If Chanel Cresswell had known at 15 what she knows now – that she was going to spend the next 10 years of her life in the company of a gang of fictional skinheads, face storylines involving sexual abuse, drugs and violence, be forced to sport a pink mohawk and (most dubious of all) learn to dance like Bez from Happy Mondays – the aspiring actress might never have turned up to a casting session at Nottingham's Television Workshop in the summer of 2005.

But she didn't know and so, accompanied by a schoolfriend called Danielle Watson, she did turn up, eager to audition for a director who was already a big name in the city: Shane Meadows.

"I remember thinking there was no way in hell I was going to rise above the amount of people that were auditioning," she laughs. "I was only 15 and I'd not done much before professionally, so I went in with the attitude that there was no point."

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The film she was auditioning for was This Is England, Meadows's blackly comic and deeply autobiographical story about a group of ska-loving skinheads living in an unnamed northern town in 1983. Not that Cresswell knew this at the time.

"I didn't know anything," she says. "All I knew was that it was a skinhead film. That was it. I never knew what part I'd be playing or whether I'd be in the gang. But when I was at the second audition someone said 'You do know you have to shave your head don't you?' I started laughing. I thought it was a joke. And then before I knew it, I was in a chair having my hair cut off'."

Cresswell landed the role of Kelly Jenkins, younger sister of Lol Jenkins, This Is England's lead female character. A then-unknown Vicky McClure took that part, and she and Cresswell were joined in the cast by Joe Gilgun, as Lol's boyfriend Woody, newcomer Thomas Turgoose as Shaun Field (a thinly-veiled version of Shane Meadows) and Stephen Graham, who would go on to play Al Capone in HBO blockbuster drama Boardwalk Empire. Danielle Watson also made the cast, playing Kelly's friend Trev.

But what has kept Cresswell and Kelly together for a decade is Meadows's subsequent TV updates of the story. The characters he created were so vivid, their continuing stories so urgently needing told, that he has since made This Is England '86, a four-parter which screened on Channel 4 in 2010 and set the action during the 1986 World Cup, and This Is England '88, which moved everyone's lives two years further on and screened in 2011.

Next Sunday, viewers can watch the third and (possibly) final television instalment, This Is England '90. Set over a year and relayed in four seasons, it starts with the gang discovering the joys of the Madchester scene and rave culture as well as their attendant narcotic pleasures (fans of The Stone Roses can expect goosebumps as they watch Cresswell dancing to Fool's Gold in episode one). Then it pans across the so-called Second Summer of Love in its middle sections and turns darker as autumn gives on to winter and the drugs take hold. And it's Kelly Jenkins that they really grab.

"I've never taken drugs in my life, hand on heart. I've never taken one," says Cresswell. "That's just my upbringing. But from what I've seen at parties, there's always that one mate who isn't having a very good time and they take drugs and it heightens that negativity in them. That's basically what Kelly's doing."

Although Turgoose's character Shaun is based on Meadows, it's Gilgun and McClure as Woody and Lol who have tended to dominate so far and events in the Jenkins household which have provided the darkest moments. To date we've seen rape, a death (Lol kills her abusive father with a hammer at the end of This Is England '86), a suicide attempt (Lol's, in '88) and the birth of Lol's two children, one fathered by Woody, the other by Milky (played by Andrew Shim).

"Kelly's had a lot going on around her," says Cresswell, which is possibly the understatement of the decade – this one or any other. "In this series all these problems are heightened by having drugs. I think a lot of people forget that when there's one person having to be leaned on all the time it affects that person, then when everyone else is alright that one person is stuck with all those problems. They still haven't gone away. And that's what Kelly is going through. She was helping her sister, then her dad died, then her sister was having kids with two of her best friends, and she's had to be there. With this one, mixing all that with drugs takes it down a more negative path."

Still, at least Cresswell is allowed a relatively normal hair style in this series. Following on from her skinhead look in the original film – "It was Prom time at school and all the other girls got asked and I didn't," she tells me. "I put that down to the hair" – she wore a shaved-at-the sides pink mohawk in '86 and purple cockatoo do in '88.

Here, however, she has flowing golden locks. But how did she learn those hands-in-the-air moves?

"I actually Googled 1990s raves and things like that. We all did. There are some really funny videos on there. So we watched a lot of footage of people in that era dancing to that sort of music and based it on that. But you have to go with your own instinct. I don't like to completely imitate something. I think you should always put a twist of yourself in there as well, so there was a bit of me and a bit of 1990s."

When Cresswell talks of "that era" she isn't being cute. Born in January 1990, she was just three months old when the action in This Is England 90 starts, so it's only now that we're even into her lifetime.

"I feel like I'm a human who's living this life and I've also been dropped into a time warp and gone back," she says.

As on the two previous series, Meadows's co-writer is playwright Jack Thorne, who cut his teeth on Shameless and Skins, adapted Let The Right One In for the National Theatre of Scotland and was recently unveiled as the pen behind Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, JK Rowling's upcoming West End production.

When Cresswell says this is the most challenging storyline she has yet had to face, he agrees.

"Kelly comes to the fore in a massive way and it's amazing to watch," he says. "And Chanel does a really interesting thing in that she becomes something a bit different in this, and it's been wicked watching her transform herself and Kelly."

Ten years in a fictional gang cements relationships off screen as well as on, and it's no different for the cast of This Is England. The way Meadows tells it, it was when Thomas Turgoose's mother died just months after shooting finished on the original film that he first glimpsed the bonds between the young ensemble he had assembled. The whole cast travelled up to Grimsby for the funeral and it was then that he knew he had to continue with their stories.

Today, those bonds are even stronger. Cresswell tells me about a recent trip she made to the V Festival in the company of several other cast members, Turgoose among them. I tell her it must have caused a few double takes.

"Yeah, we're all really close," she says. "Ten years is not a job, it's a family. And that's the difference. It was 10 years since we were 15 so we've all grown up together as well. So it's more than a friendship now."

Cresswell and Channel 4 are coy about Kelly's ongoing storyline in the new series and cautious about giving too much away, so it's not clear where she ends up or in what sort of condition. Accordingly the actress meets the inevitable questions about a possible fourth instalment with a verbal shrug of the shoulders. "If Shane wants to do something he'll do it," is what she will say. "So if we keep talking about it enough, who knows? It might happen."

Writer Jack Thorne is more forthcoming.

"I would love him to do more," he says. "I think everyone would love him to do more and if he did I'd be desperate for him to want me to still work on it. But it's his story and if he wants to continue it on, that's great. But if he wants to leave it there, that's great too. I mean he's the dude, you know what I mean?"

As for the dude himself, even he doesn't seem to know what's going to happen. But Joe Gilgun said recently that he had heard whispers of a This Is England '92, and speaking at last month's Edinburgh Television Festival, Meadows didn't quite dispel the rumours.

"It's a full stop in pencil because how can you know?" he said. "The one thing I won't do is ruin the legacy on purpose. I won't cash in. And if I've done enough on this that if I never come back, I won't feel like I've left it open-ended. But you never know with them lot. They're very addictive."

This Is England '90 begins on Channel 4 on September 13