The BBC has had the field to itself lately with top class drama involving leading black British men. I’m thinking Luther, I’m eyeing The Shadow Line. But when Channel 4 is ready to make its move, well it’s check mate.
The thing about Top Boy is that it’s very very good. It’s addictive. The characters are real, the language is authentic and the backdrop is genuine. We haven’t seen acting this good with a script this brilliant, not even in the urban films which set the platform upon which Top Boy could stand, for a long time.
With music from Wretch 32 and Femi Kuti among others, the producers have really researched this world very well. Cameo’s from Scorcher, Sway and others also lend to the authenticity of a very real and unique urban tale.
The first episode opens with a dramatic scene in which one gang robs members of Dushane’s gang. Dushane (the remarkable Ashley Walters) is vying to make something of his life, by becoming the Top Boy in Summerhouse Estate. The scene is tense, edgy and beautifully shot with fast cutaways narrating juxtaposing scenes of everyday life in an east London market. The traders laying out their wares in the morning, the passers by ambling through on their way to work, and the young black kids peddling drugs on the corner. We’re then immersed into the lives of the characters with the obligatory introductions into their position in the game; goody or baddy.
There are three sub plots which will unfold throughout the four-part, four-day series; all hinged by thirteen-year-old Ra’Nell (Malcolm Kamulete) whose mum Lisa (Sharon Duncan Brewster) has been committed to a mental hospital and appears to be struggling to decide whether to stay straight or join Dushane’s gang where as Dushane eloquently, if not smacking with cliche, reminds him “I know your mum ain’t around, but we are… Listen, we’re your family now, think of all these lot as your cousins”
Ashley Walters is tremendous, but that’s to be expected. All his theatre work and years of studying his craft is lending itself to him becoming a truly accomplished actor. There’s something of an Idris Elba swagger in some of his mannerisms in Top Boy but I’m sure fans of both will forgive him for that.
The surprise performance is from Kano who plays Sully, Dushane’s less forgiving sidekick. A star debut performance sees him play a role that might just possibly upstage the groom, we’ll have to wait and see. Having said that, there isn’t a bad performance in the show. From Chantelle to Gem, Bobby Raikes to Kamale, the entire cast excel in their perfectly selected roles.
The ambience is all so finely tuned also. From the music to the deliciously hued scenes of the nightclub and the crackhouse (very Next Episode, Dr Dre) the whole thing just works. I wanted to dislike Top Boy. Instead, I have fallen in love with it. I particularly admired the scene when Gem is driven across London when he joins the gang. The haunting, timeless music etching away at his youth, initiating him into a whole new life. The attention to detail in Top Boy leaves me wanting for adjectives.
There are those who will (and have) written off Top Boy before viewing it. I was one such person, but while watching it became more and more difficult to dislike it. This story exists. There are those who live this. Yes, there are other stories of black people, other realities of black communities in London. I certainly don’t belong to the subculture depicted in the programme, but it’s thrilling.
Guy Ritchie told a similar story in Lock Stock, Ridley Scott did it in American Gangster, and we were all in awe of those. There are echoes of City of God and even the follow up City of Men. There are scenes directly lifted from The Wire. Ronan Bennet tells it here for us, with our language, our actors, our stars. If you’re one of those that demand to see a different narrative you had better go and write and fund it yourself. Like the Meet The Adebanjo’s team did (and for whom I hold eternal respect and awe).
Top Boy has a lot going for it. If it were a weekly drama over 12 or so episodes it could easily have become Britain’s The Wire, or something like that. It’s slick, it’s fast and it’s damn right entertaining. I’m looking forward to watching the entire series.
So that’s what I thought of Top Boy. What did you think, will you watch all four?