new drama charts the influence of ska on inner city kids during bleak Thatcher years

new drama charts the influence of ska on inner city kids during bleak Thatcher years

This Town, the new BBC drama from Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight, revisits the Midlands setting, also doubling as a somewhat backhanded tribute to the region and a paean to the two-tone music – an amalgam of ska, punk and reggae – that emerged from it.

The backdrop for Knight’s heroes is the aftershocks of 1970s industrial strife – chiefly Margaret Thatcher’s uncompromising response to the way de-industrialisation drove up unemployment and cut off economic possibilities for working-class young people.

Deprivation, combined with a burgeoning right-wing movement stoking racial tensions and police stop-and-search practices, exploded into violence as the Thatcher era gathered steam. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were also still raging, their effects felt via bombings in England.

Some of the more musically minded kicked against these divisions, channelling their frustration into the fusion of genres at the heart of this drama.

Billed as a “high-octane thriller and family saga of young people fighting to choose their own paths in life”, it opens with dramatic contrast as it means to go on – lines of poetry interrupted by a riot and an act of racist policy brutality.

Set mainly in Birmingham and Coventry, against the backdrop of 1981’s civil unrest, it uses the formation of a band as the hook for viewers and a potential escape mechanism for its young protagonists.

Family, music and violence

Levi Brown plays Dante, a sheltered aspiring poet whose encounters lead him to reconsider his words as lyrics, reorientating him towards music. At odds with his surroundings, he wanders the urban backdrop with his head in the clouds. (It’s implied Dante’s what would be called neurodivergent today, though the language of his peers is blunter albeit affectionate.)

His cousin Bardon (Ben Rose) tries to complete college, and avoid the gravitational pull of the IRA through his father’s connections. Dante’s brother Gregory (Jordan Bolger), meanwhile, begins the series serving in Belfast with the British Army. Dante and Gregory are black, Bardon is white, but the more notable divide is the sectarian one.

For all this, the “thriller” label is something of a misnomer. Knight’s pacing is unhurried, and the band Dante pulls together emerges only gradually as the events unfold. While the story takes place against a background of violence – from casual to chillingly planned – the fights and eruptions are punctuations offsetting a more gradual set of revelations.

These include the slow journey of the band – comprising Dante, Bardon and their friend Jeannie (Eve Austin) – from stumbling hopefuls to focused professionals. Rather than the ups and downs of a rollercoaster ride, there is a building sense of unstoppability as the characters seek their path. This means negotiating the menacing coolness of IRA operatives and a gloriously over-the-top, finger-chopping psychopath of a nightclub owner.

A band of young people, two girls and two boys.
Dante’s band.

Meanwhile, family travails and a background of addiction also pervade the grey, drizzly environment – there are a lot of plot strands. It’s a fine balance between giving the personalities space to develop and tightening the screws, which Knight mostly manages without either excessive slowness or by overcomplicating things, aided by some engaging and nuanced central performances.

Lost in music

Ultimately though, much of what drives This Town forward, and holds it together, is the music. Intimidating special branch officers, gangsters and IRA bombers aside, it wears its social commentary on the upheavals of the early 1980s comparatively lightly, filtering it through the youngsters’ aspirations to transcend their surroundings via their music.

Knight’s drama is to a large extent about identity, especially self-identity. As Gregory warns Dante: “If you don’t get away, you just become what everybody already thinks you are.” There’s also a telling exchange when Dante wavers as he dons the sharp suit and pork pie hat that came to define the image of two-tone music: “It doesn’t look like me.” “But it is you Dante,” his father assures him. “This is who we are.”

The characters’ identities are framed by their music – from ska, through rock and ballads, to Irish rebel songs. Even though Irish DJ and composer Kormac’s brooding underscore contains elements of dub and 1980s two-tone, the overall soundscape is broader. This focuses on the earlier music of the 1960s and 1970s that culminated in two-tone acts like The Specials as Thatcher’s Britain felt the social strain of her economic reforms.

A12-inch vinyl albu of The Specials
The two-tone ska movement swept the early 1980s, elevating bands like The Specials (whose lyrics to Ghost Town lends This Town its name).
Lenscap / Alamy

Acts like Bob Marley, The Gaylettes and Desmond Dekker carry the viewer through the narrative. They also speak to the characters’ inner lives. Alternating scenes featuring Dante and Brandon are bridged by the likes of The Maytals and UB40.

The non-diegetic soundtrack – the music outside the frame of the story, inaudible to those inside it – is rich in historical gems. This Town, though, also uses diegetic music, which is explicitly part of the action, to reveal its characters’ psyches, underscoring the themes of identity and escape, as well as the plot.

Central moments hinge on singing as a way to express the feelings of the emotionally blocked protagonists. There’s a showstopping rendition of Over the Rainbow, for example – Michelle Dockery is a trained singer, and it shows.

Elsewhere, there’s a vocal “duel” of sorts, where Brandon and his father sing across one another with Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want and Pete St John’s Irish folk balled The Fields of Athenry, emphasising the generational split. And all throughout, the departed matriarch – Dante, Bardon and Gregory’s grandmother – is felt and referenced via the birdsong with which she inspired them all as children.

The overall effect is one of deceptive simplicity. Neither quite a thriller nor a straightforward historical account of the emergence of two-tone, This Town echoes the ways in which music is forged by its social context, while shaping and defining the lives of the people who make it.

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