This Town: Working Class Cultures on TV


Just 8% of people in film and TV identify as being from a working-class background. Can better, more nuanced representation on screen help? Kenn Taylor on Stephen Knight’s This Town…

Dante (Levi Brown) and Bardon (Ben Rose) – two cousins of Jamaican and Irish heritage respectively – stand on a bridge at Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction.

“You pray to the M6?” asks Bardon. “You could have sectarian conflict with people who worship the M1.” Dante responds: “the M1 people are fine, it’s those M40 bastards that I hate.”

This Town, the recent series from Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight, is an enthralling show focused on working-class life in his native Midlands during the early Thatcher era.

“Their ambitions are for creative expression and recognition, and to extract themselves from the limited options and institutional hostility they face”

Centred on an extended family living on estates around Birmingham and Coventry, the motorway bridge is something the characters constantly return to as Dante and Bardon plot to draw ever more people into their plan to form a band inspired by punk and the ska revival of the late 70s and early 80s. Their musical ambitions driven simultaneously by their desire for creative expression and recognition, and to extract themselves from the limited options and institutional hostility they face.

This Town is relatively unusual in how it portrays its primary setting, multicultural Council estates, with some nuance amidst its style and wit. Often such places are demonised and denigrated in both fictional and factual programming. something that Christian Bell has explored at the Working Class Academics Conference.

“The estates and the wider urban scenery are epic, intense – a landscape that influences and shapes the lives of those within it in complex ways”

It is instead made in a heightened way, one I have seen used more commonly in period costume dramas or yes, slick crime series, but rarely in a story and setting such as this. The estates and the wider urban scenery of the Midlands are shown as epic, intense, a landscape that influences and shapes the lives of those within it in complex ways. There are shots of dank stairwells, but also of the murmuration of birds sweeping between blocks of flats and the mesmerising lights of a night-time motorway. Some scenes are memorably vivid – one shot through the cracked window of a red phone box, another a fight seen in silhouette through frosted glass as ‘Clampdown’ by The Clash plays. As much care is given in how a flat roofed pub or playground is photographed as is Coventry Cathedral.


The main estates portrayed in This Town, Chelmsley Wood and Hillside (though many scenes were filmed at other Midlands locations due to architectural changes since the 80s) are not foreboding terrain, but the background to everyday, messy, life. Sometimes celebratory, defiant, and funny, other times tough, alienating, and frustrating. The tone of the show’s portrayal of life on a Post-War estate reminded me of Jonathan Harvey’s 1996 film Beautiful Thing. As well as the Coventry paintings of George Shaw, whose scenes of the Tile Hill estate are imbued with a sense of emotional intensity that Dante would find familiar. This Town, then, is in part about the poetry of the everyday.

“The pressure is on young people to conform to expectations and to ‘do better’”

Again, it is unusual within mainstream media in the relative nuance and emotional truth with which it handles some of the heavy topics that affect the communities portrayed. Exploring the drivers of alcoholism as well as the damage it does, the impact on young people of early mortality and the intensity of familial and community connections, good and bad. Including the pressure on young people to both conform to expectations and at the same time ‘do better’ and ‘behave’ – even from people who don’t themselves.

The series is not hard-edged realism. The characters are at times hyper-real, almost symbolic, but for me, that is one of its strengths. It’s a slick, moving and funny, romp with some depth centered on people and communities not usually given that sort of portrayal on television. At times, it does use quite a broad brush in how it deals with complexity, but it doesn’t shy away from the impact of racism, police violence, the Troubles and the looming mass unemployment of the time even amongst its more exuberant elements.

The last two episodes do feel too crammed in, wrapping up its various threads too quickly, but I think the series mostly hits home. I respect it for its reach and ambition.

“It succeeds in conveying something of how it felt to live in these communities at this time”

Stephen Knight said he wanted the series to ‘reflect working-class life as it is lived and not how it is perceived.’ To me, it succeeds in conveying something of how it felt to live in these communities at this time. Of course, one jarring difference from now and 1981 is in how, even when musicians do ‘make it’, they can’t now make an easy living from the industry, let alone have the freedom and power Dante and Bardon desire. Knight’s paean is one particular to time, place and experience, but there are plenty more stories of working-class lives that could be just as engaging that have not yet been portrayed.

This is the first production from the new Birmingham film studio backed by Knight, Digbeth Loc. It has a strong feel of place specificity down to a lot of local control in what is portrayed and how, as opposed to a regional location being used for shooting by productions led from elsewhere. This is something my native Merseyside suffers from – used as the setting for an endless slew of crime dramas of varying quality, with the better ones inevitably those with more local control in production.

“Dramas can contribute to and perpetuate stereotypes”

Such crime dramas can contribute to and perpetuate stereotypes. Even more so, they beg the question – what other stories of regional and working-class communities are not being told because they don’t fit the clichés? TV like This Town is rare, especially in an age of streaming’s focus on shows appealing to global, rather than local, audiences.

The bygone era of regional ITV stations saw a drumbeat of nationally important shows come out of Newcastle, Birmingham and elsewhere. Such studios gave vital early opportunities to Samantha Morton in Nottingham and Andrea Arnold in Kent. Those days have gone and those facilities shuttered due to mergers and diminishing advertising revenue for linear television.

“A recent report highlighted that in media professions, less than 10% of people were from working-class backgrounds”

The recent Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre report highlighted that in the film, TV, video, radio and photography sectors, less than 10% of people were from working-class backgrounds – to the surprise of no one from those backgrounds. There is however a new range of studios opening across the country driven by a growth in media production. This includes one in Sunderland, which, like Digbeth Loc, is led locally, by Leo Pearlman, who had success in TV and wants to build an industry where they grew up.

Of course, many of these new facilities may only ever be used by visiting productions, but if more series like This Town emerge, telling particular and rooted stories of place and communities which can also connect with wider audiences, I think we can have a very different media landscape. One that might better reflect society. And it might even produce fresher, better shows too. This Town isn’t perfect, but it’s quite a ride from Chelmsley Wood to Hillside and back and I’d like to see more of it.

Kenn Taylor is a writer and creative producer with a particular interest in culture, community, class and place

Images: This Town still; George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Black Prince, 1999

Posted on 12/06/2024 by thedoublenegative