After watching more new police procedurals than you could shake a trench-coat at arrive in our schedules this year, it was a relief to see C4 finally give the British crime genre a fresh angle this week. Obvious comparisons with The Wire might be valid (and a fine compliment in anyone’s book) but there isn’t much here that’s been done on UK TV before. Top Boy is haunting, atmospheric and heart-breakingly unsentimental.
Street gangs are rarely far from the headlines, yet his four-parter could do what a thousand news reports and documentaries couldn’t. Drama has rarely attempted to explain urban Britain from within and here Ronan Bennett demonstrates that it’s in the perfect position to do so. We’ve also seen our fair share of gangsters, but they’ve never been humanised like they are here and director Yann Demange paints the hoodlums as neither helpless victims nor died-in-the-wool bastards. It seems that even drug-dealers fall somewhere in between. Crucially the writer also shows that while some kids are pushed into this oft-discussed but usually misunderstood world, others jump willingly.
Last night’s episode introduced us to life on the Summerhouse Estate, where Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kano) are bidding to reach the top of the Peckham underworld’s food-chain, quite literally in fact, because drugs are known as ‘food’ by the high rollers we meet later on. Unfortunately they get their stash robbed twice by rival gang London Fields – who, if the drama wasn’t real enough, actually exist in real life. Yet despite the fact that there are gun-toting gang-members robbing each other in broad daylight, there isn’t a siren to be heard, which is either a swipe at the Coalition’s police cuts or an attempt to demonstrate how Dushane’s main concern isn’t the ‘feds’ but rival gang-members. You can’t help but wonder if we might catch a glimpse of the police tomorrow after they accidentally murder Kamale’s cousin. Probably not though.
As that pair’s battle for control of the estate begins to escalate wildly (obtaining guns rarely leads to anything good) we continue to follow the progress of Ra’Nell (played by debutant Malcolm Kamulete) and his mother Lisa, who has been taken into care after having a break-down in the street. Last night Dushane tried to recruit the youngster, against the wishes of reformed con Leon, but tonight we watch Ra’Nell open up a sideline looking after Heather’s weed-farm. To be honest, this is probably the closest he’s going to get to ‘keeping out of trouble’ in Summerhouse. Ra’Nell is clearly our beacon of hope in amongst the murk of the world he finds himself in, let’s just hope that Leon can help him stay on the edges.
The one character that tells a unique but important story is Gem, a shy young lad who illustrates just how easily kids can get swept into gang culture. Watching Dushane co-ordinate an army of child look-outs before meeting up with local kingpin Bobby Raikes also shows us how the hustler is simply one part of a large human chain which stretches through – and well-beyond – the estate. You doubt it’s going to end well for anyone.