Britain’s favourite street drama is back from the dead – we go deep on its past, present and future with the team that live and breathe it
This article was originally published on September 13, 2019
Never has a television show pierced London’s glitzy PR bubble like Top Boy. In 2011, its first four episodes aired on consecutive days on Channel 4 and opened an audience’s eyes to the dark, hidden world of poverty, violence and drug-dealing that has long existed amongst the most disaffected communities dotted across the capital city. The show not only dented the form in which British crime dramas are presented, introducing a depth and sensitivity to characters that was previously unseen before. It also granted an entire generation of otherwise underrepresented multicultural young people, growing up in the inner-city, an authentic reference point from which to draw creative inspiration and empowerment. Top Boy thus marked a historic moment in the progress of mainstream British entertainment. A new style was born: one that pieced-together grand, multi-dimensional narratives and threads of social commentary from The Wire with local, slang-laden themes of tragic adolescence, similar to those explored in cult classics Kidulthood and Bullet Boy.
Alongside a range of other characters – many of them enacted by fellow respected rap and grime MCs – partners-in-crime Ashley Walters’ Dushane and Kane Robinson’s Sully immediately became a believably compatible, fiercely wholesome pair of storytelling legends. Their characters were quickly seen as archetypes for exploring the deep power-struggles, overlooked vulnerabilities and rational, if ruthless, decision-making of territorial gangsters in the modern urban landscape.
Two years later, after huge demand for the further expansion of the show’s complex universe flared-up, four more episodes aired to continued critical acclaim. Screenwriter Ronan Bennett, who conceived of the show’s premise after seeing a 12-year-old boy dealing drugs in 2009 in Hackney, East London — where he lives, and the show is set — has written of how the struggles in his own life – such as raising two children after losing his wife to cancer – bled into the tone of the scripts as he wrote them. Despite the show’s humble length, Top Boy’s compassionately constructed ethical universe leaves the viewer no choice but to empathise with the innocent, corrupting teenagers Ra’Nell and Gem. We see wider forces at play and emotional breakdown take its toll on the lives of Ra’Nell’s mentally ill mother Lisa, and desperate local resident Heather, as they try to survive amongst hostile, uncomfortably realistic circumstances with little help or hope.
Then the show was discontinued. Nobody knew if Top Boy would return. Questions arose, from an audience hungry for more plots and twists, and a storm of unrest developed on social media. What did Top Boy’s unfinished state mean for its characters? More broadly, what did it say about the value placed upon the stories and experiences that come from the most shadowy, neglected margins of austerity Britain?
Six years later, Drake intervened, and the rapper stepped in to help spark interest from Netflix. Now, there is a new Top Boy in town, and we are being invited back to the concrete nooks of Summerhouse. Across ten episodes, granting more space than ever to build and explore lives coexisting in a city experiencing crescendoing gentrification, harsher immigration laws, festering inequality, a youth violence epidemic and developed “county lines” operations, all the familiar faces, and more, have returned. Here is the most potent dose of London realism our screens will have seen for a long time, and now it’s on the world stage. Featuring the likes of rappers Dave and Little Simz, and new star Micheal Ward as one-to-watch, Top Boy is as gripping as ever. I sat down with some of the people involved to talk about the tumultuous journey so far.
TOP BOY: SUMMERHOUSE (THE FIRST TWO SEASONS)
TOP BOY NETFLIX (THE THIRD COMING)
TOP BOY: SUMMERHOUSE (THE FIRST TWO SEASONS)
Ashley Walters: After I finished Bullet Boy (2004), and won awards for it, every role I was being offered was the same. I wanted to do different things. My agent and I made a conscious decision that we wouldn’t accept any of those roles any more. There were not a lot of roles for a black man like myself that were different. Then Top Boy came. I read the script and I loved that the characters were human. It was at a time when knife and gun crime was really prevalent in the media, and I felt there was a story that wasn’t being told: how people got to the place where they were shooting or stabbing someone. I wanted to explore that. Top Boy didn’t try to glamorise anything. It gave it to you how it was. But it also dealt with mental health, social situations, immigration. At that point it was a no-brainer, although — and Yann hates me telling people this — he didn’t initially want me for the role. Which was fair enough, because they wanted new talent. Anyway, I assume I did well enough in my audition, and that was that.
