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This Town review: A new Steven Knight tale that feels deeply personal

This Town review: A new Steven Knight tale that feels deeply personal

“This town,” sang The Specials in 1981, “is coming like a ghost town.” The song, by the Coventry-based ska revival band, became the anthem of urban decay during the Thatcher era. Music – and only music, it seemed – could speak to the way that inequality was crushing the zeal of a generation. This is the milieu of This Town, a new six-part BBC One series from Steven Knight that celebrates how, at the margins of society, music is not a distraction but an escape.

Birmingham, 1980s. Gentle poet Dante (Levi Brown), wandering the streets a heartbroken mess, runs smack into a combustible clash between protesters and police. There, he connects with livewire Jeannie (Eve Austin). “You still weird then?” she asks him.

Elsewhere, sensitive Bardon (Ben Rose) is being pressured by his father to engage in activities in support of the IRA, while Dante’s brother Gregory (Jordan Bolger) is currently deployed with the British army in Northern Ireland. And finally, among the pubescent cohort, there’s Fiona (Freya Parks), an edgy record-shop employee and the object of Dante’s unrequited affections. These relationships – as tangled as spaghetti junction – form the backdrop to a story of creativity blossoming even in the tinderbox of social unrest.

“How could I have been so thick?” Dante observes, in a moment of realisation. “Words need music.” And so, the native poetry of the Brummie man is merged with ska, as Dante, Bardon, Jeannie and Fiona come together to make music in the madness. It’s a coming-of-age tale expedited by circumstances: Dante falling in with a bad crowd, while Bardon struggles to get out from the yoke of his father Eamonn (Peter McDonald). The dreams of gentle men, in perpetual tension with the world around them.

If you’d asked me, a few weeks ago, whether I’d already seen a show called This Town, written by Peaky Blinders creator Knight, I’d have had to toss a coin. From Serenity to Spencer, SAS: Rogue Heroes and A Christmas Carol to All the Light We Cannot See and Great Expectations, Knight has been on the sort of prolific streak that makes James Graham and Jack Thorne look like idle layabouts. It’s also a very hit-and-miss résumé, one that exposes the lack of imagination among commissioners. And yet unlike the confected schmaltz of All the Light We Cannot See or the dumbed-down Dickens of Great Expectations, This Town offers Knight a chance to return to the Midlands of his youth, his upbringing among the turbulence, and a tale that feels deeply personal.

At the heart of this are the charming central quartet. Brown, particularly, is a revelation in the lead role, giving Dante a strange fragility. It is a tender performance, aided by Austin, Rose and Parks, who offer variations on themes of friendship, family and romance. Knight has also assembled an excellent grown-up (well, older) cast, too, with standouts including Michelle Dockery as Bardon’s addict mother and Nicholas Pinnock as Dante and Gregory’s father, himself in recovery. These generations mirror each other, exposing the cyclical nature of ambition, its fruition and destruction.

Knight isn’t a writer who deals with his themes particularly subtly. Peaky Blinders always quivered on the verge of being “prestige” TV, but was ultimately too tempted by the impulse to be something mainstream, lapped up by primetime TV viewers. This Town is blunt, too. Issues such as structural racism are dealt with sympathetically but crudely. The depiction of the activities of the IRA, equally, is rendered in vivid strokes that verge on pastiche. The emotional delicacy of Dante and his poetry is not reflected by Knight’s storytelling, which privileges big, bold actions – eruptions of violence, shock betrayals, starry-eyed kisses. “We’ll take over the whole f***ing world,” Bardon declares in a moment of youthful confidence, and at times, it feels like Knight has never lost that exuberance.

Which is why Peaky Blinders was a smash hit, and why This Town works. For all the sadness, all the exploitation and abuse, there is a joyful streak. Compared to many of Knight’s recent projects, the show feels personal to him, and, as a result, the characters come bursting into life. This Town is no ghost town.