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This Town review – there is no point in resisting this bold, brilliant TV show

Steven Knight’s six-parter about the formation of an 80s new wave band is intelligent, ambitious and anarchic. But be warned: it can feel oppressive at first

‘Keeping it weird and human’ … Levi Brown as Dante Williams in This Town Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear about a film or drama series about a band getting together, the spirit quails within. I prepare for “Let’s put the show on right here!” vibes and the equivalent of poor Billy Zane’s line in Titanic – “Something Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing!” So it is with a heavy heart that I approach This Town, the new offering from Steven Knight (of Peaky Blinders fame). It’s about the formation of an 80s new wave band, influenced by the preceding popularity of ska, reggae, two tone and punk, with the tracks the characters write created by record producer and songwriter Dan Carey and poet Kae Tempest. I am exhausted before it even starts.

Which just goes to show how very stupid one should try not to be. This Town is an ingenious piece of work, with such intelligence, ambition and heart – shot through with a borderline anarchic spirit – that it can and should overcome all resistance. It does take a bit of getting used to, as anything innovative will. There is – and there’s no easy way to say this – a lot of poetry going on, especially in voiceover, especially at the beginning, and the opening couple of episodes occasionally feel a bit oppressive. But it is compelling from the off, and certainly by episode three it has found the confidence to open up a bit, take a breath and even admit a few welcome comic moments as the tensions among the characters mount, the stakes rise and consequences build towards potential catastrophe.

At the centre of the piece is Birmingham college student and nascent poet Dante (Levi Brown). He doesn’t, when we first meet him, drink, smoke cigarettes or dope, or dance. He is heartbroken by the girl he fancies, Fiona (Freya Parks), refusing to go for a cup of tea with him. He is a gentle, gently odd soul. Or, as his friend Jeannie (Eve Austin) puts it, “A weird fucker.” She is very fond of him. She writes music but can’t do words. He can do words but not music. We brace ourselves for things to turn Rooney-Garlandwards immediately, but instead we get the story of an extended family – loving, beset by demons, embroiled with the IRA, broken, defiant – and the band’s an offshoot of that. It’s an examination of art as an escape, of suffering and despair as a crucible in which talent can become genius.

‘Heartbroken’ Dante (Levi Brown) and Fiona (Freya Parks) in This Town. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos

Dante’s cousin Bardon (Ben Rose) lives in Coventry with his bullying father, Eamonn, who is heavily involved with the local IRA “battalion” and pressurising his wholly unwilling son into greater involvement with the movement. Through them and Bardon’s mother, Estella (Michelle Dockery), and grandmother Marie (Geraldine James), we get a rare intimate portrait of the effects of living under the rule of a terrorist organisation. Fear is everywhere. Normal life cannot proceed. The damage runs impossibly far and impossibly deep. At one point, Bardon makes a break for London, but he is more trapped that he ever realised.

There is also Dante’s older brother Gregory (Jordan Bolger), who complicates things substantially by being a member of the British army stationed in Belfast. He is everything Dante is not – a hard man, known and respected for it – but who got out of a life of crime and into the forces just before it swallowed him whole. A family funeral surveilled by special branch puts him in a terrible position, brings him back to the Midlands and provides the narrative torque for much of the latter half of the six-episode run.

Almost as an afterthought, but one whose impact is out of all proportion to his screen time, is Gregory’s old boss. Gangster Robbie Carmen is setting up a new music venue – purely as a front for selling drugs – and is looking to recruit both a security team and new acts. Carmen is played by a truly terrifying David Dawson, especially in what I am going to call the finger scene – the first thing I have ever seen on television that made me retch unstoppably.

The performances are all excellent but Brown as Dante, in his first lead role, is extraordinary. You seldom find a character credibly written as odd because they have to have a makeup all of their own, but to have an actor able to portray it as nimbly, to keep it as weird yet human as Brown does is rarer still. But everyone is digging deep and bringing out of Knight’s bold, brilliant work all the profound heartbreak and wisdom that lies in it too.

This Town aired on BBC One and is on iPlayer now.

Written by Lucy Mangan for The Guardian

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