What else stood out about the Top Boy script for you?
Ashley Walters: Imagine growing up and you’re watching The Godfather, or Sopranos, and they are so structured, and the way these characters commit these crimes is that they have leaders, lieutenants, lookouts. But every show about UK road men always portrays them as just scatterbrain idiots who go out and shoot people. I always knew there was a structure, that there was hierarchy behind it. Top Boy was the first time it was put out there. So you saw that as bad as the things they were doing were, actually these are quite methodical guys. Maybe not Sully in the first season, but certainly Dushane. The subject matter is not something I necessarily want to promote but it was good to see it was being dealt with properly.
Kane Robinson: My manager told me about it, and initially I said, nah, I don’t want to do this! Acting isn't my thing! But I read the script and I was pissed because I liked it, and I realised I would have to open the door to a new world and audition. Des, the casting director believed I could do it, but I still had to convince a lot of people — the director, the producers. I started digging and found out about Yann Demange. I knew then that he would bring a certain level of authenticity, so then it was my job to bring that to my character. I pride myself in telling the truth and keeping it real. It has to feel right. It was quite difficult at the beginning, knowing what I wanted to do but not necessarily having the technical ability to do it. But the intention was there and my innocence probably helped on camera. I might look back at it now and think, why did I do that? But I think that wanting to be truthful was there from the beginning. It’s a world, and a part of London, that I know from coming up — I know people from East London who were involved in crime and went to prison, for all different reasons — so it was about tapping into my life experience and bringing that to the camera to do it justice.
“You say to people: here’s the world, I’m not going to beat you over the head and say here are the lessons you must learn from this. But I’d like to think when you watch it you get a sense of what the problems with this world are, and why this world exists” – Ronan Bennett
You’ve written about how you started researching and writing the Top Boy script after seeing a young boy drug-dealing in Hackney. Why was this such a defining moment? How did you go from that into getting the show commissioned?
Ronan Bennett: It was just seeing this little kid, quite vulnerable and small. I went over to talk to him, he was suspicious to begin with, he thought I was a cop, and he wanted money. I spoke to my friend Jerry Jackson, who is now story consultant on Top Boy. He put me in touch with some people to interview. And the first person was a young lad, who then afterwards just disappeared — I don’t know what happened to him. He was so open about his experiences, and kind of sad. There is a scene in Season 1 where Dushane turns a corner and bumps into his dad and he’s not bothered. That came from what this guy told me. He went into the mechanics of dealing and so on, and told me how people had come round to shoot him at one point, and his mother fought them off.
By then, The Wire had been on a couple of seasons, and obviously that was important, too. I think broadcasters feel comfortable if they know it has been done before on some level. I specifically said that this is from the road men’s point of view, and their families’, not the police, like The Wire. And when I’d spoken to three of these young men, I saw that there was great material here. They were incredibly open about their experiences They’d be doing drug deals on the phone whilst we did the interviews. I knew that world must have existed on some level. But I’ve never taken drugs so I came to it as a virgin. Once I got the material gathered, the script was commissioned at the BBC. I wrote it, but it didn’t go anywhere because the head of drama there didn’t think it would fit. So for me then the project was over before it had even started. Then I met my producing partners at Cowboy, we went into Channel 4 and it was greenlit.
What was the most important thing to think about whilst creating Top Boy?
Ronan Bennett: When I’m writing a screenplay, the most important thing I have to communicate is a good story. That’s always the first thing, my biggest responsibility, it’s wanting the reader to turn the page and be interested in the characters I’ve created. Then after that you create a world. In this case, it is East London and estates and gangs, and their families. And then you say to people: here’s the world, I’m not going to beat you over the head and say here are the lessons you must learn from this. But I’d like to think when you watch it you get a sense of what the problems with this world are, and why this world exists.
DUSHANE & SULLY
Ashley Walters: Kane and I met a few times before, but the first time we properly connected was at the Top Boy casting. I’d already been cast for the part, and it was the Sully reading day and I’d gone in and read with four different people, and then Kane came in. Obviously I knew of him but I didn’t really expect him to be all that, to be honest! But he blew me away. It was a scene with me and him in the market, talking about something casual that turns slightly heated. He grabbed me and pushed me up against the wall, and I was like, OK! We understood straight away that he understood how to leave himself at the door and embody the character.
Kane Robinson: Before we went into the room for the final casting, Des pulled me aside and said: look, everyone thinks you’re good, but because of your calm demeanour, they wanna know whether you can switch, because this guy is a character who will just lose it at any moment. Then he told me: it’s my room, everything in that room can be replaced. That table, it can be replaced. So he basically said go for it! I went in and went mad in there!
Tell me about your character, Dushane.
Ashley Walters: Dushane feels like he can achieve a world where all these things could be happening, drugs could be sold, without violence and without bodies all the time. I like the idea that this guy wants to be this kingpin, but he also wants to feed his community – his idea was about bringing up his community with himself. He is slightly selfish because the motivation behind that is for him to keep his position. If you’re feeding everyone and everyone’s bellies are full, noone is coming to rob you; noone is coming to take you off the top.
To what extent do you channel your own experiences growing up to play the role?
Ashley Walters: We grew up in similar areas, I grew up in Peckham, and Top Boy is set in Hackney. So the backdrop and settings are not that different. I didn’t go for a life in drug-dealing, but I suppose how I’ve had to hustle is not that far removed from the hustle that is the drug-game. Not giving up, having a goal, hitting those incremental steps on the way to get there. And without being immersed in it like I was growing up, I don’t think I could have played the part. I had to research: I’d call up my friends and ask them, would you say that? I spent a lot of time leaning on people I knew growing up, stories I heard.
“When I came onto set it was difficult for me because it was such a new world. People would say to me: you’re used to being in music videos, and being in front of the camera, but this was different. I struggled a bit in the first couple of weeks” – Kane Robinson
How did you prepare to act for the show?
Kane Robinson: When I came onto set it was difficult for me because it was such a new world. People would say to me: you’re used to being in music videos, and being in front of the camera, but this was different. I struggled a bit in the first couple of weeks, but I met up with Yann and he showed me some scenes and he pointed out things I was doing well and things I could improve on. And that really helped me. From that point on I felt I got it. Things like being present in a scene when you haven’t got lines. I remember moments when Ashley was talking, I was stood still because I didn’t want my mic to rustle! Silly things like that. Because I’m a studio recording artist, I’m thinking about noise and sound and microphones. I was learning on the job, and I’m still learning on the job. And that’s why Ashley is wicked for that because I’m sure he did way more workshopping than he needed to. Or I might want to get in early and run lines with him when he already knows them, but he’s really good with the younger cast and the first time acting cast, and the ones like me who are kind of annoying.
Ashley Walters: Going into the second season there was a huge shift because as far as I know there wasn’t supposed to be one. It was just going to be a four part drama that hit hard and that was it. But obviously the formula that worked in the beginning stuck. We all wanted to see what happens. What are these guys gonna do with their money? What is their end game? So in season 2 we started to explore Dushane’s money and what his plans were for the future. That’s why the character with the lawyer was brought in, she introduced Dushane to the property developers. He was potentially going to invest in Summerhouse, in his own community, which I thought was a good progression for the character. A lot of people are out there selling drugs and making money and they have no goal or end game. And I think those are the people who end up dead or in jail, or back to square one. Dushane is always looking for the next thing; he is the sort of character who could work his way into politics eventually, because more than anything he is a leader, he’s not a skilled killer, he’s not a skilled crack-maker. Those are not his strengths. He leads people, and doesn’t always need to use force to get them to do things.
Ronan Bennett: Season 1 went out across four consecutive nights and the reviews were fantastic. Channel 4 got a really good audience, and the demographic of the audience was young, diverse. Broadcasters chase that audience. Nobody under-30 watches live TV any more, but they did then. There was a huge buzz and excitement about it. For season 2 it was a question of how to expand the world and move the characters along. I have to tell you that writing that season [with everything I had going on in my life], I honestly don’t remember a lot about that time. It’s such a blur to me now. The thing I am very aware of is that the ending of season 2 is really quite harsh. Season 1 and 3 have more hope. Just because of where I was at that time for season 2, it worked dramatically for storytelling, but it was a hard thing to ask the audience to do. I guess you write what’s in your head and heart at the time.
WHAT IT MEANS TO LONDONERS
What role did Top Boy play in your life as a teenager?
Little Simz: I remember feeling like: there’s something on television which represents us and where we come from, our culture, our story, our background. And I remember all my peers, we were all hyped and super excited for it, it was so close to home, and we could connect and relate to it. I grew up in North London around a lot of the things you see in Top Boy. I loved that the show didn’t glamourise anything. It showed why these people make the decisions they make.
Micheal Ward: From when I was young, Top Boy is something I’ve always watched. There’s even a tweet I sent out in 2013, saying: “I can’t wait for Top Boy”! — it’s crazy because I’ve put it out there in the world and now it’s happened, and I’m a part of it. Also, when I first met my agent he asked me what I’d like to be involved in and I was just like, I’d love to be in something like Top Boy. I just always knew that if I was going to do this acting thing I want to represent my culture first. When you think about shows like Top Boy from the UK there is nothing else! There You can think of movies like Kidulthood, or Bullet Boy, but nothing else. So when you could turn on Top Boy and see people who look and speak like you on TV, that was a very big thing for us!
TOP BOY NETFLIX (THE THIRD COMING)
How did you feel after season 2 was cancelled?
Ashley Walters: Yeah, bad. But it’s one of those things. As an actor you pull your socks up and look for the next job. It was only when my social media started to go crazy for it, and every day I’d see fifty messages asking when Top Boy is coming back. After a while it does grate on you. Because why would you not do it again, if the audience is there? I did take it upon myself to make phone calls and call production companies. But I was told several times to leave it alone. Then Netflix came it went crazy from there. My timeline was full of Americans and international people feeling the show. It gave it a second life and put it back in everyone’s thoughts.
“I woke up one day and there were loads of calls on my phone. My best friend was like: bro, go to Drake’s Instagram. So I went and saw my big head on there, a picture and a caption or whatever, and it was Top Boy related” – Ashley Walters
What happened when Drake got involved?
Ashley Walters: I woke up one day and there were loads of calls on my phone. My best friend was like: bro, go to Drake’s Instagram. So I went and saw my big head on there, a picture and a caption or whatever, and it was Top Boy related. Long story short: we got in contact and had a few conversations about him being a big fan of the show. We talked about different ways of trying to get it back. He went out there, hooked up with Netflix and Cowboy and we got it done. Having the spotlight someone like him can bring is an amazing thing for the UK and the show, you know what I mean?
Little Simz: Drake came to the read-through before we started shooting and sat down with us whilst we went through some of the episodes. He was present, in the room, but he wasn’t stepping in, trying to change anything. He was saying: you guys do your thing, I’m just here to support if I’m needed.
Kane Robinson: When we finally got to meet Drake he made it very clear. He said, look, I’m a fan of the show, I wanted to do anything I could just to bring it back, I know what people might say, but I’m not here to change the show. He is a genuine fan, and he’s done a massive thing that he didn’t really have to do.
Little Simz: I think it goes even deeper this season. You really see why these characters are forced to make decisions. You see them be more humanised, and I think that stood out for me, because it’s always “gangs this, gangs that”, and there is such a negative perspective and outlook on this side of London. This season is going to open people’s eyes even more, for sure.
Ronan Bennett: Six, seven years have gone by. Before we got into the story of it, it was figuring out who these people are now and what they have been up to. I was insistent that the characters couldn’t just be the same because we all change as people. We respond to the circumstances of our lives, so we had to think about what Sully was doing, what Dushane was doing. In road man terms, they’re old now, they’re in their mid-thirties now, they’re way past retirement! There is a scene where Dushane goes to meet Dris, played by Shone Romulus, and they’re two older men now looking at how they’re bellies have grown. There is a new generation of wilder, younger kids who are ambitious. Plus there was an issue, when I was writing the show, of deportation — the whole Windrush scandal started happening. I found somebody who was having that difficulty and I thought we had to get that in. There were acid attacks going on, and I wanted to get those in. The mad extent of gentrification and pushing people out further from the inner-city had to be involved, too. In Top Boy we always want to keep things as real as possible, which doesn’t mean having bloodbaths, but the murder rate did spiral over the last couple of years.
