“WHERE’S THE FOOD, BRUV?!” I yell at my blank phone screen. I am trying to psychically will my Seamless order to arrive so that I can get back to watching Netflix’s relaunch of the British cult drama Top Boy. I haven’t been able to rip my eyeballs away from the series and my brain had taken to narrating life in the lingo of the East London street culture the series captures. Netflix renewed Top Boy for its third season six years after it was mysteriously canceled in 2013, at the urging of a little someone called Drake.
When writer-creator Ronan Bennett got a phone call that someone called “Drake” was interested in helping renew his series Top Boy, he couldn’t understand why everyone was so excited. “I had no idea who he was,” explains Bennett, who had to google the rapper. When they were set to meet, Bennett had a “rock star” expectation of Drake—“these stories that you hear of people smashing up hotel rooms and jumping into swimming pools, that sort of thing.”
Instead a “very polite” and “humble” man showed up to meet Bennett at a hotel in London. “I assumed he would order a Jack Daniels or something,” offers Bennett. Instead, the man formerly known as Aubrey Graham ordered a Pinot Grigio. And over a glass of white wine with smooth oak undertones, the talks for restarting Top Boy—now the most-watched TV show on Netflix in the U.K.—began.
Often called the British version of The Wire, Top Boy revolves around characters Dushane and Sully, played by Ashley Walters and Kane Brett Robinson, better known as Kano, who truly deserves an award for his superb acting. This season also features Little Simz as Dushane’s love interest and rapper Dave, who just won the Mercury Prize.
This season’s plot picks up six years after the series ended in 2013. Dushane has hit rock bottom and is hiding out in Jamaica. Sully is in prison. And newcomer Jamie (Micheal Ward) is giving the two a run for their money.
The show excels by juxtaposing brutal violence with rare, tender depictions of black male relationships. The most touching example is the dynamic between Jamie and his two younger brothers, for whom he is legally responsible after the death of their parents. Jamie is strict yet loving, ordering them to finish their homework and do the dishes, and also tucking his youngest brother Steph into bed. He doesn’t want them to have the life he has, although he never questions leaving it himself. The intimate scenes between the brothers are show-stealers, and a similar tenderness is seen in Sully and Dushane’s friendship.
Yet Jamie is also a brutal murderer. He orders the burning of enemies and has dead bodies thrown off of buildings and whatever else it takes to secure his turf. Such is the magic of Top Boy: it shows you both sides of a character without preaching, over-simplifying, or asking you to pick a side.
Another thing the series gets right is the way music and street culture are inextricably linked. The casting of rappers as actors—and having Popcaan blasting in the scenes of downtown Kingston, alongside a medley of up-and-coming grime artists—is flawless.
“Being a part of Top Boy, I feel it’s a lot bigger than me. I just always felt like there was nothing that represented London, or at least my side of London, like the show did,” Lil Simz said in an interview.
Kano, who plays Sully, raps in the song “Trouble” off of his new album Hoodies All Summer: “All our mothers worry when we touch the road / ‘Cause they know it’s touch-and-go whether we’re comin’ home / And either that’s for shit that could happen to us / Or the shit we might do if you violate the code.” This is a meta-commentary as it’s the reality for Kano and also for his character Sully. And the series has in turn influenced music, with Skepta rhyming in a recent song: “I’m a top boy like Sully.”
Many were expecting a cameo from Drake, but Bennett says the choice to not cast Drake was because “we were afraid that it might pull people out of the realism of the show”—and also the singer’s busy schedule. Twitter supported the decision, with one user writing, “Whoever stopped drake from playing the ruthless Jamaican druglord ‘Sugar’ in Top Boy deserves a nobel peace prize.”
So how is it that a white Northern Irish writer is able to write about the East London gang experience with such accuracy? Maybe it’s because Bennett grew up in the heavily policed state of Northern Ireland and spent a total of three years in prison there (an experience he politely declines to speak about).
“It’s about representing people as authentically and honest as you can. You have to be humble about that.”
But mostly, he chalks it up to listening. “Writers, we can be very opinionated and sure of our positions at times, when really we just have listen,” he tells The Daily Beast. “I try to listen rather than talk when I’m in these communities. And above all be respectful—it’s about representing people as authentically and honest as you can. You have to be humble about that.”
Still, he’s seen one or two comments on Twitter of people criticizing him for “trashing the community.” “I understand the sensitivity behind the issue and I rely heavily on people from the community,” he says. “We cast a large portion of the crew from backgrounds that are similar to the show—both in front and behind the camera.”
Bennett became interested in the East London drug scene when he saw a young boy dealing drugs outside his grocery store. The boy wouldn’t talk to him, so he began to talk to people with his friend Gerry Jackson, a local youth worker who vouched for him: “People were surprised that anyone was interested in their stories… and I wasn’t just asking about drugs, I was asking about their lives and their relationships.”
In a poignant essay for the Guardian, Bennett opened up about the process writing the script while his wife Georgina was dying of cancer. He recalls a memory from years before her illness: how the night his daughter was born a fight between two groups of angry youth broke out in the Hackney hospital.
Hours later his wife was discharged and they stopped by the park with their newborn on their way home. An old woman passed by and asked how old the baby was. She was shocked to learn that the baby was born only hours earlier. “In my day,” she said, “they kept you in for two weeks. They wouldn’t let you get out of bed.”
There’s a scene in Top Boy where three orphaned brothers sit together on a park bench. They come there every year on their mother’s birthday to remember her. Jamie tells his two brothers the story of the day the youngest, Steph, was born. The family of five stopped at that park and sat together on that very bench, hours after she had given birth. Jamie tells them that an old woman came by and asked when the baby was born and was shocked to learn he was born only hours before. “Mum was so strong” Jamie says.
As Bennett wrote: “When you’re writing, everything goes into the mix.”
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