Ska struck

Ska struck

May 15, 2024

In production

In Steven Knight’s BBC drama This Town, a group of young people are drawn into the explosive new world of ska music in 1980s England. Executive producer Katie McAleese looks back on making the “unconventional” show and creating its original soundtrack.

Described by writer Steven Knight as a love letter to the English cities of Birmingham and Coventry and the ska music scene established there in the 1980s, BBC drama This Town is set against the backdrop of immense social unrest and tension.

Opening amid riots in 1981, it tells the story of a group of young people fighting to choose their own paths in life, each in need of the second chance that music offers.

Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey), Nicholas Pinnock (For Life) and David Dawson (My Policeman) star alongside rising talent including Levi Brown (Loss & Return), Jordan Bolger (The Woman King), Ben Rose (Line of Duty), Eve Austin (You), Freya Parks (The School of Good and Evil) and Shyvonne Ahmmad (Annika).

Filmed on location in the Birmingham area, and at Peaky Blinders creator Knight’s own Digbeth Loc Film and TV Studios, the series comes from Kudos (which previously worked with Knight on SAS Rogue Heroes) and is coproduced with Mercury Studios, which helped to create the soundtrack.

Music producer Dan Carey, musician and poet Kae Tempest and singer-songwriter ESKA have all contributed original songs that are performed by the band in the series, while artists such as Celeste, Gregory Porter, Olivia Dean, Ray Laurél, Sekou and Self Esteem also recorded cover versions of timeless classics and iconic songs for the era.

Banijay Rights is the international distributor.

Here, Kudos executive producer Katie McAleese takes DQ on a tour of This Town, discusses the casting process and explains why its 40-year-old story still resonates today.

Katie McAleese

Introduce us to the story of This Town.
This Town is set in Birmingham and Coventry in 1981. Episode one centres on a young man who’s a bit of an eccentric, wants to be a poet and has a very different view on the world. Through him, we meet a group of people trying to figure out their paths in life. Other people have expectations or demands about what they ought to do with their lives, and it’s about the coming together of this group and finding a way to define their own versions of themselves through music.

Now the series has aired, what are your reflections on making it?
You never quite know what a show is going to be while you’re making it. This show, in many ways, is quite unconventional. There are no murders, no big mystery engine. It’s talking about a lot of different things. But the ideas at the centre of it are about how you live and about creativity. Everybody involved in the making of it really believed in what the show was trying to do, but you don’t really know what it’s going to be until it’s done and it’s out there in the world. All of us are incredibly proud of it because it’s a show that really is on its own terms, and there’s a lot of integrity in the way the story is told.

How did Steven Knight first pitch you the project?
The broad area of the storyline is something we took to Steven – doing something set in this place, at this moment when all this music was happening. In the most brilliant way, Steven just connected with that and saw how it resonated with his own life and experience. He talks about the fact that if Peaky Blinders was the stories his grandparents told him, then This Town is the stories he grew up with. He describes it as a love letter to Birmingham and Coventry, and that comes through in the scripts. He’s really put himself into it and found a way of talking about things like storytelling and creativity and who that belongs to. It feels like a really personal show for him.

Set in Birmingham and Coventry, This Town opens with two different riots

What were your first thoughts about how you would make it, and the production challenges that might lie ahead?
Our first thought was, ‘This is very big!’ It’s a period piece, which always brings its own demands. There are two hero locations in Birmingham and Coventry, so it’s not just in one world. And there are some quite challenging things at the centre of it. We open with two different riots that needed to have scale, needed to look dynamic and be attention-grabbing and exciting, and there are a number of key scenes set on a motorway bridge.

We end episode one with Dante [Brown] standing on the parapet of the bridge, and we had a lot of conversations about, ‘Is there an alternative to the standing on the motorway bridge?’ ‘Could he stand under the motorway bridge?’ ‘Is there anything else that could do that job?’ But the way the imagery of the motorway runs through the series, and is a parallel to the way music runs through it, we realised we just had to hold on to it.

In the brilliant way that production does, everybody focused their minds on how to execute that, so we are partly over a real motorway, but obviously you can’t hang actors or cameras over a real motorway. So we built the parapet and did it against a green screen in the studio. You just you have to know what the absolute core moments in the script are and be as ingenious as you can in how you deliver them.

The cast features a mixture of established actors and newcomers. What was the casting process like?
The casting process, particularly for finding the young band members, was long. We were trying to find people who could inhabit those characters, but also do what the show needed them to do musically – everything you hear played by the band is played by the band for real.

We were really worried about where we were going to find our Dante, and then Levi came in at the end of the process and blew us away. He just has a lightness, a playfulness and a charm and is able to bring all of those qualities to the way Dante sits at the heart the series.

Bardon goes on a big emotional journey and he’s at the centre of a story that’s as close as we’ve got to a thriller strand. But all the way through the early episodes, we’re creating this idea he’s going to be our frontman. Ben did a brilliant audition, but we’d also asked everybody to supply a self-tape of them playing music. As soon as we started watching Ben with the guitar, singing, we were like, ‘He’s a rockstar.’

