'It's celebrating an era': The story behind the soundtrack to Steven Knight's BBC drama This Town

'It's celebrating an era': The story behind the soundtrack to Steven Knight's BBC drama This Town

Mercury Studios co-president and Globe president Marc Robinson has spoken to Music Week about the ambitious soundtrack release for BBC series This Town.

Set in Coventry, Birmingham and Belfast in 1981, the drama stars Levi Brown, Jordan Bolger, Ben Rose, Eve Austin and Michelle Dockery in six episodes about the formation of a band in a turbulent period in British history.

This Town (Music From The Original BBC Series) was released on Friday (April 26) via Polydor Records as the series reached its conclusion on BBC One on Sunday (April 28). 

The drama was created by Steven Knight and directed by Paul Whittington. It was produced by Kudos and Nebulastar for the BBC, and co-produced with UMG’s Mercury Studios, in association with Kudos North and Stigma Films.

Mercury Studios and Polydor have overseen multiple strands to the music element of This Town, including classic covers recorded by artists including Self Esteem (You Can Get It If You Really Want), Ray Laurél (Somewhere Over The Rainbow), Olivia Dean (The Harder They Come), Celeste (Blue Moon), Gregory Porter (The World’s Going Up In Flames) and Sekou (Wonderful World, Beautiful People). 

As well as a score by Kormac, Mercury Studios and Polydor also developed the music for the band in the series. The songs played by Fuck The Factory – the band at the heart of This Town – have been created by producer and Speedy Wunderground label founder Dan Carey (Fontaines DC, Wet Leg), who has collaborated with Eska and Kae Tempest.

Here, Mercury Studios’ Marc Robinson reveals how the soundtrack to This Town came together and shares his hopes for the music that features in the BBC TV drama…

An album release for a BBC soundtrack is a bold move, how did you develop the This Town OST?

“We previously released the music to the Peaky Blinders series, and we loved the way Steve Knight worked with music. So we were looking for projects to get involved with where we were more than just a releasing partner, where we would actually be able to sit at the production company side of the table. The script [for This Town] was just brilliant, we met with Kudos and Paul Whittington, the director, who had such a clear vision. It really felt like a project where we could bring something to the party. So we were part of the conversation when the scripts were being developed, and we brought the A&R expertise because it was actually quite a hard brief to, effectively, write songs for an up-and-coming ska band in 1981. We really felt we could bring something to the production, which could then evolve the musical ambition of it and mean we would have something to release on the back of it. 

“We’re hoping that this is a first chapter and that it will be recommissioned, so that it will go on to tell the story – like they did with Peaky Blinders – and build that musical narrative. In episode six of This Town, the band really come to life. So we're on the cusp of great music to come from the band in the series. But initially, we really felt we could contribute to the production quality in the series. Bringing in A&R head Richard O’Donovan from Polydor, he suggested Dan Carey, who happened to be working with Kae Tempest. So from the off, we were bringing that authenticity to the project.”

With Mercury Studios as co-producer, how important was your role in getting the music element right for the series?

“My background has always been that pivot between film and music. When you're delivering music to a TV series or film, you're always complementing someone else's canvas. This canvas happened to be owned by the director, Paul Whittington, and Steve Knight’s vision, so we met with them and debriefed essentially on what they were trying to achieve. The first step was, how do we get these songs and make them feel real at that time [1981] and get under the skin of the characters. Full credit to Richard for suggesting Dan Carey. I don't think I've worked on a project in 20 years-plus where the first demo stuck, and everything they delivered, Paul and Steve were just enamoured of it. 

“Paul was very clear in his vision of what he wanted to achieve with the music. So it makes our life a lot easier when you have such clarity. When the editing started, we started bringing in tracks that worked to picture, and from there we discovered the covers route of bringing in artists on that level. The main thing for us was that we really felt like we were bringing something to the production as well as a music release, and we’re effectively bringing a music audience to the show at the latter end of it all.”

Was this a rich era for music that merited rediscovery and some reimagined versions by the artists involved?

“Yeah, I think that whole era is actually a melting pot of all different genres on top of each other, which I think they really get across in the series. Two-tone and ska, and all those things that came out of that, were based on so many different genres. Dan and Kae really caught the magic of what a band in that era could achieve. The music feels fresh but at the same time pays homage to what a lot of those bands at that time were doing. Paul [Whittington] and Amelia Hartley, the music supervisor [head of music supervision, Banijay Group], were very clear about wanting to use music that worked for the story. It's not just ska music in the series, it’s trying to celebrate that entire era. Also, Kormac, the composer, came on board and again brought a different light to that. So I really think the melting pot of all the music just really worked. We are in that era of catalogue and kids who have access to everything, so it could be a band today.”

We brought the A&R expertise – it was quite a hard brief to, effectively, write songs for an up-and-coming ska band in 1981

Marc Robinson

It’s Universal artists who recorded the covers, how did you work with labels on selecting vocalists for the cover versions?

“Under the [Universal] Globe umbrella, we’re always working with artists to deliver music for film and TV, so we know which artists are really keen on this area. With Paul Whittington and Amelia Hartley, we sat down and went through the artists that they felt would fit the series and fit the songs. So we had this shortlist of acts we thought would be open to doing something, who we knew were fans of this space. Paul and Amelia put their list of favourites and actually, six out of six, we got all their first choices, it worked really well. Self Esteem was really keen to work with Dan Carey, that was a great experience for Rebecca [Lucy Taylor]. Celeste just nailed Blue Moon, which is in episode four and they use it throughout the show. 

“Somewhere Over The Rainbow was a really key song in episode two, and Paul was keen on bringing in a different voice for that song. Ray Laurél’s A&R manager played us some of the demos and we sent it over to Paul, who loved Ray’s voice. I love that juxtaposition of the version sung on the show [by Michelle Dockery] and then this new take on it for the episode. And Wonderful World, Beautiful People plays out the series – Sekou’s voice was one they loved. So it was working across the group, but a lot of time that's how we work anyway with the labels and knowing which artists want to do more in the film and TV space.”

What did Dan Carey, Kae Tempest and Eska bring to the project?

“The band had been cast by Kudos and Paul at that point. Dan, Eska and Kae wrote songs, and Dan produced the band and spent a lot of time with them in Birmingham, just getting them playing together. I went up one day to visit and it really did feel like we were in the studio with a new band produced by Dan Carey. He really got them going, playing their instruments and really enthused – they just loved it. Dan really was [key] to this project and it's all the better for it. 

“Kae also came up and gave a bit of guidance and expertise to Levi [Brown] performance-wise. So they weren't just delivering songs, they went and helped form the entire image and output of the band itself. It actually serves the show really well. All the producers were saying, ‘It doesn't feel like a bunch of actors.’ It felt very authentic, these kids coming together and playing in this band. Dan and Kae's experience really changed that. I really hope there's a series two, because I think there's a lot more mileage in the band.”

How do you think they could progress as a musical unit?

“With series one, it ends and the band have come together. It would be a joy to pull together what series two could be [musically], and Dan Carey would be very much on board and continue that process.”

What are the ambitions for the album release?

“We've got into this as a long-term relationship. TV doesn't normally generate this sort of level of soundtrack release. So we're hoping the campaign is letting the series live and breathe, we've released it at the end [of the broadcast] just so that people who have been talking about the music can then get on board. Our plan is to build a This Town army for the band and all the covers. When you look at our involvement in bringing a music audience to the show, that's when it's less about the album as a whole and more about the six artists that are covering the tracks and that music narrative. 

“It's a bit like a jigsaw that comes together with this beautiful piece of vinyl artwork – Polydor have done an amazing job, so I'm hoping people are going to rush to buy it. But you can take the tracks independently away from it as well. We're also going to release Kormac’s score because there’s been a great response to that. So I'm hoping this [album] is part one with many more things to come.”

What’s the plan in terms of promotion of the tracks?

“There's a bit more media support, radio support and it's still living on the iPlayer. We’ve got a couple of TVs coming up [for the artists], a couple of performances coming up. We're still waiting to see who's buying [the series for broadcast/streaming] in America. I think this is the type of soundtrack that hopefully will live on and continue to grow. We’re releasing pieces of content around it, trying to do a bit more with the boys because Dante [Levi Brown] and Bardon [Ben Rose] especially are really good characters. Ben Rose has been touring in a band and he’s loving the musical aspect of it. So we see this as an ongoing relationship as [This Town] travels internationally, and as it continues to grow in the UK.”

Subscribers can read our interview with Dan Carey here.

PHOTOS: BBC/Banijay Rights/Kudos/Robert Viglasky


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