The Times – Top Boy
September 11, 2013
By Andrew Billen
This terrific drama wasn’t just about the antihero gangster of its title, but about all the lost boys on the estate.
I’ll miss the argot: fam, cuz, bro, blood, wa’gwan (for “hello”), food (for drugs), paper (for money), and bless — for “thanks for doing me this errand that could get you killed”. However, the most important slang in Top Boy, whose second series has heartbreakingly concluded, was my list’s first four words. In episode one, our antihero gangster, Dushane, told the cops investigating his murder of a rival, that ‘it’ was not about gangs: it was about family. Dushane believed the Summerhouse estate in East London was one big family — unhappy, but his own. Ronan Bennett’s terrific drama proved how, really, it wasn’t.
Although Top Boy’s title references Dushane and his youth, this series was just as much about all the lost boys on the estate. They needed not drug lords but fathers; and in the case of Gem, son of that bloke whose chippy only ever, for some reason, served chips, a mother. Gang hierarchies proved no substitute. One of the great breaches in the piece was Sully, Dushane’s erstwhile comrade, kidnapping his own cousin. The greatest healing was when Gem to a hand to the fryer and left for a new life in Ramsgate with his dad. As for Dushane, any pretence that he could be a father to these boys was shattered when he determined he needed to silence his little protégé Michael. The story culminated with Dushane utterly alone, cowering under a bridge.
The past four weeks were ennobled by subtleties. I loved it that the boy-gangsters were tiring of their own vocab, how rapping itself was exposed for its forced rhymes and fantasies (“I’ve never seen an AK-47”). The sound for any scene customarily began a second before you saw it, so for a moment you did not know who was battering down whose door. Visually, it would have been so easy to paint Hackney monochrome, but the colours were vivid or pastel,the world as seen through engaged young eyes.
The canvas was a restricted area in which you were always running into exactly the person you did not want to see. The police were only viewed from the perspective of those they interrogated. Yet there were glimpses of the great beyond: the middle-class dealer’s home with its books; the developers happy to use Dushane’s illegal profits to fund their urban unit building schemes; and the church commissioners, who turned out to be the owners of this hell.
The writing was so clever it was curious that Bennett felt the need for the unlikely telly plotting of Dushane’s romance with his savvy solicitor, Rhianna. The other marginal weakness was, oddly, Ashley Walters’ performance as Dushane. I am sure he is a beautiful young man, but I rarely caught his charisma or his scariness. Perhaps others did. So popular is Top Boy on London’s meanest streets that Channel 4 was terrified that early copies of this season would be bootlegged. Although nothing can currently touch this show as a portrayal of our multi-ethnic, equal-opportunity criminal classes, it is not sociology. It’s a powerful thriller. Innit?
The Guardian – Top Boy
The Guardian – Top Boy
September 11, 2013
By Nosheen Iqbal
As Channel 4’s Hackney-set crime drama returns to UK screens, its stars explain why series two will have the same impact.
“Luxury? This is worse than prison, man.” Ashley Walters is penned into a tiny faux-wood panelled trailer, parked on the edge of a shopping centre car park. This is Top Boy base camp in east London, where production trucks chug and the crew flits back and forth from shooting scenes in Dalston’s Ridley Road Market. Walters, who plays Dushane, the titular Top Boy of Channel 4’s returning drama series, has spent the day doing what actors do most: waiting around. Waiting for his scenes, waiting for the right light, waiting mostly, as it turns out, to see if Top Boy 2 will draw the attention and acclaim it did the first time around.
“It’s relatable,” Walters enthuses. “The majority of kids I speak to that are living that life will say that we hit the nail on the head, and you very rarely get that, especially with UK TV drama. There’s always that romantic Hollywood element to it. But people appreciate Top Boy because it is what it is. A lot of stuff I’ve done, especially things like Bullet Boy, it’s never usually people coming from that area or that lifestyle that buy into it.”
Much was made of Top Boy’s tower-block authenticity, but timing, too, had its part to play; the first series arrived, serendipitously, soon after the London Riots in 2011, and gave an honest account of inner-city life for young people with no jobs, no prospects and no power beyond their own postcode. It was neither patronising or try-hard – the usual twin criticisms of self-defining gritty urban dramas – and it cast kids from the estates over professional actors, which helped to give the show its bleak realism.
