Steven Knight's This Town celebrates the midlands music scene

Steven Knight's This Town celebrates the midlands music scene

By Roz Laws,
Wednesday, 3rd April 2024
This Town: Jeannie Keefe (Eve Austin) and Dante Williams (Levi Brown) (Credit: BBC)
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Steven Knights’ new BBC drama recreates the vibrant early-80s music scene in the Midlands. Roz Laws listens in

The new BBC One drama This Town opens with the streets of Birmingham ablaze with violence during the Handsworth riots of 1981, before the action moves to council estates.

But its creator, Steven Knight, wants to make it clear that his working-class tale is not bleak or tragic, but set in a vibrant world full of energy and promise. He even manages to make tower blocks and Spaghetti Junction look beautiful.

Knight made his native Birmingham an exciting place to be in Peaky Blinders, and now he celebrates the emerging musical scene of the West Midlands in the early 1980s, which brought us bands such as UB40, The Beat and The Specials.

He told the audience at a red-carpet premiere at Birmingham Town Hall, supported by RTS Midlands, that This Town is a project close to his heart. He said: “It’s a love letter to Birmingham and Coventry but I hope it tells a universal story with a global reach, about teenagers trying to find their identity and take control of their own destiny.

“It’s not bleak, dark and tragic, these are young people who just get on with it.”

This Town follows an extended family who live on the council estates of Chelmsley Wood in Birmingham and Hillside in Coventry, featuring four young people whose only way out is through music.

The six-part series, produced with Mercury Studios, has music as its beating heart. Six contemporary artists, including Gregory Porter, Celeste and Self Esteem, each recorded a cover version to play over the end credits, while Kae Tempest and producer Dan Carey wrote the songs performed by the fictional band.

The cast includes Michelle Dockery, Geraldine James, David Dawson and Nicholas Pinnock, plus rising stars Levi Brown, Ben Rose and Eve Austin, as well as Coventry actor Jordan Bolger who played the original Isaiah in Peaky Blinders.

Director Paul Whittington said: “One character dreams of being a poet from his council tower, and why not? Steve has written a magical world full of energy and vitality that’s an incredibly exciting place to be. Dante is writing love poetry underneath Spaghetti Junction and it’s utterly joyous.”

Knight agreed: “Chelmsley Wood and Spaghetti Junction really are beautiful. People say, ‘Oh what a shame it’s so bad’, but it’s not like that to those who live there. I wanted to reference working-class life as it’s properly lived, not how it’s perceived by other people.”

The panel at the screening included two of the main young stars, Levi Brown, from Dudley, who plays Dante and Eve Austin, from Nottingham, as Jeannie.

Brown noted: “We don’t celebrate our stories as much and I think Midlands stories get put to the side quite often, so it’s been nice to grow our artistic identity.”

Executive producer Karen Wilson added: “There have not been enough dramas set in the Midlands. It’s been brilliant to film here [with new company Kudos Knight] and to get a pipeline of new productions coming out of here, finding writers, stories and talent from the region.

“People have got bored of content made in and about London and Manchester. The audience really enjoys watching themselves back and we haven’t seen enough of that in the Midlands.”

Knight ended the event with some advice for would-be writers by quoting Leonard Cohen: “He said: ‘All you need to be a writer is arrogance and inexperience’. You have to believe you can do it and then not realise that you are doing the wrong thing.”

The This Town premiere, a BBC production supported by RTS Midlands, was held at Birmingham Town Hall on 19 March. The series is on BBC One on Sunday nights and on iPlayer.

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