L-R: The cast includes Jordan Bolger, Levi Brown and Ben Rose

Where did you film the series and how did locations lend themselves to the show?
We filmed the series all around the West Midlands – Birmingham, Coventry, Stoke, Wolverhampton. Finding the hero tower blocks that feature in the series was a real challenge. We ended up finding four tower blocks that are scheduled for demolition, which meant they were empty. This allowed our art department the opportunity, but also massive challenge, to bring those to life and make them look occupied. What we loved about that location was the grass and the openness around it. As well as the starkness of the tower blocks, you also have a sense of beauty and scale, and that was key to all of the departments.

The scenes under the Spaghetti Junction [an infamously complex road junction in Birmingham] are shot under the real Spaghetti Junction. There were a lot of conversations about creating a ‘wow’ reaction and finding the scale and the epic. That’s where locations like Coventry Cathedral really worked hard for us. We had a lot of conversations about whether we were going to actually use it because it’s such a big job to light it. But when you look at it in the series and the beautiful stained glass and sense of scale, there’s a reason it was worth fighting to make it work.

What kind of visual style did you want for the series and how was it achieved with director Paul Whittington?
Paul talked a lot about movement early on. We had conversations about joy, youthfulness and energy, and there’s a partnership between the camera and the way the music moves through it. Steve had very much written sequences with particular tracks in mind, almost designed to be montages that carried us through. What Paul and our DOP, Ben Wheeler, did so brilliantly was to give us that movement, energy and fluidity in the camera, so the camera is moving a lot. It shows us the world in 360 – it soars up with aerial shots, and that speaks to the idea that although these characters are trapped within worlds and stories, they’re trying to break out.

Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery on location

Did you have any challenges in filming?
Yes, for various reasons. The story was originally set in summer, and the way the production dates fell meant we ended up shooting through the winter, often outside and still grappling with the legacies of Covid. There were a lot of days where people were standing out in the cold, freezing rain, but everybody involved in the show really believed in what it is and what it was doing, so there was a real love and joy that everybody brought. I’m not sure we would have got through without it.

How did you choose the classic songs that would appear in the series, and who would cover them?
We worked in partnership with Mercury Studios, part of Universal Music Group, and alongside our music supervisor, [director] Paul and our editors, who were very tuned in to the music choices.

The end credit songs are part of the drama, part of the mood of how each episode ends, and it was about finding the alchemy of songs that speak thematically to where we are at the end of the episode and who are the artists who will then bring something that elevates it, acknowledges what the song is at its core but also turns it into something contemporary that feels very of the moment. Mercury were amazing at bringing in that roster of contemporary artists and creating the dialogue between them and Paul to talk about what each of those tracks should bring in terms of the emotional mood and flavour of it.

The BBC series debuted at the end of March

You also worked with Dan Carey, Kae Tempest and ESKA on original music for the series. How did they become involved and what was that process like?
Early on, we talked a lot about who was going to write the original songs because they needed to feel credible, not TV people’s idea of music. They needed to feel rooted in the period but also speak to now, and most of all they needed Dante’s spirit and unique voice at the centre.

When Mercury suggested Kae, it felt like the most absolutely perfect fit. They just tuned in to Dante and to the character. The fifth song, This Town, came quite late in the process and we knew we needed the final song the band would play on stage. Kae had about 24 hours to write it and we were going back and forth with Steve discussing what the song would be about. We landed on redemption, lifeboats and connection, and had a list of words that we sent over. The next morning, this track from Kae dropped into our inbox. It was fully formed, and that’s how this show climaxes. It’s impossible to think of the series without it.

Dan was amazing. We had artists like Self Esteem because they were very happy to be working with him. The way he worked with the show’s band was incredible. Ben is in a band, Freya [who plays Fiona] is a bass player in a band, Eve [who plays Jeanie] was learning the keyboard from scratch. We were putting actors through a band camp alongside rehearsing and shooting. Dan was integral in giving them the confidence and excitement and bringing them together so that, when they went into the studio, they could play those songs as a real band.

How does the series speak to a particular time and place in Britain but also speak to audiences today?
It is very much rooted in the moment, but a lot of it speaks to now in terms of social tensions and inequalities, and the cost-of-living challenges. But there is also something really universal at the heart of it, which is about being young and about where creativity comes from, and who gets to be creative. I remember Levi once saying it’s about people who want more than what they’re being offered. There’s something universal and powerful in that.

Why might the series appeal to international audiences?
It brings us into a specific time, place, music scene and sound that people might not have come across before. Hopefully there’s a real joy in discovering that and falling in love with the music. But what these characters are going through are things people go through anywhere. They’re about ordinary lives but the epicness of that, and hopefully they’re characters who anybody watching can see a bit of themselves in, and see a bit of their youth and find excitement about the possibilities of life.

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