Channel 4’s Top Boy: On top of its game?

CHANNEL 4 HAS ANNOUNCED the return of Top Boy – a four-part gripping drama on inner city youth gang culture.

The successful first series is leading to a second four-part production due next year. But the first run failed to reflect a gaping hole in society: the dismantled relationship between youths and authorities.

The first series lured its audience with a line-up of new talent, including the rapper Kano –  who plays hot-headed and impulsive gangster Sully – and Malcolm Kamulete, whose character Ra’Nell stole the show as the top boy.

The story revolves around determined Ra’Nell as well as the friendship between Sully and Dushane – played by Ashley Walters – who are longstanding partners in crime.

They strive to please their drugs baron and line their pockets with money and marijuana, stumbling along a downtrodden, never-ending, rocky road towards a hazy destination.

In the first episode, Dushane told the drug baron: “I want a life,” to which the king pin replied: “You’re breathing, ain’t ya?”

“I want a good life. I ain’t got nothing else to be except this,” said a wistful Dushane.

A fatherless society

Ra’Nell always stood by his steadfast loyalty to his mother, who was suffering from depression after an abusive relationship with her husband, who is never shown.

There is a stark absence of fathers in the story apart from a brief and awkward encounter between drug dealer Dushane and his father strolling with his young son from a new relationship.

But aside from the lack of fathers is a gaping hole unfilled by the presence of public institutions and authority. There are constant references made to the police – or “feds” – but the only time the ‘boys in blue’ are shown is at the very end, when Ra’Nell is taken to the station with his mother.

The Guardian reported a preview of the programme shown to a sample audience of Hackney locals aged 10 to 26, who criticised many aspects of the production as being a distorted reflection of reality. Although they enjoyed the drama, a 21-year old audience member remarked:

“Every day you get stopped and searched by feds. You can’t even stand on a street corner round this estate.”

Pillars of society

The school attended by the characters is shown but little is depicted about the role it plays in their lives. In one scene, a teacher is punched in the face after she tries to protect a pupil being hassled by a gangster but the pillars of society appear out of reach from the boys and girls scurrying beneath them.

The drama comes very soon after the English riots of August, where angry youths took to the streets and looted and violated their way around the cities. One of the key issues of the riots was the relationship between the police force and the youths, which extends far back to a history of prejudice and pelted anger.

Darcus Howe, a writer and broadcaster, was interviewed by BBC’s Fiona Armstrong in the aftermath to the riots.

After living in London for 50 years, he said he knew “something was coming” from the reactions of his son and grandson who apparently have firsthand experience of the temperamental relationship between ethnic youths and the police.

Taken by surprise at Howe’s angry criticism of the police, Armstrong accused him of taking part in riots himself. The BBC apologised for the “poorly-phrased question” but this may indicate the position of some media outlets in the conflict.

It can be argued that a widely publicised programme that appears shortly after such a tense period should show a degree of sensitivity and understanding of its relationship with the events that unfolded. In particular, the role played by authorities and influential figures in society.

A lose-lose situation

As I watched on and got drawn in by the drama, I wondered how much the writer – Ronan Bennett – knew about how the real-life story unfolds.

An interview on 4OD with the man himself revealed that he didn’t know anything about the gang culture before he did his research for the programme.

He said, he gained the trust of one individual from Hackney who gave him a great deal of information about life on a rough estate.

Top Boy seems to show up the gaps in Bennett’s personal knowledge and experience of his subject. The emphasis is on a thickening plot and beautifully crafted, attention-grabbing scenes, but which gleam on the surface of the truth.

There are gruesome hand-over-mouth scenes of violence as well as tear-jerking moments that urge us to sympathise with the young boys, shown to be dangerously locked into a game with many players, tragic losses but no wins.

But something or someone created the game and still rolls the dice. This television drama, whilst entertaining and filled with suspense, doesn’t truly explain why impressionable youths are playing – and losing – on the streets.

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