This Town: Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight brings latest drama starring Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey to BBC

Writer Steve Knight, director Paul Whittington and star Levi Brown talk about their experiences on the explosive new BBC drama, This Town. Abi Jackson reports.

When it came to making This Town, the new original six-part drama from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, it was vital for all the key elements to feel authentic.

Featuring Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery, Django actor Nicholas Pinnock and rising stars Levi Brown and Ben Rose, among others, it’s set in 1981 Birmingham against a backdrop of simmering social tension, political unrest and threats of violence, with tricky family dynamics tying it all together.

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The series follows a group of young people trying to find their path in life. They find it in music, combining their talents to form a band and break into the region’s thrilling music scene erupting at the time.

A scene from This Town, featuring Levi Brown as Dante Williams. Credit: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky.A scene from This Town, featuring Levi Brown as Dante Williams. Credit: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky.
A scene from This Town, featuring Levi Brown as Dante Williams. Credit: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky.

But before getting on to the cast and songs, the first character the team needed to get right was Birmingham itself. While some filming took place at Knight’s new Digbeth Loc. Film and TV Studios, a lot of the series was filmed on location in and around the Midlands city.

Both creator and writer Knight and series director Paul Whittington were eager to capture the spirit and energy of these places at that point in history, including at two council estates that play an important part in the story.

“Paul’s done such a brilliant job,” says Knight. “It’s brilliant, it’s glamorous, it’s dramatic,” he adds of how Whittington brought the council estate settings to life.

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“The idea is that the [housing] blocks and the council estates look beautiful,” he adds, acknowledging estates can sometimes be portrayed in a negative light.

Levi Brown as Dante Williams. Credit: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky.Levi Brown as Dante Williams. Credit: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky.
Levi Brown as Dante Williams. Credit: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky.

Thankfully for Whittington, getting in with the locals wasn’t difficult.

“They were actually very welcoming to us. I mean, if you say you’re working with the guy who made Peaky Blinders, a lot of doors open,” says Whittington, smiling. “So that was a definite advantage. The Brummies are rightly very proud of that show.”

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Of course, Peaky Blinders – the mega popular period gangster crime drama starring Cillian Murphy, which ran from 2013-2022, shot partly in Yorkshire – was also set in Birmingham. Knight, who grew up in an area called Streetly on the city’s borders, has become famed for his love of the region.

Michelle Dockery as Estella. Credit: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky.Michelle Dockery as Estella. Credit: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky.
Michelle Dockery as Estella. Credit: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky.

In many ways, once again, This Town is a love letter to Birmingham and nearby Coventry, and the series has personal roots for Knight.

“This was the era I grew up around, I experienced similar places,” says Knight, who recalls the powerful influence the music scene had at the time.

“When you look back, there was a period in Coventry and Birmingham when a certain sort of music appeared, that people who were completely opposite in terms of race – obviously they weren’t opposite, they were only opposite in terms of race – but suddenly everybody came together.

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“So you go to a Birmingham football match, and after the match, you go to the pubs and you turn up the record player and plug in this music, and everybody was just united.

"It wasn’t deliberate or forced… It just happened. And I thought it would be interesting to tell a story set then.”

Music is often about finding hope and identity and escape, Knight agrees. But he wanted this to be almost something that happens organically in the plot.

He explains: “It [music] appeals to a certain part of the psyche that isn’t rational or reasonable.

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"That’s what I’m trying to do, the idea that they [the characters] are not seeking it out, they’re not trying to find it – this thing is finding them. It’s giving them something that’s different.”

But there are themes in This Town that audiences can relate to wherever they’re from in the world.

Whittington says: “I think it’s really interesting, because it’s a very personal piece for Steve, but it feels very personal to me [too]. And actually, the more personal you make something in the writing of it, the more universal it becomes.

“All the themes of being at that age, of being a teenager and that search for identity – who am I, who’s my tribe? – and expressing that through the music you listen to and the clothes that you wear, that’s something we could all relate to. I have a particular nostalgia for it because I remember that time, and I’m from the Midlands as well. But it’s also universal – you could set this story at any stage in history since the invention of the teenager! So, it really spoke to me in that way,” adds Whittington, who says Knight’s script “leapt off the page” when he first read it a couple of years ago (“the energy of it and the vitality of these characters”).

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At the heart of these characters is Dante – played by Levi Brown – a teenage poet and “good kid” at odds with the social tensions and chaos unfolding around him, who finds himself drawn to the rush and promise of life in a band.

It’s a breakthrough role for Brown, who also hails from the West Midlands and graduated from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2021.

So, what was his first impression after getting the script?

“I think the first thing that came up was fear,” admits Brown, laughing. “How on earth am I going to do this?”

His approach was not to overthink it, he says, and instead just tune in to Dante’s “instinctiveness”.

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It was an interesting character to play, he adds: “It’s the fact he can go from being in front of a gangster, the most dangerous gangster in Birmingham allegedly, and then just go and see the girl he fancies. And just completely switch from moment to moment.”

– This Town starts on BBC One on Sunday, March 31.

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