Some cities separate rich and poor with armed guards or scrupulous zoning. London is different. The writer Ronan Bennett, originally from Belfast, has lived in Hackney, east London, for 35 years. Much of the borough is wildly gentrified; it even gets a name-check in the newly released and much-discussed Taylor Swift song “London Boy”. But more markedly than in most of the city, an older Hackney exists alongside the gentrification. “Walk down the prettiest street”, Bennett says, “with the most sought-after property. Fifty metres later, you’re on the estate. In Hackney, the two worlds are always colliding.”
Bennett is at the Hoxton Grill, a boutique hotel restaurant itself a short walk from less comfortable parts of east London. We are here to talk about Top Boy, the television crime series he created and scripted, now returning after a six-year absence. Now as then, the setting is Hackney and the fictional Summerhouse estate, home to a cast of characters still led by aspirant gangsters Dushane and Sully, played by Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson.
Off-camera, much has changed. The original show was broadcast by Channel 4. First aired in 2011, it was an instant hit, an addictive drama rooted in a world that was for many viewers far closer to real life than British TV usually got. An abrupt decommissioning after two series — critically acclaimed, enjoyed by a young and diverse audience — left Bennett baffled but finally resigned. The prospect of a return arrived out of nowhere when Canadian hip-hop star Drake discovered the series after cancellation; there were, at first, simply enthused posts on Instagram.
Eventually, Bennett was told that a rapper he had never heard of (but was assured was a big deal) wanted to relaunch the show. A screenwriter of long experience, he shrugged. “I fully expected it to be one of those situations where someone in LA has a thought over breakfast, gets excited, and the whole thing is forgotten by dinner.”
The interest proved more substantial. Drake would become a co-producer of a reboot, one that became a reality with the backing of Netflix. For Bennett, it was a chance to revive a story close to his heart, and to do so at scale: “I’d yearned to make the show truly long-form, like a Victorian novel.” He had urged Channel 4 to commission more than its standard four episodes. With Netflix hungry for content, the new series runs to 10.
Bennett has not lost his knack for hooking in viewers, plotting grand cliffhangers and underworld powerplays. But nuance lives on too: characters doing what they tell themselves needs to be done inside a rigged system.
While he plays down talk of bigger budgets, the Netflix deal allowed for a shoot in Jamaica. Its audience, of course, is international. The show’s first run was shaped by Bennett and director Yann Demange, a gifted French-Algerian Londoner with a cinematic eye. The new cohort of directors includes US film-makers Reinaldo Marcus Green and Nia DaCosta, whose debut feature Little Woods came out this year and who is remaking 1990s horror movie Candyman with writer-producer Jordan Peele.
DaCosta was in London, studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama, when the original series aired. “I spent enough time in the city to have my own relationship with it, visually and emotionally,” she says. “So I came to this hopeful I could make something that felt like London to people who know it.”
To Bennett and his colleagues at production company Cowboy Films, hiring directors of colour such as Green and DaCosta for a drama built around black characters was not just the right ethical choice, but a creative necessity. “Ronan listened,” DaCosta says. “He recognised that lived experience is vital for a director. It’s helpful working with actors and imperative to challenge ideas and make sure the characters have complexity. I could put my own stamp on the show.”
Cowboy Films had turned to America after struggling to find black British directors with substantial experience in high-end television — a situation for the UK industry to ponder. In response, the production established its own mentoring scheme, bringing next-generation talent such as Dionne Edwards and Koby Adom on set to shadow lead directors with a view to taking over future seasons. DaCosta was a keen participant. “There’s a Catch-22 with television everywhere: you can’t direct a show because you don’t have the experience you could only get from directing a show. This was targeted and very smart.”
The mix of old and new behind the camera is mirrored in front of it. The show focuses on “youngers” as its predecessors did. (Bennett was inspired to write the first Top Boy after seeing a 12-year-old dealing drugs outside his local supermarket.) But Walters and Robinson remain the leads, even as their characters slide into what in street terms is old age. “I’m 36,” Dushane exclaims.
In its first run, the show felt tied up with a dangerous moment — it premiered weeks after the 2011 London riots. Now, 2011 seems almost quaint. The show widens its scope globally and nationally. The peeling seaside town of Ramsgate, Kent, provides another backdrop, where a “county lines” drug trade thrives amid anti-migrant hostility. Bennett has unmixed feelings about Brexit — “This country is blowing its brains out” — but didn’t want to deal in caricatures. Watching footage back, he noticed a shot of a closed-up shop hung from roof to pavement with flags of St George. “I phoned the production designers and said, ‘This is too much, we’ve made it look totally over the top.’ They said, ‘Ronan, no — that’s real.’”
In London, knife crime mounts and a housing crisis spirals. “In the estates by the townhouses, people want to know why are there seven of us in a flat built for four? Why don’t the lights work? Why don’t the lifts work?” He tells me he knows Hackney schoolteachers who now wash clothes for pupils with no other means of cleaning their uniform. Gang life, he says, can be bluntly seductive for children in need of self-esteem.
In a scene as close as the show gets to comedy, Dushane is delayed buying coffee by the perfectionist baristas of modern Hackney. Generally, Bennett finds little funny about London’s inequality. Fresh eyes see it too. DaCosta knew Hackney from her first stay in the capital. Returning, she says, “the gentrification hit me straight away. That place, changed, that place, gone.”
Steeped in the politics of 2019 and starting over with a blast of London rapper AJ Tracey, the new Top Boy proves the kind of Victorian saga that Bennett wanted it to be — a Dickensian tale for Dickensian times. Like Dickens, comment comes wrapped in high drama. “I can write a good sermon,” Bennett says, “but I know the real task is to tell a great story. With Top Boy I want you to turn the page. I want you to keep watching.”
‘Top Boy’ is on Netflix from September 13
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