Ronan Bennett’s drama, Top Boy, recently broadcast on Channel 4 has been widely cited as UK’s answer to HBO’s The Wire. This is a hugely flattering but not particularly accurate comparison.

The link stems largely from the fact both feature a predominantly black cast of non actors and each is set against the inner city backdrop of drug deals.

Yet while in The Wire, the rivalry between the police, politicians and the criminals was central, in Top Boy the fuzz are conspicuous by their absence. At one point we are told that ‘the estate is crawling with feds’ but we don’t see any of them. If you live in London, you take for granted the sound of sirens even in relatively crime-free neighbourhoods. In the course of the four one hour episodes, you only hear one.
Bennett’s aim here is to write from the point of view of the young kids (the ‘tinies’) so he chose not to include any police characters. His reasoning is sound but the drawback is that it gives the misleading impression that the kids do not need to be constantly looking over their shoulders for a raid. This is a major weakness for a drama that prides itself on social realism. The killings and beatings take place in a surreal vacuum in which the forces of justice are all but invisible.

Despite this, there is a lot to admire and the central performances by the, mostly, non-classically trained actors are remarkable.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster (left) is outstanding as a single mother ,Lisa, battling with depression after been left to bring up her son, Ra’Nell, alone by an abusive husband (who we never see).

Her transformation from someone afraid to face the outside world to an assertive woman determined to keep her son clear of the gang culture is both convincing and heart-warming.

Cutty

Leon

One aspect of the story where comparisons with Baltimore in The Wire and London (Hackney) of Top Boy do hold up is with the character of Leon (Nicolas Pinnock).

He is a family friend who takes it upon himself to help ensure Ra’Nell doesn’t go off the rails. Leon is very similar to Dennis ‘Cutty’ Wise in The Wire, both in looks and character. Each are physically strong, morally upright and quietly spoken ex-bad boys who still command respect on the streets.

The drama was impressively directed by Yann Demange, who is definitely a name to watch. It also features a cracking soundtrack with original music by Brian Eno, some atmospheric drone/noise and plenty of urban soul and Dubstep.

The ‘top boy’ of the title could refer to Dushane (Ashley Walters) as the drug dealer who wants to move up in the world but it makes more sense to say that it refers to Re’Nell.

Personally, I’d have been tempted to call it ‘top mum’ as, for me, Lisa was the true hero.

Related links:

Top Boy Mixtape – 77 minutes of slick sounds hosted by Charlie Sloth and compiled by  Chantelle Fiddy (Streets On Demand).

What inspired Top Boy? (The TV Collective interviews Ronan Bennett & Yann Demange.

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