Knight on the Town

Knight on the Town

By Michael Pickard
March 1, 2023

The Writers Room

Is Steven Knight the busiest screenwriter in the business? With three dramas on air last year and several projects coming in 2023, the Peaky Blinders creator opens up about his upcoming ska music drama This Town, adapting Dickens and building his own production studio.

In 2022, Steven Knight had three series on air, with SAS Rogue Heroes launching in the same year that period gangster drama Peaky Blinders (pictured above) and sci-fi series See concluded after six and three seasons, respectively. But if anyone thought the film and television screenwriter might be looking forward to taking a break, Knight had other plans.

Rogue Heroes, which tells the origin story of the famed British military unit, has been renewed for a second season, while Great Expectations, his second take on Charles Dickens for the BBC and FX following 2019’s A Christmas Carol, is due to air in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, a long-awaited second season of his Tom Hardy collaboration Taboo will be filmed next year. He has also written Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See, an adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s wartime novel; Apple TV+’s Ferrari, about the life of racing car pioneer Enzo Ferrari; Elisabeth Moss-led thriller The Veil; Disney+ period boxing drama A Thousand Blows; and Maria, a film biopic of singer Maria Callas with Angelina Jolie in the title role.

“That’s enough to be going on with,” he jokes. “A lot of those things were written during the pandemic. Obviously, no one else was able to do anything [in lockdown], but writers could carry on, and so in a way that let me get ahead of myself. But the things that have been shot, they’re bloody brilliant. They look really good. All the Light is so good, and Great Expectations is coming very soon.”

Steven Knight

When it came to adapting Dickens for a second time, “what I don’t want to do is say, ‘Right, I’m going to tear this up and it’s going to be radical,’ because the book has endured for a reason – because it’s really good and the story’s good,” Knight says. Instead, he sought to include themes and elements he believes Dickens himself would have tackled had he written the novel today.

“If Dickens was writing now, he would be more at liberty to write the stuff he couldn’t write about then, and I just imagine he would go to the dark places quite explicitly. That’s what I’ve done,” he says.

But while Great Expectations and another new Knight project, 1980s-set music drama This Town, may appear to be at opposite ends of the dramatic spectrum, he believes they are both connected in a particular way.

“They are very much about escape and people born into a particular environment who want to get out of it,” he says. “That links them both. That’s the fuel for both stories.”

Currently in production, This Town (fka Two Tone) is a period drama that opens in 1981 and follows the story of an extended family and four young people who are drawn into the world of ska and two-tone music.

Distributed by Banijay Rights, the series is produced by Kudos and Mercury Studios and features a cast that includes Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, Nicholas Pinnock (Marcella) and David Dawson (The Last Kingdom). Levi Brown (Loss & Return), Jordan Bolger (The Woman King), Ben Rose (Line of Duty) and Eve Austin (You) play the show’s four lead characters.

Knight has described the six-part series as a love letter to the English cities of Birmingham and Coventry, set during an era he lived through and knows well. In particular, the story concerns four young people “in quite bad predicaments,” he says. “They were born into council estate life at a time of a lot of social upheaval. They don’t just need to escape for the usual reasons of poverty; they need to escape for very specific reasons, for things that are going on around them. The two lead characters are being led into lives of crime, let me put it that way. It’s more specific than that, but there’s no escape.

L-R: Levi Brown, Jordan Bolger, Ben Rose and Eve Austin play This Town’s four lead characters

“However, along comes this thing called ska music and two tone. For reasons that will become apparent when you watch the series, it offers them a glimmer of light to get out.”

Knight says finding the show’s young leads was nothing short of a miracle, owing to specifics he had written for each character. “But somehow we managed to get these four people who are just a unit,” he continues. “It’s a difficult one to shoot but the spirit is amazing because the performances are so good.

“What I’m trying to do is depict that life I grew up in and not say, ‘Oh God, isn’t it awful, isn’t it horrible, isn’t it dreadful?’ But to see the beauty in it. People who live there are not walking around thinking this is so horrible and ugly all the time. My idea is to try to find the beauty in those council estates as the sun sets, and the joy of the life of the people living there.”

Elevating the series will be the use of music throughout, with producer Dan Carey and musician and poet Kae Tempest joining the project to write original songs for the band that becomes a central part of the story. Knight also invited a number of contemporary artists to create music for the show, using the brief: “Imagine it’s 1981. Write us a song.”