“We explore this in Top Boy, just how gentrification can affect an area positively and negatively. You see both sides of it: you see people getting kicked out of their homes and placed in other places around the country with people they don’t know, or even deported, and you see people coexisting, the really poor living next to the rich” – Ashley Walters
Ashley Walters: I went back to Peckham, where I grew up, last month to do a show with Joe Grind at a bakery and I looked into the crowd and it was crazy. I literally couldn’t see a black person! When I was growing up there, it was little Lagos! So it was weird to come back and see that it’s all shifted and people are living on top of each other a bit more, which is a cool thing in some ways. But we explore this in Top Boy, just how gentrification can affect an area positively and negatively. You see both sides of it: you see people getting kicked out of their homes and placed in other places around the country with people they don’t know, or even deported, and you see people coexisting, the really poor living next to the rich. It sometimes does incite some resentment and animosity between the two groups. If we didn’t explore what’s happening right now it wouldn’t be Top Boy as we know it.
Kane Robinson: Sully is a complex character. Over the years, this character becomes you, and you really get offended if someone disrespects this character! You fight for your character in the script. I’s part of our job to evolve them, show all sides of them. Because you can just see someone on screen and say: this guy is a zero-tolerance, violent gangster. This guy just walks around and is angry at all times. But that’s not real life. Moments in the new season, like where Sully longing for a relationship with his daughter, which he doesn’t have because he’s been too preoccupied with the streets, are important. He’s been in jail and he’s been missing this person. You have to indulge these moments and become vulnerable. And it’s important not just showing drug dealing and then being in the club spending money, like everything is great. With this life and these decisions come consequences. Everyone’s accepted that you might go to jail, cool, but how has it affected people around you? That’s something that I feel needed to be discussed in this season, so not just people dying, then there’s a funeral, and you move on. With ten episodes we have the time.
Micheal Ward: All these years later, Top Boy is on Netflix with a worldwide audience. It’s actually mad! The main thing is that we can tell these stories that are our own, but make it universal, because people understand these things that happen in Top Boy happen everywhere. I went to New York a couple of months ago and at the airport these people were taking the piss out of the way I spoke, because they’d never seen a black guy from the UK speak like how I speak. All they know is tea and crumpets. So I played it cool, and thought: in a couple of months you’ll soon know! Anyway, right now I am more than excited. Doing all this press stuff, it’s something I never thought I’d do in my life, you know? In the new season there are obviously new faces. And it is very current: stuff that was going on seven years ago isn’t happening now. There are new stories, and the main thing is that I think back then youngers had more respect for elders, but now that’s lost. Youngers in real life now do not care what olders have to say. So when Dushane and that come back trying operate how they used to, it’s not like that, because youngers are really ruthless out here in these streets. That’s the main difference for me.
“I went to New York a couple of months ago and at the airport these people were taking the piss out of the way I spoke, because they’d never seen a black guy from the UK speak like how I speak. All they know is tea and crumpets. So I played it cool, and thought: in a couple of months you’ll soon know!” – Micheal Ward
What do you want this season to achieve?
Micheal Ward: I want people to realise we’re not glorifying what’s going on: there are families breaking down, people are getting hurt, we’re shining a light on stuff so people can help. We’re sending a message. Why are youngers moving in these ways? What’s brilliant about this being on Netflix now is that we get to tell this story properly so people understand everything that’s going on. When it’s shorter you have to gas it up so people come and watch, and you don’t have time to get into the deeper stuff, but now we have time for everything. Even just having the cameras sit with my character, Jamie, after his brothers leave, and how that takes a toll on his energy, that’s very important.
How are you dealing with the responsibility of being the new Top Boy?
Micheal Ward: It’s a blessing. I understand that these opportunities aren’t available to everyone. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. Now a lot of young people are trying to do different things like acting, because of a show like Top Boy, where it’s created the idea that people like me can do this as well. There is a lot more content for us because there are more stories being told. That’s where the responsibilities come. Inspiring younger and older people to keep working, to go harder, to do the right thing. You don’t need to be out here on the roads to make something of yourself in life. I want to keep echoing that. I want people to see that if I can make it, they can make it as well.
How did you connect to your characters?
