Stephen Graham

This Is England

Interviewed by David Jones

“We all remember being a kid and being part of something. ”

This Is England is the latest film from acclaimed working class storyteller Shane Meadows. It's a rite of passage tale about bullied 13-year-old Shaun Fields (the name a deliberate reference to the director) who finds an identity in a skinhead tribe. Out of his depth in a world of hormones, violence and extreme-right politics, Shaun is taken under the wing of Combo, a racist played by Stephen Graham.

The Snatch and Gangs of New York actor talks about his new film...

This Is England is a period piece about youth culture in 1983 - the Falklands, Thatcherism and Blockbusters on the TV. How relevant is that era to today?

It's the story of Shane Meadows' experiences growing up, but it's turned out to be a mirror image of what's happening today in many ways. There's not just the wars but the racial thing wars raise, and the tension about immigrants.

There was an incident in Liverpool where a young lad called Anthony Walker was killed while waiting at a bus stop with his cousin and his girlfriend, because he was black [reported on BBC News here]. I took a clipping of that into work when we were filming, just to make the young people who were working on it aware that these things are still happening today.

This Is EnglandSkinheads are one of the most reviled youth movements in history, but This Is England shows a more human side...

The gang of kids at the beginning are lovely - I would have loved to have been in a gang like that when I was a kid. That lot are fun, and I could see them helping an old woman with her shopping bags. I don't think that kind of thing happens today. At the beginning of the film you're taken on this beautiful journey. We all remember being a kid and being part of something. Not necessarily going around smashing windows, of course, but stuff like feeling part of a gang and having your first girlfriend.

Your character, Combo, ruins all that when he comes out of prison and joins the gang. But there's still something appealing about him...

This Is England

Shane said he wanted to create "a skinhead that no-one had seen before", who didn't just do violence for violence's sake. Combo, although he's frightening, can be very charismatic and Shaun looks up to him because he's lost his dad in the Falklands. Combo's a leader, but he's thwarted. His feelings towards Milky [the black member of the gang] are caused by a lot of jealousy and a lot of pain. I'm mixed race myself, and we made Combo that way in the film.

What was it like working with Shane Meadows?

Absolutely amazing. I'd seen everything Shane's ever done, and it's the reason I wanted to become an actor in the first place. Everything's improvised. You'll have a set structure, and for a week before filming we did intense workshops where you develop a whole background history for your character.

Do you agree with the people who say he's the next Mike Leigh or Ken Loach?

I'd agree a million per cent. I believe Ken Loach works a very similar way with his actors.

You were in the Arctic Monkeys' Scummy Man video, weren't you?

I've just done another one for 'em too, where I play a clown who's really a copper. It's a bit mental and quite violent. It's fighting all the way through with just me and a bunch of stuntmen so it was fun to do.

How are things different for kids of the Arctic Monkeys' age, compared to the kids in This Is England in 1983?

There've been steps forward, but also major steps back. I'm an optimistic person but I don't think there's any respect for life anymore, with all these kids of fifteen and sixteen stabbing one another. When we were kids you'd play out in the street until half ten at night and everyone knew where you were - doors were always open. There was a sense of community. I think that's gone, especially in inner cities.

What do you think about the BBFC controversially giving This Is England an 18 certificate, claiming that its "vicious racial language... might give out the wrong message to an impressionable audience"?

I was gutted about that. I think it should be shown in schools. Maybe if those two lads that had killed Anthony Walker had seen the film, maybe they'd have thought again. I think it's ridiculous that some of the cast aren't old enough to see it. These people who are classifying films, are they telling me that kids don't swear nowadays? It's a part of everyday language.

This Is England opens in UK cinemas on Friday 27th April 2007.