“And they’ve come back with something unbelievable,” he says. “This is going to be remembered hopefully for the drama but also the music . We’ve got the soundtrack, which is music that was around at the time – two tone and ska – but also stuff written for us from some really good names in the music industry. I’m just so excited about it.”

Following in the footsteps of Peaky Blinders, This Town promises a similar blend of family drama with a thriller element – plus ska music. “And people dress well. That also has an effect,” Knight notes. “It’s trying to do all those things but keep the vocabulary real and the characters as odd and bonkers and unpredictable as real people are, and trying not to make conventional fictional characters.

L-R: Michelle Dockery, Nicholas Pinnock and David Dawson also feature in This Town

“I always think that, in fiction, a character is one thing and cannot be anything else, just that all the time, but people are not like that. They change every 10 minutes. That’s what I tried to do – to not necessarily obey the rules of fiction.”

Should This Town return for further seasons, Knight also has a plan for the show to follow its characters further into the 1980s. But unlike Peaky, he hasn’t already envisioned where the drama might finish.

“I don’t have an end for this, but like Peaky, what happens is you’re led by events,” he says. “Maybe it jumps to 1984 and the Miners’ Strike and so on. In a way, you look at that and think, ‘How are my people going to be affected by this?’ and that gives you a seed and a germ of what happens next. It will be led by history, a bit like Peaky.”

Knight serves as creator, writer and executive producer on This Town – which is directed by Paul Whittington and produced by Charlotte Surtees – though he doesn’t consider himself a showrunner in the same vein as he might were he working on a US drama.

“The showrunner role, I think, is important when there’s a group of writers. But I don’t tend to work with a writers room. I tend to write it myself,” he says. “The showrunner element of making sure the scripts are OK is me. But I’ve done showrunning and it’s an odd thing because if you’re making a feature, the thing you do is employ the best people and let them get on with it. That’s the best way to do it.

“It can get horribly complicated. Sometimes when the budget is too big, it becomes difficult because there’s enough money to screw it up. But when money’s tight, which is sometimes an advantage, you just have to get on with it. It’s not an official role of showrunner but I’m all of those other things.”

Knight’s SAS origin story SAS: Rogue Heroes has been renewed for a second season

Knight isn’t simply overseeing production of This Town, however. The project has become the first major drama to be filmed at the recently opened Digbeth Loc Film & TV Studios in Birmingham – which has been established and is run by the writer himself. Eight years ago, he first identified the site as one that could be turned into a production base in the West Midlands, a “big hole” in the centre of England where facilities were lacking. The BBC has also confirmed Digbeth Loc will become the home of its flagship cookery format MasterChef from 2024.

“Having worked in the industry for a long time, I know how hard and how brutal it is for the crew,” he says. “It’s really bloody long hours, it’s cold, wet, miserable, very unglamorous work. The different with Digbeth Loc is it will be designed to be a place where it’s actually fun to be. There will be an opportunity to talk to other creative people in different disciplines; there will be nice places to eat, drink and sleep; and I’m trying to get it so all crew can stay on the campus, so everybody walks to work.”

He also plans to utilise the local canal network and clean up a section of the river Rea that runs through the site.

“It’s a very ambitious plan,” he says, “and we’ve started before we’re ready, which I think is always a good thing. We started This Town and we’re still constructing the thing. But it’s working brilliantly. There’s a great energy and feel to the place, which I love. It’s an ambition of mine that is coming to fruition and, with all of my stuff, I’m putting forward the idea that we shoot it there as a strong preference.”

Notably, Digbeth Loc will also be the home of a long-discussed Peaky Blinders feature film, which is due to go into production later this year. “The script is written and it’s going to be a fitting end – the end of the beginning, I suppose,” Knight says after bringing down the curtain on the series last year. “After that, if people want it, we might go into the 1950s.”

However, the launch last year of a dance theatre show, Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, written by Knight and directed and choreographed by Rambert’s Benoit Swan Pouffer, has already proven that Peaky has the legs to continue far beyond its original television format.

So might there be a Peaky Blinders Universe of spin-offs and follow-ups to rival Marvel’s superheroes? “Exactly,” Knight adds. “Why should they have all the fun?”

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