Little Simz: In terms of my character Shelly being a carer, my mum’s a foster carer. So I’ve grown up with foster kids, and I know quite a bit about that system. But also with Shelly, she is obviously a single parent. I have friends who have kids and their lives are so similar to this character. So for me, when I got the role I knew I needed to get this right and accurate because I am representing people’s stories. Obviously also working with Ashley, he’s seasoned in this. I remember the first few days on set feeling really nervous. But he made it super seamless and I think even the dynamic between Shelly and Dushane: Shelly allows Dushane to hope and dream and imagine. She says: I know you see one way of doing things but you can also have a family, there is more to life than what you’re focused on right now. I really clicked with Martia, too, who plays Pat, Dushane’s mum. We spent a lot of time together. She almost treated me like a niece or daughter. I think it’s great when you connect with people so that it shows on screen.
“My mum’s a foster carer. So I’ve grown up with foster kids, and I know quite a bit about that system. But also with Shelly, she is obviously a single parent. I have friends who have kids and their lives are so similar to this character” – Little Simz
Micheal Ward: Jamie is the ruthless gang leader and trying to make moves to be the Top Boy whilst Dushane and Sully are away, whilst looking after his two brothers at home. He is the mother, father and older brother, because their parents have died. The decisions he is making he doesn’t want to make, but he has to, because he has to pay rent and bills. For me, connecting to that, I haven’t lost both my parents, but I have lost my dad when I was very young, so the sense of loss was there. And I’ve got two little sisters, who I love from the bottom of my heart, so wanting to protect them is how I connected with Jamie, because the main motivation for him is to protect Aaron and Stef. But in the aggressive stuff, the shotting and all of that, I didn’t really know much! So I watched leading men roles, like Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, Ghost in Power, Denzel in Training Day. Just seeing how they don’t really say much, but when they do speak, people listen.
TUNES VS TV
How does making music compared to acting on television?
Little Simz: Music is always from a very personal place, it’s me and my story in my head. Being a part of something like this, it’s so much bigger than me and my perspective. There is Shelly’s perspective, but there is also Dushane and Sully, all the characters that make Top Boy what it is. When I am doing an album there is a lot of me, me, me, you know? But in television, if you don’t relate to my story, you might relate to Jamie’s, or Dushane’s. So in that way it opens it up a lot more. One thing I forget is that when I’m shooting on set, even though I am part of this story with everyone, my scenes are only really with a select group of people. I’m not with Kane or Micheal on set at all. So it’s not until you watch it back that you realise you’re one part of a whole. So you kind of get lost in your storyline and your character and you forget that there is a whole different story going on, in Jamaica and here, that all links.
Kane Robinson: There are similarities, but in process, they are very different. Both are about telling stories and bringing truth to those stories. In most of my music it’s firsthand experience, and some of the same rules apply in TV. The difference in music is the control, whereas doing this, it’s someone else’s words that you can play in your own way.
On your new album, Hoodies All Summer, you talk about the changing face of London, how people from different walks of life are living amongst each other more than ever.
Kane Robinson: Hackney has evolved, but the old Hackney is still there living cheek-by-jowl with the new Hackney. People are kind of strolling through life not even knowing these issues. Top Boy is a massive eye-opener for lots of people. Like in one of my lyrics, when I say: “all of our mothers worry when we touch the road, ‘cause it’s touch and go, whether we’re coming home”, that must also be eye-opening for some people. Not all mothers have to deal with that situation, just because of circumstances, because of class. But people from these areas that we’re speaking about in Top Boy, these are the things they have to deal with. Are they going to get that phone call saying something has happened to their son? And when you have the new Jamie character, who I think is great, because on the face of it he’s just a ruthless criminal trying to make it to the top and make as much money as he can, but he’s doing it to provide for his two younger brothers who he’s basically a father figure to. I hope it doesn’t come across as justifying anything, it’s just real. You’re still allowed to criticise someone’s decisions, but it’s our job to make you understand why, and I think great art at times poses more questions than gives answers.
You also refer to the generation gap, between olders and youngers, in your music — that gap is very obvious in Top Boy.
Kane Robinson: It’s about perspective. My job as a song-writer speaking about these things is to make it sound like I’m not talking down on people. We’re on the same level and we’re having this conversation. Sometimes I feel like distance helps observation. That’s the thing with Ronan: some people might say: how can Ronan be writing about this stuff when he hasn’t lived it? But he lives in the heart of the show, and he has seen these things happen, and it’s what made him want to write it.