Wednesday, 03 April 2024 20:00

'This Town': Trite, tropey, bloodless, racist guff

'This Town': Trite, tropey, bloodless, racist guff

Fran Lock gives the thumbs-down to This Town. Image above: Bardon Quinn (Ben Rose), Gregory Williams (Jordan Bolger), Dante Williams (Levi Brown) (Image: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos)

So far there's a lot to loathe about this bafflingly feted BBC drama. I need to get it off my chest, so I'm going to start with the biggest and work backwards. Okay? No? Great.

From the moment Bardon Quinn's (Ben Rose's) father walks into “The Well Hung Gate” we know he's a Provo. How do we know? Because he looks like every other Provo in the history of British television. He's got the stare, the swagger, the unofficial uniform. Of course, every member of the Provisional IRA operating in the 1980s had one of those long, brown leather coats. It's like a mating display. It's how they recognised each other. Deep sigh. We also know because of the way he is back-slapped and glad-handed up to the front of the room, where Bardon is completing a vigorous bit of competitive feis. Dad's late. Bad Dad. But not late enough to prevent him from generating a clunky bit of expository strop to the effect he needn't have bothered turning up to “play the big Provo” because Bardon would have won the feis anyway without his sinister influence.

And so it begins. Is the basic set-up (if not the details) credible? Sure. But it's hardly nuanced, and already the show has succumbed to the lazy, racist default of much British television, dividing the Irish into two categories: the “good” Irish, defined by a cute, consumable performance of picturesque traditions, who have nevertheless assimilated the social norms and (a)political aspirations of mainstream British society. And bad “paddies”, a rotating cast of religious zealots, hard-cases, 'ead-the-balls, terrorists and terrorist sympathisers, living like vipers at the tit of the British state. This was established – hell, this was old – when Shakespeare was writing. And Shakespeare this very much is not. Bardon and his Nan represent the former category, with his Dad (and from the look of things, pretty much the entire Irish community of the West Midlands) firmly in the latter.

There are so many problems with this, it's hard to know where to start. Perhaps with the implication that to be working-class, Irish, and living in Birmingham in the 1980s was to be uniformly PIRA-adjacent. I think some folk would strongly dispute that. Then there's the fact that the Provisional IRA itself presents alternately as an elite crew of near-omniscient comic-book baddies, and as the kind of grubby, small-time thugs who interest themselves in putting the fright'ners on little old ladies.

Even Nan's confessor is a morally compromised conduit between his flock and PIRA Area Commanders. Yeah. Let's leave the relative shoe-horniness of that particular conceit to one side for a minute, and focus on the massive tap-dancing elephant in the room: if Birmingham in the 1980s was such a hot-bed of PIRA radicalisation, why was this the case? It didn't take place in a vacuum, did it? Nobody joins the Provos recreationally.

While This Town is happy to depict senseless (and institutional) anti-black racism, with a cop walloping an innocent Dante (Levi Brown) during the opening scene, we get no sense of what it was like to experience anti-Irish racism in Birmingham during the 80s. We get no sense of the police brutality meted out to Irish people in the Midlands. Daily. For generations. You don't need to take my word for that. For a big, obvious Googleable instance of anti-Irish racism in action, look no further than the arrest, wrongful conviction (and subsequent decades-long imprisonment) of the Birmingham Six in 1974. Seriously, look it up. I'll wait.

 Consider also, the fallout from the 1981 hunger strike in Long Kesh. This had an enormous impact on both the treatment of Irish persons in Britain and on the recruitment of young men and women into PIRA. By June of 1981, all ten of the hunger strikers in Long Kesh – young men between the ages of 23 and 29 – were dead. The media coverage of the strike galvanised support for the Irish Republican cause and generated an equal and opposite quantity anti-Irish sentiment in the UK. The only nod This Town makes to any of this is when the female IRA enforcer threatening Dear Auld Nan sticks a Bobby Sands poster on Bardon's wall over his more traditional pictures of popstars and footballers.

I have a lot of feelings about this scene, not least the implicit link the show makes between support for the Long Kesh hunger strikers and the ruthless cruelty of this female operative, but I'll stow that one for a minute. The most germane and troubling issue with this episode is that because This Town is devoid of any political context, the motivations and behaviours of the characters are reduced to two-dimensional stereotypes, stereotypes that paint the Irish as inherently thuggish and violent. Worse, the violence and cruelty of these Irish-at-home becomes a tacit justification for the presence and behaviour of the British armed forces in the North of Ireland. Let's talk about that, shall we? Because this is the point at which I was swearing volubly at the TV.

We're introduced to Belfast, and the Falls Road in particular, through the eyes of Dante's brother Vigil/ Gregory (Jordan Bolger), a somewhat queer-coded eccentric who wishes “both sides” would just “sing to each other”. These scenes raise further questions. Chiefly: what the actual f*ck? Because who is genuinely buying the British armed forces in Belfast as a group of weirdly affable peacekeepers? Christ. Artistic licence is one thing, but this is dangerously (and insultingly) ahistorical. It's also a strange denial of documented historical reality that Virgil/Gregory, a sensitive, black sergeant in the 1980s, doesn't appear to be experiencing any racial tension within his unit. Meanwhile, the Irish get to be characterised as a homogenous balaclavaed mob, and the complexities of the civil war are rendered with about as much subtlety and depth as Boney M's deservedly forgotten, imaginatively, titled disco single, 'Belfast'.

