The first thing that strikes you about Top Boy, is the visual quality; money has been rightly invested in to this project and its about time. The production value is clean. Beautiful images of the Inner city London skyline – the way I see it and recognise it and how any child who grew up in a London council block will know – join the scenes together, nicely. Hand-held but not overtly in your face “this is rough and ready urban London grimy streets coming at yer” edit, makes this a refreshing step back from the usual ‘urban life’ drama that has become synonymous when you put young black actors, London and council block settings in to one. Top Boy deviates from the norm of trying to make it edgy and appealing. This isn’t what it’s trying to promote, we know when it’s forced (SKINS). That being said the draw of some of the UK’s hottest grime acts featuring in this does aim to offer some essence of credibility but it’s all done in vain when you see that its more than an extended music video.
Bringing me on to the next evident appeal of this new channel 4 drama. The talent. I’m a big advocate for what we can do in the UK. Especially what young black actors can do in the UK. In an ideal world the colour of the actors wouldn’t even be an issue – I would be proud just to call them British – but it isn’t. Some may say that its nothing new, Ashley Walters is definitely no stranger to this kind of role with Bullet Boy and the soon to be released SKET, but you cannot deny that he’s good. Posing the question, has he been given the opportunity to do more? If so why hasn’t he? I know he has done Small Island, however again, his talent like so many young black actors is not being exposed nearly as much as it should be – were it not for dramas like this where the criteria is more …”appropriate” would they be recognised?
Kano, Sway and Scorch are all well-known established musical artists in the, to be specific, grime genre. All have achieved a credible amount of mainstream success but when it comes to acting – is the pool really so shallow that we turn to musicians? Well the answer is yes and no. To be honest I’m still waiting for Adam Deacon to pop up. Aside from Kano, Sway and Scorcher are fleeting turns as antagonising thugs. However Kano has the burden of having the spotlight heavy on him as Walters right-hand man. He’s not actually that bad. In fact he’s not bad at all. He’s actually as charismatic as he is when he raps and sings. His character is laid back, humorous but slightly menacing and perhaps less observant which compliments Walters clever man thinker very nicely. I look forward to seeing how their relationship pans out toward the end.
The story for the first episode wasn’t exactly ground breaking let alone wholly plausible. Kicking off with Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane Robinson, A.K.A KANO) two low-end drug pushers, supervising their usual circuit of drug dealing business on the streets of east london whilst their ‘fam’ (the rest of their gang) are being ambushed in a fictitious estate in the middle of a drug deal. Realising the real big boss isn’t going to be happy Dushane somehow finds the cash to pay back – all of it is a little hazy but it’s perhaps a byline to getting Dushane up the ladder and in to the top man status. Dushane’s aspirations become clear early on and it’s not long before he and Sully are cutting the fingers off rival pushers and stabbing the other. Unfortunately for them, it’s not that easy and they are confronted by the duo a second time.
What’s not authentic is the fact there is no police to be seen throughout the duration of this film. Not even a siren heard. In light of the recent events in London and the exposure of how many young black males are treated in the UK, surely one stop and search would have sufficed in painting a true picture of life on the streets?
The supporting cast does just that, no one gets in the way but each character is sure to bring their own trouble and strife to the programme during the course of the three days. In particular Kierston Wareing’s Heather, a pregnant raspy voiced neighbour moonlighting as a weed grower indoors, and the protagonist Ra’Nelle’s sweet friend Gem, who unlike the former is keen to work for Dushane.
The thread that perhaps ties all the characters together is Ra’Nelle played by the gorgeous young Malcolm Kamulete. What a wonderful debut for the young actor, eloquent and endearing. You genuinely feel for the boy when his mentally ill mother (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is whisked into care and he is left to fend for himself. Your confused when you realise Dushane and Sully would probably look after the boy better that his mother could, but hope that there is another way for him to survive beyond the life of crime they are inviting him to.
The last self-contained drama that was fantastically written and boasting young British talent was in This is England 86. Top Boy has brilliant acting, the dialogue is on point just enough to be plausible but not arrogant as to exclude the large audience of middle class and non-London viewers that may have been watching, and its beautifully shot. The feasibility of the story is perhaps questionable, but I get it, it’s drama not a documentary. I can only hope Top Boy continues to get better – because it’s a long time before we’ll see something like this again.