“[Broadsheet journalists] go crazy over this sort of thing, but Top Boy got respect,” says Walters, who, at 31 and father to five kids, has mellowed since his brief brush with pop stardom (and trouble) at the turn of the millennium with So Solid Crew. “I must admit, this season I’ve had to really search a bit.” He laughs as we talk about Top Boy’s commitment to scripting that rhythmic inner London patois just so. “My oldest is 13 and he hasn’t got a clue about that lifestyle, but he knows what’s cool. I’ll say a lot of things that are late-90s slang and he’ll say, ‘Dad, no. You don’t use that word any more.'”
Walters and Kane Robinson – also known as grime artist Kano, and who plays who plays Dushane’s right-hand man Sully – both credit Top Boy’s writer Ronan Bennett for his lack of ego in allowing the cast to ad-lib around his script. “He’s brilliant,” says Walters. “He writes it how he sees it, and then it’s down to us to breathe some life into it and make it our own.”
Inspiration for Top Boy notoriously came about after Bennett witnessed a 12-year-old dealing drugs in a Tesco car park. Bennett, who has lived in Hackney for more than 25 years – and witnessed its rapid chichi gentrification on the one hand, and its grinding poverty on the other – found himself compelled to write about the experience and embedded himself for two years with local drug dealers.
“The stories of kids getting into gangs isn’t the only thing going on out there,” says Robinson. “Ronan’s also telling stories of single mothers raising kids, trying to run a business, rents being too high, shops getting shut down.”
Top Boy series two is an even more conscious indictment of David Cameron’s Britain, of the post-recessionary welfare cuts that are stretching the gap between London’s rich and poor ever wider.
Walters is unequivocal when I ask him about the wider social message of the show. “Politics isn’t about helping people, it’s about maintaining whatever people have got, whatever it takes to maintain their position at the expense of us,” he says. “It’s down to communities and ourselves to change things first and foremost. I’m inspired by the fact that for every kid we see committed to crime, there’s kids determined to go to uni and not follow their peers. I think doing something proper and sensible is becoming more popular now, rather than taking the easy road.”
Walters knows first-hand how damaging that “easy road” can turn out to be. Later, during a panel talk at the BFI, he and Robinson ponder how their childhood struggles might have informed their characters. “I dabbled in that scene,” Walters says coyly, while Robinson falls about laughing. “Dabbled?” He rocks off his chair. “Dabbled?!”
But despite his stretch in prison (18 months on a firearm offence in 2001), Walters knows he’s one of the lucky ones. “Kids now are smarter than I was back in the day, I’m wary of them,” he says, suggesting that social media has allowed gang activity to become more sophisticated. He explains that in a block near his home in Angel, north London, crime is rife. “There are a lot of 15-year-olds that have still got stuff to prove and want to make a name for themselves. And that’s where we come in and say, ‘You’ve got a lot to lose. Your life’s not just about London Fields or Homerton, you need to branch out.'”
For all that Top Boy strives to portray its characters as regular people, who “go to church on Sunday, take care of their mums”, is there a danger the show could perpetuate stereotypes? “I’m sure there is,” says Walters, matter of factly. “There was a danger when I was in So Solid and we made 21 Seconds. But we’re just showing a slice of life.” He leans forward: “I think it’s good to show that these humans are doing things they know are wrong, but they are normal people.”
Series two of Top Boy starts 20 August on Channel 4
The Arts Desk.com – Top Boy
The Arts Desk.com – Top Boy
September 11, 2013
By Tom Birchenough
Short, sharp – and the best television drama this year?
Ronan Bennett doesn’t do protracted. The writer of Top Boy has whipped us through another series, in the course of which an awful lot of water has flowed under the proverbial bridge. Except that it’s blood rather than water that tends to flow in Summerhouse, and the first we saw of a bridge in that neck of East London was in the last seconds of episode four, with Dushane hiding underneath one. He looked more than a bit cornered – not how we’re used to seeing him.
Ashley Walters has grown Dushane (main picture) into a character whose confidence knows few bounds. He’s even arbitrated a feud involving Sully, the old friend turned rival whose attempts at going independent hit considerable trouble. But their brief dream-team reconciliation hasn’t lasted: Sully’s got principles, and he’s off to set up on new turf in Hoxton.
Bennett’s script draws its power from the fact that there are plenty of principles – call them loyalties, if you will – around this neighbourhood. And plenty of characters who are trying to get ahead beyond the very limited opportunities that being born round there offers, though they’re up against all sorts of obstacles along the way. Even veteran crime boss Joe decided from his hospital bed that it was time to leave his past behind. Shame he never got out of hospital.
