Top Boy is not an open criticism of the Tories but a criticism of the dire effects of austerity, neoliberalism and capitalism on communities like that of the Summerhouse Estate, writes Lucy Nichols
There is nothing that comes close to Top Boy. The crime drama set across East London, but predominantly in Hackney, has come a long way since it first aired on Channel 4 in 2011.
This isn’t to say that Top Boy hasn’t always been phenomenal: I was in secondary school when it first aired and was captivated by the early seasons. The drama, created by Ronan Bennet, chronicles crime and punishment in London, focusing on the workings of various fictional drug dealers, users, and kingpins.
Often described as ‘gritty’ (a word that the mainstream media likes to use to describe almost any drama about working class people), Top Boy has been slammed in the past for glamourising crime, drugs, and violence.
This is reminiscent of the way grime, drill, and other kinds of popular culture produced by working class people from London have been demonised by the press and state over the years.
This analysis is short-sighted and fundamentally misunderstands the programme, which has starred icons of culture like Ashley Walters (who plays Dushane Hill), Kano (Sully), and Little Simz (Shelley), alongside relative newcomers like Michael Ward (Jamie) and Jasmine Jobson (Jaq).
Previous seasons have featured some phenomenal performances from the likes of Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You), Paul Anderson (Peaky Blinders), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Dune), Benedict Wong (Marvel’s Doctor Strange) and even the rapper Dave.
There are some powerful female characters too. The storylines involve active, intelligent women as both fighters and victims, easily meeting the criteria to pass the Bechdel Test.
Crime and class
The two most recent seasons of Top Boy have been funded and produced by the Canadian rapper Drake. Yet despite the injection of money by a multi-millionaire from across the Atlantic, Top Boy seems to have maintained its closeness to, and sympathy for, ordinary working class people from the East End.
In the sense that it deals entirely with the difficulties faced by working class people across the UK, Top Boy is inherently political. Apart from one conversation between Dushane and his mother towards the end of the newest season, Top Boy is not an open criticism of the Tories but a criticism of the dire effects of austerity, neoliberalism and capitalism on communities like that of the Summerhouse Estate.
Previous seasons of Top Boy have mainly focused on the selling and buying of drugs in and around London. For over ten years, audiences have followed the stories of the ruthless Dushane and his even more ruthless ‘business partner’ Sully as they try to expand their drugs empire further than their home turf – the Summerhouse Estate in Hackney.
Far from glamourising the way of life enjoyed by Dushane and Sully, Top Boy has always been disposed to shining a light on the stark class divide in East London, or Britain in general. The programme is fantastically clever in demonstrating how exactly it is that people – especially young, working class people of colour – are forced into selling drugs, or taking them.
Of course, there are still plotlines that are somewhat exaggerated and unrealistic, but we mustn’t forget that we are watching a work of fiction; every crime drama needs some added drama.
Changing political landscape
Top Boy has evolved over the years, just as the area of London where it is set has transformed too. In 2011, East London had only seen the beginning of its massive regeneration. Stratford hadn’t yet seen the Olympics and austerity had only just begun. We are now in 2022, and East London is a completely different world to that of 2011.
This is reflected in the latest series of Top Boy, which tackles everything from police racism to gentrification and domestic violence. A myriad of storylines overlap and intertwine to create a work of art that appears to care deeply about the subject matter.
It is clear to me that over the last decade Top Boy has been shaped in some way by the political landscape of the UK. The most recent season is no exception, as various scenes invoke the anger of the public at various moments of particular tension between us and the establishment.
Certain scenes are reminiscent of the anger felt during the Black Lives Matter movement, the Windrush Scandal, in the aftermath of the murder of Sarah Everard, or the housing crisis and treatment of those living in council houses (especially after Grenfell).
The first episode features a violently racist stop and search that takes place in newly-regenerated Stratford, with the police invoking Section 60 to stop and search three black characters without giving reason.
We go on to listen to the story of Amma (Jolade Obosola), a migrant mother who faces deportation after family tragedy. We watch as Lauryn (played by the unbelievably good Saffron Hocking) fights to escape her abusive partner and his family.
We meet Shelley, as she fights the regeneration of the Summerhouse Estate, which seeks to price the residents out of their homes and replace council flats with luxury apartments. Topics like knife-crime, school exclusions, social services and the criminal justice systems are also expertly and sensitively covered throughout the most recent season.
Looking past its thought-provoking subject matter, each character has been written with incredible attention, care, and love. From the completely ruthless but multi-faceted main characters, who largely fall somewhere on the spectrum between antagonist and protagonist to the more vulnerable characters like Amma (Jolade Obosola) or Tia (Conya Toccara).
Top Boy features some of the most fantastic actors Britain has to offer, and the casting is generally very good: young actors are taken from local communities rather than the Brit School, meaning genuine talents are given the opportunity to shine.
It’s probably fair to say I’m biased, having grown up watching Top Boy, and having watched East London completely transform in the decade since it aired. But even people who’ve never stepped foot on the right side of the Thames will be able to find something in Top Boy to relate to.
We are all feeling the effects of a decade of austerity and have watched communities around us change beyond recognition. We have all experienced the fundamental lack of care that comes from our state and can probably all sympathise with those who are pushed to the most desperate of measures to survive.
On top of all this, Top Boy is exciting and deeply enthralling – though remember that there are only eight episodes this season, so try not to watch it all at once. It’s almost impossible not to be a fan of the programme.
The new series of Top Boy is airing on Netflix.
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