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3 April 2024

Steven Knight’s This Town is a mess

The IRA, Thatcherism, riots, ska, skinheads, alcoholism, racism, the Catholic Church… Is there anything he hasn’t included in this chaotic BBC series?

By Rachel Cooke

I hardly know what to make of This Town, a wild new BBC drama from Steven “Peaky Blinders” Knight. Yes, I came to it with some trepidation: I don’t particularly like ska – one of the programme’s myriad plot strands has to do with music – and I loathed Knight’s adaptation of Great Expectations last year. But then it began, and I knew immediately I was right to be nervous.

Advance publicity for the series involved throwing around the word “epic” a lot, and this strikes me now as hubris of a most embarrassing kind. The Iliad is epic; a BBC TV drama set in the West Midlands at the beginning of the Eighties probably isn’t. Never trust a show whose locations must be constantly written on screen, the better that the idiot viewer doesn’t mistake Paris for Rome – or in this case, Handsworth for Sutton Coldfield.

At some point, scorn did give way to a vague sense of curiosity, but this had less to do with being captivated by This Town’s plot or dialogue than with astonishment at Knight’s over-egging of, well, absolutely everything. Let’s see. The IRA, Thatcherism, inner-city riots, the rise of ska, gangsters, skinheads, family breakdown, alcoholism, racism, the Catholic Church… Is there anything he hasn’t included? But I guess this is what comes of believing you can improve on Dickens. By episode six, I’ll be seriously disappointed if at least one of his characters isn’t on his way to war in the Falkland Islands; by then, of course, the others will all be on Top of the Pops, having somehow managed to record a 2 Tone number one in their Coventry lock-up (maybe Jimmy Savile will get a look-in, too).

Dante Williams (Levi Brown) and Bardon Quinn (Ben Rose) are – gentle spoilers ahead– talented cousins. The former is a wannabe poet, while the latter is good at Irish dancing and can reputedly sing. They’re good boys, basically, and this marks them out. Unlike his older brother Gregory (Jordan Bolger), a former nightclub doorman now serving in the British army in Belfast, Dante isn’t up for a fight, or even a sneaky Silk Cut; his teenage rebellion takes the form of regularly attending school and writing verse (written for the series by Kae Tempest).

Bardon, meanwhile, dreams of higher education and London, a plan that flies in the face of the ambitions of his weaselly sentimentalist of a father, Eamonn (Peter McDonald), a senior IRA man who wonders what on Earth a son is for if the lad won’t help him launder diesel in the cause of liberating Northern Ireland (and worse).

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I’ve seen two episodes, and a lot (too much) happens: a Provo-priest gets up to no good in the confession box; a beloved old lady dies; a nightclub is burned out; rude boys and skinheads fight wildly in a pub; Gregory falls into trouble with both the army and special branch; and Dante and Bardon decide to form a band with a girl called Jeannie (Eve Austin). And this is before we get to Robbie Carmen (David Dawson, brilliant as ever), a local gangster who sadistically deploys a man’s finger (don’t ask) in the cause of establishing his personal mythology; also, to the surprise arrival of Michelle Dockery, of Downton Abbey fame, in a frizzy wig.

On paper, this sounds involving, even exciting: a fat novel of a show. Somehow, though, it doesn’t quite come off. What, for instance, are we to make of the extended Williams-Quinn clan, who are not only working class, mixed race and exceptionally musically talented, but who also have among their number both a sergeant in the British army and an IRA operative? Are they the Von Trapps of Eighties culture and politics, or what? I mean, honestly. Lip up fatty! as Bad Manners once sang (younger readers: “lip up fatty” is a colloquial expression meaning shut up – and yes, I do know that Bad Manners, another ska band, came from London, not the Midlands, but I just couldn’t resist).

I loved Peaky Blinders, but at this point it has a lot to answer for. Knight, high on its success, is all about folklore now, a quest I find unconvincing and somewhat dubious, his Brum tower blocks rising like castle keeps, the tarmac of the M6 stretching gloriously ahead like the pilgrim’s road to Jerusalem.

This Town

[See also: Michael Sheen’s The Way is audacious, intellectual TV]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown