How Top Boy gave a voice to the voiceless: 'That was my life every day'

Starring two rappers, one of whom had a stack of credits to his name and one who had never acted before, Top Boy debuted back in 2011 to little promo or fanfare. 

On March 18, its fourth season launched and 11 years on and it’s a pop culture phenomenon which can boast Drake and LeBron James as fans who became integral to its Netflix revival.

An effective pitch of the show would be ‘The Wire but set in London’ and like The Wire, Top Boy is an inner city tale centred around the business of the drug trade and the people who operate within it but with a much tighter scope. 

Top Boy traditionally seldom leaves the fictional London estate on which it is set whereas The Wire encompassed all of Baltimore. Although, with a Netflix budget Top Boy 2 (not four, confusingly) branches overseas to Morocco, Spain, as well as sunny Liverpool and Peckham. 

At the centre of Top Boy are Sully and Dushane, played by Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson and Ashley Walters respectively. They are friends and business partners, running the estate’s lucrative drug game but the show isn’t just guns and gangs, it’s about the wider impact of conservatism and austerity on the poor and marginalised, on the conditions that create the idea that a life of crime is the only way you’re ever going to have money or nice clothes. 

In Top Boy, we meet a council estate in its entirety, its beauty, its ugliness and everything in between.

In the first two series on Channel 4, there was Ra’Nell, facing life after his mother’s sectioning in a mental hospital and starts to flirt with criminality after being led into grow weed by pregnant Heather, played by the always worthwhile Kierston Wareing. 

She wants to sell dope so she doesn’t have to raise her child on the estate. There’s also white and gawky Gem, easily seduced into gang life. So many of the people watching knew someone like this in real life.

Through Ra’Nell, Top Boy explored the all too common experience of black children being forced into adulthood as he lived parentless with a surrogate father in former crime enforcer, Leon. 

Through his mum, Lisa, we saw the realities of mental illness and then via the tragedy-fated Michael, we experienced the grim circular nature of crime – the reality is, as so accurately portrayed in the show, crime isn’t a choice for young men, it is the choice. 

The people these characters represent are society’s voiceless, they’re the unheard, and they’re the many.

However, the mind behind Top Boy was born a long way from a London council estate. County Antrim in Northern Ireland in fact. 

As a young man, Ronan Bennett saw the inside of the notorious Maze prison after being accused of robbery and murder as part of an IRA heist of a branch of Ulster Bank.

He then translated his experiences of the streets of County Antrim to the tower blocks of Hackney, which was his home for over three decades. 

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And that’s the key to the enduring brilliance of the show. 

Channel 4 cancelled Top Boy after two seasons and eight episodes but the public wanted more, because what they were watching was real. 

Regarding its initial cancellation, Bennett called it ‘a slap in the face to the community it was representing’ which was true – nowhere else on TV would see the characters that are in Top Boy or the often grim reality of estate life or even the normalcy of people just surviving to live.

The show was so popular with young people living in inner cities because it reflected a reality that was otherwise neglected in film and TV.

The estates and the people on them matter and Top Boy tells us their story. One fan told us Top Boy is ‘the show they had been waiting their whole lives for’ because it reflected their youth which was spent balancing education and low level gang life. 

Another, who was 15 when the show debuted, told us how the show became the talk of their school playground in a way that other TV dramas never did.

’It got us,’ they said, because it understood why people acted in a certain way and it didn’t reserve moral judgements for the behaviour of its characters.

In a media landscape that is quick to vilify and hysterically condemn anything short of moral purity, Top Boy has so much needed empathy for the people that have to make difficult decisions in order to feed themselves and pay the rent. 

The writers understood that the kids out there were good really, it was just situations that made them do bad things

There’s a scene early on that left a powerful impression on one fan because it reflected their own reality as a youngster. 

The moment showed teenage Ra’Nell caring for his mum before the school day. It’s a short, quiet scene there to contextualise Ra’Nell’s grim situation but to this fan it was everything.

‘That was my life, every day and nobody knew,’ they explained.

‘It made me feel less lonely, like I could reach out because it was a real thing that happened and not just to me.’

‘We’re not really on TV,’ another superfan of Top Boy said. ‘It was massive to see an estate and its noises on there, people that looked like and spoke like us.

‘Dushane and Sully would do wild things and it makes sense when most shows would paint them as the bad guy who’s just bad for the plot’s sake. 

‘The writers understood that the kids out there were good really, it was just situations that made them do bad things.’

When Top Boy was axed by Channel 4, it left a huge gulf in the TV schedule that has never really been replaced, commissioners preferring to spend their money on safer bets that don’t look at the quagmire of societal issues facing 21st Century Britain.

The wild boy antics of Dushane and Sully are what brought many to Top Boy but it’s the immersive, fully realised depiction of London’s dispossessed and underserved that keep the viewer hooked. 

Top Boy is not Peaky Blinders – there is no fun to be had, no style and flash, the lives it depicts are hard and unknown to many in Britain who are perhaps ignorant to the plight of others or deliberately elect to remain blind to societal problems bigger than them.

Top Boy gave a voice to the silenced and that’s why, 11 years after it first appeared on Channel 4, four since it was revived on Netflix, it remains absolutely vital.

Top Boy is available to stream on Netflix now.

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