TV preview: Top Boy

Get ready for the return of the unflinching, engrossing crime drama

Top Boy

Top Boy - Tuesday, Channel 4, 9pm

Channel 4 is a frustrating beast. With its halcyon days at the vanguard of experimental, alternative, socially inclusive television long gone, it now spends most of its time sneering at the poor and gawping at misshapen testicles: the TV equivalent of a particularly objectionable Daily Mail columnist.

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And yet as everything crumbles around it, C4’s drama slate continues to impress. With the recent likes of Southcliffe, The Mill and, now, the second series of TOP BOY, it’s the last bastion of quality in an otherwise devastated field. But even that has its downside: it makes virtually everything else on the channel look even worse by comparison.

In any case, Top Boy, an unflinching crime drama set on a fictional estate in Hackney, east London, is one of British TV’s most distinctive dramas. While series one attracted inevitable comparisons with The Wire – both provide rounded portraits of street-level drug dealers in deprived urban areas – Top Boy deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Written by Hackney resident Ronan Bennett (The Hamburg Cell; Hidden), it’s drawn from research into the lives of locals, which lends the characterisation, setting and slang-heavy dialogue a ring of authenticity. Plus, the performances from the predominantly young black cast are entirely free of affectation.

Now, I’m a white arts critic from Fife, so I’ve obviously no idea if Top Boy actually delivers an accurate portrayal of east London crime culture. But I’m convinced by the wealth of little side details – kids rapping awkwardly on an overpass, banter in the hair salon, the boy who mystifyingly talks with his hand covering his mouth – which feel like observations based on experience.

Ashley Walters stars as Dushane, whose goal of becoming “Top Boy” – ie the drug dealing king of his estate – was grasped at the end of series one. However, his affluent lifestyle is threatened by a police investigation into the murder of a rival. Meanwhile, property developers are forcing local businesses from the area, as Dushane’s gang set their sights on a cartel of Albanian criminals.

Charming, bright and quietly charismatic, Dushane’s likeability masks an inner ruthlessness: like Tony Soprano, he’s a screen “villain” whose dichotomous personality deliberately wrong-foots the viewer and shakes them from complacency. Bennett makes us care about his plight, but never attempts to excuse his behaviour.

Preoccupied with themes of family loyalty, vulnerable children trapped in a violent environment, and the debilitating effects of greed on both a corporate and street level, Top Boy gets its points across without recourse to heavy-handed moralising. The political dimension is implicit, rather than confronted directly. And despite its brutal surface, it also benefits from a welcome jolt of humour: the banal reality of crime is often more ridiculous than scaremongering media reports would have you believe.

Refreshingly devoid of glamour, Top Boy is a tense, kinetic, utterly engrossing drama, fluidly directed by Jonathan van Tulleken and, as he skilfully weaves together several characters and storylines, impressively realised by Bennett. It’s richly human drama. And that, dear reader, is it. After over six years of watching TV and scribbling shapes for yer Scotsman, I’ve decided to move on to pastures new. But it’s been a hoot and/or optional holler. Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone.

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