On the subject of music, I also want to give a special shout out to what has to be one of the stupidest scenes in recent television: the sing-off in a dodgy lock-up between Bardon and his Dad. On the father's side the haunting rebel standard The Fields of Athenry. On the son's, Desmond Dekker's civil rights Trojan banger You Can Get It If You Really Want. Presumably, the latter is a declaration of allegiance to the culture, politics, and social concerns of a forward-facing multicultural Birmingham; the former representing the regressive and parochial nationalism of the Irish past. In which case: did anyone with a hand in this show actually listen to either track?

Both songs are about enduring through injustice and retaining one's dignity in the face of persecution. Both songs posit a future the speaker themselves might never get to inhabit, but a future nonetheless in which victory over the forces of oppression is assured. The most charitable spin you can put on this scene is that we, the audience, are supposed to understand the common root of these songs in a way the characters do not. But if it's truly being played for dramatic irony, then that's not coming across. My take-away here was that there are some minority struggles the BBC deems acceptable, and some it clearly does not.

As a side note: growing up in a PIRA saturated landscape where every third person is either an operative or an informer, does it not seem odd how politically disengaged Bardon is? I mean, not just apolitical, not just apathetic, but almost supernaturally ignorant? Actually, this weirdly disconnected quality filters through the entire episode like an irritating beige mist. Dante is obviously supposed to be disconnected, he's the dreamy, vaguely spectrum (in a cute, audience-friendly way) wannabe poet, who somnambulates into a riot because he's pining over a girl who wouldn't join him for a cup of tea. But it's not just him. It's the whole sodding thing. “Birmingham just exploded” says Dante's Dad. And as audience members that's all we're given: spontaneous combustion.

I'd also like to point out that the only people expressing strong political sentiments at all are the aforementioned murderous Irish and Jeannie (Eve Austin), whose poorly defined anarcho-socialism is played for laughs as a front for opportunistic thievery. This character has great potential, but she's coming across like a bovver girl version of Wolfie Smith, and it's kind of annoying. My point is that throughout the episode political conviction is depicted as being either risible or dangerous, while to be apolitical or politically ambivalent is coded as a mark of intellectual and spiritual superiority. Hummm.

I know we're supposed to find Dante relatable, quirky and charming, but because he's so shut off from the world around him the character can't help but coming across as self-involved and ultimately kind of unlikeable. None of this is Levi Brown's fault. He's clearly doing his best, and in places is compellingly unknowable, but the script is hot dogshit (more anon), and the poems it has Dante write are the worst kind of bunkum. While this kid's city is burning he's arse-farting on about having his heart broken with about as much sense of urgency as limestone eroding. He's not even doing it well. Quite apart from how painful it is for me to listen to bad poetry, if any of us are supposed to believe in Dante as this smouldering enigmatic presence, he needs to be penning something of a like credible intensity.

I'm telling you now, speaking from my position of embodied authority as a formerly pretentious self-involved little feck myself, that a smart kid who listens to Leonard Cohen would be capable of writing something a million times more interesting (I don't say “better”, but more interesting) than the pallid twaddle Brown is being asked to deliver with such conviction. As a working-class kid who wrote poetry, I actually find the lack of lyric reach, the narrowness of his expressions and concerns, pretty frustrating, pretty insulting. If the logic is that Dante's poetry needs to be something the average BBC audience can “identify with” or “understand”, than God in heaven, the team behind This Town can't have a very high opinion of the average BBC audience.

Which brings us neatly back to the dialogue. Oh my God, the dialogue. Which reads like Steve Knight might have seen a working-class person in a field, at a distance, once, although on reflection that might just have been a big cow. There are the moments when the characters discuss how working-class they are and how shit it is in a painfully contrived and unconvincing manner; there are the over-wrought scenes with “broken hearts” flopping about all over the shop. The best/ worst of which is when Nan actually declares “my heart may be bad, but it's also broken”, dissolving what might have been a fruitfully tense scene into a big gooey bathetic mess.

I also found myself cringing when Dante tells his Dad: “A girl at college said people like me don't write poetry. I said Joan Armatrading's lyrics are poetry, and she's from Wolverhampton.” Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. That's not a real, organic conversation, that's a shoe-horned author insert, at best. It's feeding Dante a line, it's making a none-too-subtle point. One that didn't need making in the first place. And no, dialogue doesn't need to be a perfect simulacrum of real speech, some of the best shows around have played precisely with highly stylised dialogue, but there does need to be a bit of verisimilitude, there does need to be internal consistency. This Town is all over the map, unable to decide between social realism and whimsical melodrama.

Melodrama is a good word in general, I think, for a show that has walking tropes rather than characters. We know from the minute Dante appears on screen in his ugly duffle coat that he's going to be our nerdy, slightly spectrum, sensitive everyman. From Jeannie's oxbloods, bomber and bleachers we know she's going to be the street-smart toughie with the heart of gold. Bardon is obviously the tortured libertine. God, even David Dawson's thin-lipped sinisterly camp “gangster” is an unconvincing take on Mark Strong's much meatier portrayal of Harry Starks over twenty years previous. And of course, the straw Provos.

We've seen it before, is my point. Ad nauseam. The setting is glorious, and the soundtrack is obviously banging, but these things are being asked to do all the heavy lifting. This is supposed to be a “love letter” to the Midlands, but the Midlands deserves better than a few lines scribbled in biro on a beer mat. While I’m willing to admit that this is only episode one, and happy to hope that the show will develop in complexity and depth as it progresses, having only one unique, precious human life, I don’t propose to waste any more of it on this.

Read 668 times Last modified on Wednesday, 03 April 2024 20:12
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.