The recent BBC drama This Town was widely applauded by reviewers, but Pat Stack found its portrayal of Irish republicanism too inaccurate, distorted and biased to swallow.  

Specials ‘Ghost Town’ memorabilia from Coventry Music Museum and 2-Tone Village. Photo by Diego Sideburns used under CC licence

Steve McQueen, the celebrated director of films such as Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, and the outstanding TV drama Small Axe, once wrote that 1981 was a seminal year for him. He saw Tottenham win the FA Cup, and he discovered politics through the hunger strikes of republican prisoners in Northern Ireland.

McQueen was greatly moved by the heroism and courage of these young men sacrificing their lives for a cause. He could sympathise with and understand their journey, one that had begun with fighting against a sectarian partitioned state that treated Catholics as second-class citizens. A movement that began with peaceful resistance was met with determined violence and brutality by the sectarian state and the British Army. He had grasped why young men and women in Northern Ireland had ended up in the Provisional IRA.

Sadly, it would seem that Steven Wright, the creator of the highly celebrated Peaky Blinders, gained his whole understanding of Irish republicanism from the Daily Mail, the Sun, and the British establishment.

This may seem a very strange opening to a review of This Town, a TV drama about teenagers in the early 1980s attempting to form a band inspired by two-tone music, but Wright made Irish republicanism a most unlikely feature of the drama, and one that destroyed any credibility the series might have had.

I was very much looking forward to the series. I was a big fan of the two-tone scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but unfortunately the show had completely lost me after episode one.

Stereotype

This Town is set in Birmingham and Coventry, with the three main characters being two mixed race brothers Dante and Gregory, and their white half Irish first cousin, Bardon. Dante and Bardon dream of forming a band, and see music as the escape from the difficulties and disappointments of their lives.

All very promising, but Bardon is the son of a Coventry-based Belfast-born Provisional IRA member, and much of the plot is based around this. The portrayal of Irish republicans and republicanism in general is one dimensional and bizarre – something you would expect from a lazy right-wing propagandist rather than a highly rated screenwriter.

The father is seen bullying and coercing Bardon to join the IRA (an unlikely scenario) including preventing him from taking an exam whilst getting him to perform a routine task for ‘ the cause’. Bardon’s grandmother, an English Catholic, goes to confess to the priest, who she knows is also in the IRA (also highly unlikely) and begs him to talk the father out of involving her grandson.

The priest gets very angry and effectively threatens her. He then clearly breaks the seal of the confessional, because an IRA woman (a qualified nurse, no less) turns up at the grandmother’s flat (she got in with a key given her by the ‘movement’) and literally frightens granny to death. As far as I know, there was no evidence of Catholic priests or nurses ever doing anything even vaguely like this throughout the troubles, regardless of their sympathies.

Just to add to the sheer fakery of it all, Bardon who otherwise shows little interest in or empathy with his Irish roots, turns out to be a star Irish dancer, but there is an implication that he has only won a dance trophy because everyone in the Irish club is scared of the Provo dad.

Even minor details are mucked up. The dad at one stage enters into a sort of singing battle with his son, and does so singing ‘The Fields of Athenry’, which is definitely not a ‘Provo song’ and indeed had only been written some two or so years before this scene is set. It would appear the writer’s knowledge of republican anthems was largely learned by observing the terraces of Celtic Park.

Also, astonishingly we see shamrock symbols everywhere, but they have four leaves. Without going into a religious lecture, the significance of the shamrock is precisely that it has three leaves. Almost anyone in Ireland would know this, and certainly staunch republicans would.

Meanwhile Dante’s brother Gregory is in the British army in Belfast, where at one stage he emerges from his armoured car to play cowboys and Indians with young kids throwing stones at the troops! There is also a weirdly idealistic scene where a Catholic woman hurling abuse at the soldiers below calls Gregory a ‘black bastard’, but then considerately explains that she’s not referring to his skin colour but likening him to the Black and Tans. Truly cringeworthy.

Too much too young

All that was just in the first episode, and things didn’t improve as the programme went on.

Bardon is forced to become a Provo at gun point by the nurse, but even before he joins is forced to phone in a bomb warning. There are obvious reasons why an organisation like the Provisionals didn’t force people to join against their will, didn’t inform non-members of a bombing they were about to carry out, didn’t give non-members secret phone codes, or get them to phone in warnings (especially given the backlash from the Birmingham bombings just seven years previously, which amazingly are never mentioned).

Again, the lack of knowledge of the subject is clearly exposed. So, the password is Michael Collins – but anyone with even a superficial knowledge of Irish history would know the Provos considered Collins (the IRA leader in the early 1920s) a traitor, and would certainly not have been their choice of password.

Similarly at one point the dad complains that they’re having to raise their own funds because those ‘Sticky bastards in Dublin’ wouldn’t send them any. ‘The ‘Stickies’ was the nickname for the Official IRA, who the Provos had split from a decade earlier – a bitter armed feud followed the split. The idea that a Provo would be expecting or looking for funds from the Officials is just plainly ridiculous.

As the series went on this one dimensional, unrealistic, and completely factually inaccurate portrayal grew. There were too many examples to list them all, but just to highlight two of the most glaring errors:

There were no IRA ‘battalions’ operating in Coventry and Birmingham at this stage – a battalion being 500 or so men. The idea that hundreds of IRA members would have been at large across the Midlands despite the Prevention of Terrorism Act (again never mentioned) and in the aftermath of the Birmingham bombings is beyond credible.

And when Dante goes to see the Provo dad in Coventry, the Irish club falls silent as a black person walks in, but the dad then tells everyone it’s OK because he’s family – in Irish! In reality Irish-speakers in such a club would have been a tiny minority.

Steve McQueen was inspired by the 1981 hunger strikes to make the magnificent Hunger, but Knight refers to them just once in a truly cringeworthy cliché-ridden speech by the dad, who by now we are all meant to hate.

Blank expression

Lastly, I have to say I found it impossible to get past this plotline in order to be at all objective about much else in the show, but I think even without this I found the whole thing a letdown.

The first episode tried to capture the Birmingham riots of the time, and the racism of the cops, and clearly Knight showed much more sympathy for the young stone throwers here then he did for those in Belfast. However, even here he seemed to indicate that the riots were being masterminded by black political groups, rather than understanding the spontaneous explosions of anger that actually took place.

I did love the soundtrack, full of great songs that I knew and remembered well, but I found all the characters unconvincing, the West Midlands accents excruciatingly bad. And the fact that they got the soundtrack – and the fashion – so right just highlighted the shoddiness of so much else about the series.

The original songs written for the show like ‘Pelicans’ were so inferior to the soundtrack it was embarrassing, and weirdly the audition of the drummer for the prospective band Fuck the Factory had me laughing out loud. A young woman who was a drug addict did an audition display of her drumming, which sounded like a cross between Animal from The Muppets and the very worst thrash metal band, yet was instantly recruited by a band whose genre was noted for the subtilty of its rhythm sections.

Maybe I was so put off by the republican plot that I’m being harsh on the rest, I don’t think so, but to put it in a current context, if there was a drama made today portraying the Israelis as basically on the right side, and caricatured those Palestinians that resist them, it is hard to imagine any soundtrack that would make that show watchable.

 

 

 

 

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