In my usual haphazard way I only 'discovered' Shane Meadows' multi-part magnum opus, This Is England, with the current (and final) mini-series that is airing on Channel 4, This Is England '90.
Having been so impressed with what we have seen (the feature-length, conclusion to the entire saga airs this Sunday), Rachel and I realised we really needed to see the earlier parts of the tale, to get a better handle on the characters and their arcs.
Last night, we cued up the film that kicked off the saga, Shane Meadows' semi-autobiographical 2006 drama, This Is England.
Set in a rundown Northern seaside town, at the same time as the Falklands War, this is the story of 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who has just lost his father in the war.
Bullied at school, he is adopted by a local group of skinheads, fronted by good-natured Woody (Misfits' Joe Gilgun), becomes part of their gang and starts romancing a girl called Smell (Rosamund Hanson).
All seems to be going well until an old friend of Woody's - Combo (Stephen Graham aka Al Capone from Boardwalk Empire) - turns up. Combo has just been released from prison, along with his White Supremacist pal Banjo (George Newton), and drives a wedge into the gang with his racist and nationalist diatribe.
Swayed by Combo's charisma and his appeal to Shaun's memories of his father, Shaun sides with Combo and is gradually transformed from a carefree young kid to a little thug... until he gets to witness the violent reality of Combo's world for himself.
This is a movie about friendship and the power of belonging, as well as about a character using a distiorted belief system as an excuse to satisfy his own needs, such as raiding a newsagents to steal drink and cigarettes for his crew, or beating up a supposed friend because his heart has been broken by the woman he professes to love.
While the film boasts an extended ensemble cast, This Is England is Shaun's story through-and-through. This leaves a lot of the other characters with unresolved plot threads, which is why the film needs to be seen as the first episode of a larger story.
In the hands of a less committed creator, this deceptively untraditional narrative approach could have dissolved into a mess, but time and again in the film's 100-minute running time Meadows demonstrates an incredibly subtle mastery of the art of storytelling.
For the most part, while gritty and in-your-face, this is a positive story about growing up at a specific time in British history.
Although This Is England builds to a brutal climax, it presents a very different view of skinhead life than seen in such films as American History X or Romper Stomper, as it addresses the issue of what went in to creating this sub-culture.
Following on from the events of the movie, Shane Meadows and his incredible cast created a trilogy of television mini-series, This Is England '86, This Is England '88 and This Is England '90, charting the ups and downs of the characters' lives as they get older and adapt to changing political and social circumstances.
Very much not my usual cup of tea, Meadows manages to draw such compelling performances from his actors, most of whom had little or no experience when he began this tale, that gives its a very naturalistic feel.
Joe Gilgun, for instance, is now one of my favourite actors since I first saw him in Misfits. He has such a gift for timing, both dramatic and comedic, that his character's quips and one-liners feel like they're improvised as the camera rolls, gleefully reacting to unexpected developments. I can't wait to see him as the mouthy vampire Cassidy in next year's Preacher.