This Town review: Ignore the toe-curling Irish stuff, Steven Knight’s new series is worth sticking with

Television: Peaky Blinders creator always had strange ideas about Irish people, and the Irish characters in This Town are no different

In the run-up to the Oscars, much of the conversation was about how Robert Downey Jr needed to move on from Marvel and Iron Man – a mega-franchise that had stereotyped him as a wisecracker in a metal suit. What was widely overlooked was that the same argument applied to Cillian Murphy and Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders.

Much like Downey Jr and Tony Stark, Murphy had become synonymous, in the eyes of some, with his Peaky Blinders bad boy character, Tommy Shelby. And just like Iron Man, it had become a creative millstone. Shelby was a one-note character. Murphy needed to move on, which he did, winning the best actor Oscar for Oppenheimer.

Knight needed to move on from Peaky Blinders, too. The Birmingham period romp had always flirted with self-parody. But by the end, it was lurching ever further into unintentional comedy. A Peaky movie is (alas) in the works. In the meantime, Knight has smartly put clear daylight between himself and the show with his uneven but promising new series, This Town (BBC One, Sunday).

It is set largely in Birmingham and Coventry in the early 1980s, when – according to this telling – the Provisional IRA plotted in the shadows, and young people were either chucking petrol bombs at the police or dreaming of joining the city’s new generation of ska and punk bands, taking on the world, not with violence but music.

There are a few wonky notes. In an early scene in Belfast, a woman shouts what sounds like a racial slur at a black British soldier. She immediately clarifies that she wasn’t referring to his skin colour but to the fact he was a “Black and Tan”.

It is classic Knight: improbable, illogical, ludicrous and ahistorical. It isn’t the only such moment. Later, the IRA commander in Coventry (Peter McDonald) and his British-born son Bardon (Ben Rose) are washing diesel when Dad breaks into Fields of Athenry.

His son, keen to assert his individuality, counters with Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want. They have a sort of sing-off that sounds more like something from The X Factor than a serious social history of the pre-Thatcherite British West Midlands. Kudos to all for getting through it with a straight face.

Knight has always had strange ideas about Irish people. Remember Charlene McKenna’s femme fatale IRA from Peaky Blinders? The Irish characters in This Town are every bit as heightened and bedevilled by cliche. When an IRA enforcer turns up, you half expect the “Imperial March” theme from Star Wars to strike up. She is a cartoon villain parachuted into what Knight clearly imagines to be a street-level socialist realist drama.

It’s a pity Knight goes down this route because This Town is otherwise solid. It starts with a soccer riot, into which aspiring poet Dante (Levi Brown) has blundered while mooning over a girl. Meanwhile, in Belfast, his brother Gregory (Jordan Bolger) – the one accused of being a Black and Tan – is pinned down by rock-chucking youths (Knight makes the weird choice to play the Belfast stuff for laughs). Down the road from Dante in Coventry, Bardon is chafing under his father’s iron thumb.

They are fascinating and vividly drawn characters – as is hipster record store worker Fiona (Freya Parks), with whom Dante is obsessed. There are some twists too – such as when Bardon’s nan (Geraldine James) dies in mysterious circumstances after warning the local priest that the IRA want to get their mitts on her boy.

This Town isn’t nearly as gritty as Knight apparently believes and is, in places, merely silly. But, just like Cillian Murphy, Knight had to get away from Peaky Blinders – and This Town could be the start of an engaging new chapter. Ignore the rough edges – and the toe-curling Irish stuff – and it’s worth sticking with.

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