We really came to feel for some of them. We hope emaciated Gem has got away from it all, after his dad – practically the only father in evidence roudn these parts – stepped in, and that the malicious Vincent has never heard of Ramsgate. And that his best friend Ra’Nell (Giacomo Mancini as Gem and Malcolm Kamulete as Ra’Nell, pictured right) gets better luck with his football dreams: at least his mum Lisa exerts more influence behind the scenes than we’d thought, thanks to a late revelation that there’d been something in the past between her and Dushane. But there was no way out for poor terrified Michael (Xavien Russell, pictured below left), the one who went on about books, the smell of whose hangdog fear grew stronger and stronger. Scant consolation that his end didn’t come at the hands of his friends, so he didn’t have to face that final blow of fate. You just wished he’d called the police back when he still had the chance.
The cops are still fighting a losing battle in Summerhouse, though we felt their presence more. One of the investigating officers even had a name, Vicky, though she was hardly a match for Rihanna, who started as Dushane’s solicitor, before being nudged by him into doing far more than she should. Until, that is, she decided that that was no way to go on – and, in doing so, inflicted the most brutal blow of all to Dushane.
When series three kicks in – here’s hoping the wait will be shorter than between the first two – Dushane’s got the extremely real problems of the Albanians on his hands, and they play rather by their own rules. But more than that, he’s going to have to face up to something inside himself. It’s not too far-fetched to draw Shakespearean comparisons (with the history plays, anyway) with some of the turf-warfare going on in Summerhouse. I can’t wait to see Walters dealing, uneasily, with his own coasting victories. Unless Bennett decides to make the next round the last, and brings about Dushane’s tragic fall. Only for another dynasty to rise.
Let’s hope too that director Jonathan van Tulleken keeps Top Boy’s current creative team together. From the opening panorama sweeping down over the brighter vistas of Hackeny towards its dark, dark corners below, to an immaculate score from Brian Eno, mixing London grime sounds with his own sense of the alienated indifference of the streets, this has been television drama at its outstanding best.
The Independent – Top Boy
The Independent – Top Boy
September 11, 2013
By Sarah Hughes
Everybody loses on the Summerhouse Estate.
If there was a message to be learnt from the heartbreaking finale to Top Boy, it was that on the Summerhouse Estate, everybody loses. Despite critics’ concerns about the glorification of violence, this is a show with no interest in sugar-coating gangland life and thus the best thing you could say about its bleak, brilliant conclusion was that at least Sully attempted to save grubby, overlooked Jason – although even that was tempered by the fact that he’ll probably train him to kill people over the course of time.
Elsewhere, it was business as normal, as long as your business involves double-crossing Albanian gangsters, lying to lawyers, intimidating witnesses, dealing drugs and trying to stay both one step ahead of the law and, more simply, alive. It was all pretty tense stuff, especially for poor Michael, who spent most of the episode holed up playing computer games while Dushane and Dris went about their business elsewhere, casually debating whether he deserved to live.
As those scenes, with their combination of fear and fatalism, demonstrated, Top Boy’s real power lies not in the gangs and guns, but in its examination of relationships and the many ways, both big and small, in which we fail those who trust us. That’s not to say the various crime plots weren’t central to the storyline this season, but Ronan Bennett’s astute, confident scripts have been as adept in the smaller moments as in the violent showdowns, as concerned with what isn’t being said as with what is, cleverly peeling back the layers of bravado to show the bluff within.
He is helped in this by an outstanding cast, from charismatic leading men Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson, who made you care for Dushane and Sully despite the evil that they do, to the remarkable younger actors, in particular the wide-eyed Michael and hapless best friends, Ra’Nell and Gem.
Thus, the best moments of last night were often the quietest: Lisa’s look of despair as she realised which particular devil she was going to have to deal with; Kayla’s joy and fear on seeing her son; Sully’s hand reaching down for Jason; and the hurt on Dushane’s face when he realised that he might be Top Boy, but he can’t wish back his best friend.
Best of all though was the scene where Gem said goodbye to Ra’Nell, his feet scuffing the concrete as he talked of Ramsgate and visits while his best friend, seemingly uninterested, played football, never looking up. The silence that followed contained a world of hurt and pain and betrayal, from Ra’Nell’s feeling of abandonment to Gem’s unspoken thanks for all his friend had tried to do. It was a moment that wonderfully captured the friendship between adolescent boys, in which so much important goes unsaid, while also laying bare the narrow boundaries of both boys’ world – a world in which Ramsgate is not so much a seaside town as a universe far, far away.
The Times – Top Boy