BOXSET REVIEW: Top Boy (Series 1)

The Summerhouse gang is back.

What’s the story?
The Summerhouse estate in Hackney, east London. It’s a brutal place; a sprawling warren of high-rises, alleyways and gangs struggling and scrapping and selling in order to gain control of their territory. We first saw this fictional setting in 2011, on Channel 4, where the likes of Ra’Nell, Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson) made such a big impression on us – it was a series as brutal and coruscating as it was human.

In among all the terrifying violence, there were the kinds of epic, Shakespearean struggles of duplicity, plotting in neon-lit walkovers and hidden balconies, ruthlessness and terrible madness that set this series apart. Comparisons with The Wire, its Baltimore-set counterpart of the 1990s, were not a million miles apart, while proclamations that it was the best British crime drama of recent times – certainly gang drama – were not wild in the least.

Where Peaky Blinders is elegiac, quixotic, erring towards superstition and seemingly concerned more about style rather than substance, there was an authenticity to Top Boy that felt both terrifying and alluring.

And now, six years after its second series it has been resurrected by none other than Canadian hip-hop artist, Drake, for streaming giant Netflix.

Series three once again revisits erstwhile Summerhouse kingpins Dushane and Sully but, because of their absence from the estate – Dushane is in exile in Jamaica and Sully is in prison – their patch is up for grabs. In steps young teen Jamie (Michael Ward), who administers a zero-tolerance approach to gang life – if no one wants to submit to his will and his leadership, then they will – and are – wiped out.

When Dushane and Sully eventually find their way back into east London – Dushane because he owes a debt to Jamaican gangster Sugar, Sully because he’s let out of prison, and the pair of them because they realise they’re better together than apart – they find that the streets have changed (almost) immeasurably, and for them to win back their selling ground it’s going to take the fight of their lives.

And so the game is on – always one small step away from all-out war, these 10 extraordinary episodes of Top Boy give us an incredible, power struggle from start to finish.

What’s good about it?
Be warned: Top Boy is full of violence. Stabbings, shootings, acid attacks… the three modes of attack that are currently prevalent in gang society in the UK are all here. And it doesn’t flinch from that, after all it is a gang drama, and gang dramas – from The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire – often show sickening violence whatever and wherever they depict. With Top Boy, it feels more real because it’s much closer to home (for viewers in the UK at least).

Two scenes really stand out: a young sales assistant in a jewellery store is won over by Jamie’s charms, but when they go out and she’s getting into his car, she’s gunned down by two young men on a motorbike, becoming yet another collateral damage statistic; next, after a bloody street battle, the wounded are taken to a nearby hospital… not knowing that the same rival gang members they just fought on the street were in the same hospital. Cue fighting in the hospital.

This is about as far from a cosy crime drama as you’re ever likely to watch – London is beautifully, cinematically shot, but also authentically. There are no villages or peeking from behind the hedges. Instead, there’s the pulsing energy, the grime, the beauty and the squalor that a sprawling capital city often provides in equal abundance.

But really, what makes Top Boy so special is the characters. Real, believable characters, sketched with detail and given real depth.

To start with we’re introduced to Jamie, the new mover and shaker of Summerhouse. But we’re given a reason for his life of crime – his mother and father were both victims of cancer within days of each other and, fuelled by rage and injustice, his duty is to provide for his younger brothers Aaron and Stefan as they navigate school and university burns with singular intensity. He’s doing it all for them and giving them the kind of chances in life he never had.

And then we go to Jamaica. The colour palette changes and we see Dushane get into a bit of a pickle – so much so he’s forced back into the life of a gang leader back in London thanks to local gangster Sugar.

Just a note about this segment in Jamaica. It reminded me of Michael Corleone’s exile in The Godfather… not the first comparison with a famous film you could make throughout this series.

Then we see Sully, who’s finishing his stint in jail and gets into a battle with mad-as-a-bollock dealer, Modie.

These three narrative strands dominate the first half of the series – it’s not until episode five when Dushane and Jamie, who have been circling each other since Dushane came back, first meet. And that first meet is the next big cinematic comparison – when they look at each other, check each other out, almost whisper and hiss at each other on opposite sides of a table in a local cafe, it really reminded me of Heat… when De Niro and Pacino met on film for the first time.

The next five episodes concern themselves with war, how to win one and how to lose one. And it’s kinetic, visceral and, again, terrifying.

But this series of Top Boy is so much more than gang violence and war.

There are so many stories within stories. Sully’s sojourn to Ramsgate and the subsequent demise of his friend Jason is both remarkable and probably deserved a series in its own right; the emergence of Jaq – a gay woman in the ‘hood – is a fantastic addition (she could have been my favourite character out of a whole cast of incredible characters, with Jasmine Jobson terrific in the role); youngster Ast, who’s driven to life on the streets because his mother was refused legal settlement; Lisa, the posh Irish dealer Jamie, literally, gets into bed with is a powerful signifier of the haves and have nots; and perhaps most heartbreakingly, Dris, a long-time friend and associate of Dushane and Sully makes a decision that endangers him and his daughter’s future.

But the really remarkable thing is both Dushane and Sully’s changing personalities – they both display existential dread as the inexorable, inevitable march towards confrontation continues. They both question why they do what they do, and whether the rewards have been and are worth it.

“What else are we going to be?” asks Sully.

(It should be noted that Kane Robinson as Sully is just mesmerising.)

What’s bad about it?
It’s an astonishing series, with nothing bad in it. The characters are fantastic – all of them – and the themes on display (community, family, duty, purpose, power, loyalty, betrayal) are all key ingredients to any great drama.

But much discussion has been waged over whether Top Boy perpetuates the young, black male stereotype – a thug, a criminal, and a gang-banger.

I think that discussion is one that’s worth having – and one that should be discussed continually – but showrunner Ronan Bennett straddles an impressive line here: he always seeks to provide reasons for their choices and criminality. And all of those reasons make sense – whether it be absent parents, general environment, the stereotypes that get put upon them, racism, broken Britain… they all contribute to their lives of crime.

As does apathy and disenfranchisement. Check this piece of dialogue, when the street workers spot a new stallholder in the market on their patch. They’re debating whether to go and tell him to move on and get off their territory.

“You know this guy’s going to start problems for us innit?”

“Might as well, we ain’t got fuck all else to do.”

This unflinching look at life on the streets won’t be for everyone, though – too raw, too close to home and way too violent.

And, if anything, I’d like more women in it.

Why it’s worth a binge…
It’s arguably the most important British crime drama of the decade. It’s not just important, though, it’s deep and rich and full of life – good and bad – and a searing indictment of modern Britain.

It’s full of crackling dialogue, thrilling, terrifying set-pieces, incredible characters and performances across the board.

It’s unlikely we’ll get a better British crime drama all year.

The good news? The final scene – where the two pitiful junkies always hassling Jaq and Dris for ‘food’ – were revealed to be undercover cops and have been targeting Dushane. Which means that there may well be another chapter of Top Boy sometime soon.

Top Boy is now streaming on Netflix






7 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark Andrew says:

    Can’t wait to see where Top Boy sits on The Killing Times Best of 2019 list. It has to be a strong contender for show of the year.


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