half-million-pound project, a £2m project, a £8m and a £10m project - if we come here and everything goes abysmally bad you know you're going to make the half-million picture, if things go amazingly well you might be able to get King of the Gypsies going."
Things have, it would seem, started to go "amazingly well" for Shane Meadows. About time too.
***
"pages from a cold island" is a monthly dispatch from the British film scene by Neil Young.
For more coverage on Somers Town, visit the Jigsaw Lounge.

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