Top Boy

In The Clash’s film ‘Rude Boy’ Joe Strummer tries to explain to the moronic title character, Ray, that there are flaws in a system where the few prosper at the expense of the many: “I don’t see the point in getting all rich and locking yourself in a country mansion because sooner or later some cunt is going to come round with a shotgun and blow your head off”, he says, in a staged conversation about political ideology, set in a pub.

‘Rude Boy’ was filmed in 1980, a year into a new Tory Government that adopted harsh monetarist economic polices, amidst the backdrop of rioting on the streets, bleak London council estates, and mass political protests. Fast-forward 31 years, and we are back to the future, and the contemporary home-grown drama Top Boy last week focused in on a fictional East London council estate, where on different levels, money is a key motivating factor for many of the characters.

Channel 4 cleared the schedules to give it a prime-time 10pm slot on consecutive weekday evenings, and it worked. With an ensemble of well-drawn, realistic characters, it takes a plot that could otherwise be a run-of the-mill drama about a criminal gang who veer from the clinical to the incompetent, while trying to repay a large debt to a gangland boss, to another level.

And in a week where British TV was showing new episodes of serial dramas including the Australian The Slap on BBC4, the Italian Romanzo Criminale on Sky Arts, and the second seasons of The Walking Dead (FX) and Boardwalk Empire (Sky Atlantic), both from the US and which have got progressively better, Top Boy didn’t look out of place alongside the quality elsewhere.

Excellently filmed, with the all too familiar surroundings for many of us from the capital, such as the walk past the Big Chill Bar, the London Overground train that goes past the Olympic Stadium, and the streets of Hackney and Dalston, it is driven by the combination of plot and characters.

The violence is brutal, and often callously dished out. One scene in particular, outside a school, and far from the most violent in the series, perfectly embodies the personality of someone who has no respect for people, society or property – a trait that should be now recognizable to all from the worst scenes of this summer’s riots.

But not all the characters are ones where you want a rain to come and wash them off the streets. In fact most of them are good people caught up in bad situations.  The interplay between the adolescents is one of many hints of Shane Meadow; at times it could be a This is England set in modern day London, while some of the exterior shots that could have been in ‘Dead Man Walking’. And, of course, the threat of a climatic ending is always looming.

The clever writing extends to the dialogue, which even when subtle, is still spot on. Whereas the story sets out the pyramid of a council estate where criminal gangs rule the roost, it is a key, understated exchange between the main protagonist, Dushanne, and his brother, that pinpoints the drugs business succeeds because of Supply and Demand.

With only four episodes the scope of ‘Top Boy’ is limited, so it concentrates on the estate; there is no look at governing authorities: how or why a blind eye is turned to allow gangs to reign free, or even the potential criminalization for the silent minority on the estate at the bottom of this tiered life. But there is a constant theme of characters, largely with good intentions, trying to improve their lot, where they are fighting against a hierarchy that is fuelled by greed, and is largely lawless, violent and unforgiving.

The day after ‘Top Boy’ concluded, the main news headlines told us how national Governments across the world are in thrall to the financial markets; ‘Top Boy’ was an engaging and entertaining portrayal of lives, and lifestyles, that a political system has created, yet often chosen to ignore.


Originally published on Moving The Goalposts

7 November 2011

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