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

You can also find out more about the following: 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 even before the show begins.

This shows how stupid we can be if we try. 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. As with anything innovative, it takes a little getting used too. 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. It is captivating from the start, and by episode three, it has gained the confidence to open a little, take a deep breath, and even admit some welcome comic moments, as tensions between the characters rise, stakes increase, and consequences build toward potential disaster.

Dante (Levi Brown) is a Birmingham college student, and a nascent writer. He doesn’t, when we first meet him, drink, smoke cigarettes or dope, or dance. He is devastated by Fiona’s (Freya Parker) refusal to have a cup tea with him. He is a gentle and slightly 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 sing but not write 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 is impossible. The damage is impossibly wide and impossibly profound. Bardon breaks out of his prison and heads for London. But he’s more trapped than he realized.

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, which is watched by the special branch, puts him in an extremely difficult position. It also brings him to the Midlands.

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.

Brown’s performance as Dante in his debut lead role is outstanding. Brown is one of the few actors who can portray a character so humanly, yet in a way that makes it seem as if it’s a bit odd. 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.

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This Town was broadcast on BBC One. iPlayer now.

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