At the beginning of 1990, the director Shane Meadows was not yet a director. In truth, he wasn’t really anything. “I was 17, I had a slight, gingery moustache, my hair was starting to recede, yet I decided to grow a wedge. I looked like a right pickle. I didn’t know who I was. I had a ski coat on and some stonewashed jeans. I was, like, ‘I need something really badly. Because this isn’t working. I used to be a skinhead, and that looked great. And now I’m just a moron.’”
It turned out this was the year he ceased to be a moron. By the end of it, he was on his way creatively, having enrolled at Burton College on a performing-arts course; he had met the actor Paddy Considine, who would become his friend and muse; Margaret Thatcher, his personal antihero, had been driven out of Downing Street with tears in her eyes. And he was singing in a band that had a devoted following, albeit on the exclusive Burton upon Trent circuit. “It was like God handed me all my dreams in one go.”
Meadows has never forgotten that year, so much so that he has chosen to end his This Is England series — which began with a feature film set in 1983, then transferred to TV for stories in 1986 and 1988 — in 1990. Episode one is a paean to a time of unfettered optimism, when the Stone Roses were the new Beatles and it genuinely seemed possible that the right pills and the right beat could solve everything.
“I started going to nightclubs when I was 15,” Meadows says, “and I can remember the violence in the air. If you went to Birmingham or you went to Stoke, you’d be getting into scraps every night. Then something happened — this whole territorial thing with the football violence seemed to reach its peak in the late 1980s, then it just went. Obviously, ecstasy made a huge difference at the time.”
Rave culture created new social networks before the term had been invented. Far from hating people from other parts of the country — the default on the terraces — or living a life in pubs and council flats, suddenly everyone was driving everywhere.
“The UK became really small,” Meadows says. “People would get in a car for four hours just to have a cup of coffee in a motorway service station. You’d go somewhere and, rather than thinking ‘Am I going to get out of here with all my teeth?’, you were thinking, ‘I’m going to come out of here with some new friends.’ I had mates in Huddersfield, mates in Maidstone… You were kind of welcome everywhere. It didn’t last for ever, but there was this period of time when it all became a bit more humane, a bit more normal. There was something beautiful happening.”
Meadows is not the only one who looks back on 1990 as a sun-tinged year zero. This Is England ’90 comes on a wave of 1990s nostalgia that, 25 years on, has brought us the reunion of the Stone Roses, Blur and My Bloody Valentine, a revival of grunge-era fashion and, on television, returns for everything from TFI Friday to the forthcoming resurrection of The X Files and Twin Peaks.
Mark Herbert, Meadows’s longtime producing partner, puts it down in part to growing up and settling down — the people who danced with their tops off in fields in 1990 are the ones now making films and television. It’s natural that they would want to return to their cultural lodestone, even if the best they can do is re-create it.
“I noticed it when we made this special on the Roses,” Herbert says, referring to Made of Stone, Meadows’s 2013 documentary charting the reunion of the Manchester band in 2011-12. “There are a lot of people of that age who are now commissioning and making decisions — they are reflecting their own culture.”
Meadows sees 1990s nostalgia as a collective midlife crisis born of the necessary constraints of middle age. “If you’ve just done kids for the past 10 years, you get to that bit where you suddenly start to remember the time when you felt most free. You either crave it or you are nostalgic about it.”
You could argue that his midlife-crisis formulation applies to every generation, and that 1990 viewed from 2015 is no different from any other year seen from a rose-tinted vantage point half a life later. Yet what is striking, watching This Is England ’90, is how much the recent past looks like another world. Technology has changed collective cultural experiences to a bewildering degree. “I didn’t have email in 1990, I didn’t have a phone,” Herbert says. “All of those things my kids cannot imagine living without. Yet it’s not that long ago.”
There was no GPS available in 1990, no internet browsers or Google. All of these things have become integral to the teenage experience in a startlingly short time. Try explaining what a pager was to your kids.
“I actually went once to try to find this rave,” Meadows recalls. “We drove around for five hours. It was this huge thing — everyone had been talking about it for ages — but we couldn’t find it. We thought we were going to have to sit by the car, put this cassette on and have a really shit rave in the middle of nowhere.
“Then we heard this drumming. We ran for 20 minutes, following the noise. As we started to approach this big hill, there was a bloke with a white wizard’s gown on and a massive sword. We hadn’t found a rave, we’d found a pagan festival.”
It’s a funny story, but it was also a formative experience that couldn’t have happened much after 1990. Music, and the way we consume it, changed irrevocably with the digital revolution, the invention of the MP3 and the rise of Napster. Today, music is “shared” more than ever, yet sharing music means something markedly different from what it meant for Meadows and his friends in the back of their clapped-out Metro, or for the characters in This Is England ’90.
Meadows points out that it didn’t last for ever, and he is too astute a film-maker to let This Is England ’90 ignore the darker reaches of what came after the initial high. He mentions that some of his friends went from ecstasy to heroin and ketamine — what he calls “the personality-sapping drugs” — and he knows how the buzz faded, as the hazy euphoria was replaced by superstar DJs, £25 superclubs and a litany of stories about ecstasy deaths from dehydration.
Still, the afterglow of 1990 has not receded in modern culture. And in the minds of today’s youth, restrained by economic woes not of their own making, it’s no surprise that the idea of the second summer of love retains its allure.
“The year before 1990, I was being told the best I was looking at was being a dustbin man,” Meadows says. “A year later, I’m singing in a band with Paddy Considine, inspired by the Stone Roses. I had that one beautiful year. If this is the end of This Is England, what better way to finish?”
This Is England ’90 starts on Channel 4 next Sunday