Top Boy

Saturday, 5 November 2011

This week, Channel 4 aired the four part drama Top Boy. There had been billboards all over London and adverts in all the papers (well the Metro and Evening Standard anyway). The programme was met with a split reaction, from the media, which was to be expected, but also from its target audience and was the topic of numerous Twitter and Facebook debates. It got me thinking. I love to throw out my views on Twitter, often without thinking, but I couldn’t fit how I felt into a few 140 character tweets this time.
Before the first episode had even been shown there had been stories in the press; Hackney borough had declined to let the production be shot there despite the story being set there and residents had gone on record denouncing the programme, claiming the area was nothing like the Baltimore projects in ‘The Wire’ and expressing fears of how the programme would damage perceptions of the neighbourhood and be bad for local business. So far, so standard.
As the hype built for the first episode and the guest list grew for the packed live premiere, I personally couldn’t wait to tune in. I knew a number of the actors, either from working with them or just through industry events (please forgive that phrase, I am fully aware of how wanky it sounds) and I’m always keen to support ‘urban’ programmes, and for this to be shown on prime time terrestrial TV, I wanted viewing figures as high as they could be. I usually have a problem with the ‘urban’ tag because people often equate it with ‘black’. Urban is the opposite of rural, not white, so this grates on me. A lot. But Top Boy was definitely an urban drama, set in the inner-city, on the estates of Hackney, and while the majority of the cast were black, there were key white characters and minor characters of other races. I think it is vital that our ‘urban’ experiences are told on television and film, for our culture to be depicted, our music, our slang, or clothes – especially because it is still a rare occurrence. And I don’t mean black culture exclusively, although that clearly has a huge influence on the inner city youth of today.
I’m not going to rehash the storyline; the reviews have done that and better than I could. We know that the programme was drugs and violence heavy and that two of the main characters DuShane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kano) were big dealers on the estate. This is where audience opinion split. Reading my Twitter timeline, as the tweets flooded in hash tagging TopBoyC4 while the programme was on and more importantly after people had a chance to reflect when the first episode finished, the people I follow seemed to fall into two camps. Some praised the authenticity of the characters and the situations that were played out, others were disappointed to see another programme perpetuating negative stereotypes of black men. The latter thought the story had been told countless times before, that the drugs, violence and criminality were glamourised and that the message the programme was sending was irresponsible.
Myself – I’m on both sides. No, not sitting on the fence, more one foot firmly on each side. As a mixed race actor, a lot of the scripts that I’m sent and some of the projects I’ve done would be deemed ‘urban’. It can be tiresome. A lot of the scripts and plots can seem samey or just over the top and embarrassing. I would love to see black actors playing more varied parts; as barristers, doctors, middle class families, storylines that do not feature drugs and violence and yet still have them in the main roles. I would love to play these parts myself! I can see myself playing a high-flying business woman or some upper class snooty bitch, can’t you? I didn’t grow up on an estate or date drug dealers and although I am proudly working class I have lots of black middle class friends in London. Their experience isn’t being depicted and if it is, it is commented on extensively because it is so rare. I would love to see this become a little bit more, well, normal, on our screens.
However, I don’t think these two feelings are mutually exclusive and I think a lot of the people criticising the programme for being negative lost sight of the fact this kind of life is a reality for some people. People I know. People you know. Put all the positive representations of black people you like on screen and it still won’t stop it being real. Some of these same people would have loved ‘The Wire’, have the box set and all sorts, but this felt a bit...close to home. I saw a tweet the next day: '@AbukJoseph people don’t like to look in the mirror when something ugly is looking back. Top Boy is a mirror of our society.' Some of the scenes in Top Boy made me so uncomfortable I could barely watch. Not just the violence and killing (RIP Sway’s fingers) but some of the smaller moments. Seeing young Ra’Nell (Malcolm Kamulete) resist joining the dealers on the estate only to be manipulated by his mums’ pregnant friend (Heather played by Kierston Wareing)  into helping her with her weed farm because he wanted to help her get her better life, his mum suffering a break with reality in the market that led to her being hospitalised (Lisa played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster), young Chantelle ( Letitia Wright) teaching Gem (Giacomo Mancini) how to hold a rock of crack in his mouth and still be able to speak or Gem holding his dead dog for hours after it had been killed because Sully thought he was a snitch. That shit broke my heart. And sometimes people don’t want to see that.
Top Boy was a gripping programme; it was more than just ‘hood’. The cinematography was beautiful, saturated with colour, wide scenery shots that showed the juxtaposition of the grimey estates and the luxury of The City. The programme touched on lots of issues; mental health, broken families, treatment of women. The throwaway line from Chantelle when one of the boys she was looking out with told her to ‘Fuck Off’, that he was already acting like a boyfriend was so telling of what she had seen and expected in life. Trust and tested loyalty between DuShane and Sully, between Ra’Nell and Gem. We saw the drug dealers with their mothers, their babymothers, their children. We saw them a little more as people and not just villains. We saw how a kid without a strong family unit might look up to the dealers for protection, for a feeling of family. Post riots, maybe some people watching the show might have got a glimpse at the experiences some of these kids have and stop calling them ‘mindless criminals’ long enough to think about why they got sucked in.
 The writing (Ronan Bennett) was strong. The acting was on point. Ashley never disappoints, Kano made an impressive debut and the youngsters, Malcolm Kamulete, Letitia Wright and Giacomo Mancini were inspiring.
 One criticism that I do agree with was there seemed to be a lack of consequence, considering there were quite a few deaths here. But the bad guy sometimes does get away with things doesn’t he? I’m hoping they didn’t wrap it all up neatly because that would mean we wouldn’t get a second series....
 I’m not naive enough to think that it is easy to get other kinds of programmes or films about black people made because often the powers that be will only back certain things. I think the fact that Top Boy pulled in heaps of viewers and trended worldwide on Twitter shows that as an audience, we want to watch things we relate to, things about our experiences, our people and so it makes sense that we would want some diversity in the storylines, and I think we should still fight to get these made. But we don’t have to stop showing the dark side of things, especially not when it is done as well as Top Boy was.


  1. GO gurlie!! Well cuz, I knew u were a good actor even though I still didn't get to see u in action because UK films never touch US soil :( but I can see you're a fantastic writer as well, def enjoyed reading this, well articulated babe! :) Love your blog and soooo proud of you! Keep doing ur thing and keep up with this blog and congrats on the new movie :). Lotz of love n support huni, Cherie xcx

  2. What a wonderful insightful balanced review so proud of you babe xxx