Top Boy: Why The Kids Are Not Alright by Austin Collings

Unflinching documentation not rabid accusation needs to be leveled at the drug dealing industry in this country argues Austin Collings

Top Boy could easily have been another inaccurate take on the fiercely modern world of kids, drugs and tower blocks but instead it dug deep and swerved away from the fashionable. It avoided the tacky trappings, and dubious truths, of Adulthood, and Kidulthood and the rest of the ‘Bad Eastenders’ productions that aim to "tell it as it is". Instead it opted to take its thoughtful cues from films like Shifty and Fish-Tank, and crime-writer John Williams’ often overlooked Cardiff Trilogy series of books.

Set in the fictionalised (and ironically named) Summerhouse Estate in London, each one-hour episode was memorably relevant. Few frames were wasted. Here was something very close to the real deal.

It’s a rare instance when productions come together so seamlessly. Directed by Yann DeMange who was at the helm for the first – and best – episode of the BBC1 five-part series, Criminal Justice in 2009, and scripted by novelist, screenwriter and ex-political prisoner, Ronan Bennett, you got the distinct feeling they set out to make an impression; to attempt to understand, and document, without "telling it like it is" and all of the inherent judgement that goes with it. It acknowledged the inherent cliches necessary in this kind of story without being encumbered by them or worse still, elevating them.

The casting was flawless. Lead actor, and former So-Solid Crew member, Ashley Walters (character name, Dushane) appeared like some distant screen relation of Ray Winstone’s charismatic Carlin in Scum; all lithe tension, and predatory awareness; a beast, of sorts, pacing and measuring the limits of his cage (the Summerhouse Estate). Every time the camera tracked Dushane down any one of those richly saturated streets I wondered what new brutal end his intense swagger was heading towards.

Long-term fringe actor specialist George Wood as the old-school dealer and ‘Top Man’, Bobby Raikes was a lesson in Harold Pinter-like understated, casual menace. Occasionally, I thought I should pull him from the screen, and put him back in my DVD Performance case, alongside his rightful muckers Chas, Turner and Harry Flowers. His earned authority and snappy dress-sense had no place alongside Dushane and his wildly desensitised boot boy, Sully (Kane Robinson). The rules have changed. The rules will keep changing.

The superlatives could be dished out at length – not least for Brian Eno’s stunning soundtrack, but all that should be left for another piece in itself (and hopefully the series and the accompanying soundtrack will be released on DVD sometime soon).

The main point is that an impression was made with great integrity. Many people have dubbed it a cut-above (or below, depending on your outlook) UK cash-in on the success of The Wire – Season Four in particular – but that’d be missing the point. Drug dealing – whether it’s Baltimore or Bolton or Summerhouse – has its set design. The narrative rarely changes.

Drug-based stories are always a cliche because that way of life is a cliche. And all of these cliches are true – sadly. Whether it’s Dushane or Stringer-Bell or Jesse Pinkman or any other small screen dealer, their paths have been laid out for them. This is why writers and filmmakers are drawn to them, because their stories are dramatic, despite being predictable to the point of dullness.

Top Boy is no different. What distinguishes it from lesser productions is the confidence of it’s expression. The beautiful cinematography. The cracking cast. The classy script. The assured direction. And so on. In lesser hands, it would have been fudged. Because lesser hands seem to be governing so much these days.

Those in positions of power, editors at large etc, within publishing, TV and elsewhere, should look to the quality of Top Boy, as an example of relevant expression in an age of bad communication.

The modern age seems to be slipping by without enough writers, film-makers, musicians and artists doing their (sometimes futile – admittedly) duty. Without doing their important little-bit. For this reason alone, Top Boy stands out, because it understands the emptiness and hopelessness at the heart of modern Britain but refuses to pander to the set-template of easy answers devoid of substance and distinct intelligence.

In an interview in the December issue of Sight & Sound magazine, first-time film director Justin Kurzel discusses the nucleus of his promising debut Snowtown; a dramatic take on real-life serial killings in a small town in South Australia. Insightfully describing his own experiences of violence as being "incredibly disorientating and claustrophobic", he later defends the skewed morality of the production as a whole: "I’m cynical of those people who have criticised the film for not having a moral resolution, as though to tell you why you watched the film… If you can somehow find a human point of view to these extraordinary events, then you’re taking the audience into a mindset that is really interesting – even if it might be dark and confronting.”

Ronan Bennett and Yann DeMange managed to submerge us into a variety of mindsets: from the young kids at school to the twenty-something men on the street vying for ‘Top Boy’ supremacy, to a pregnant women with her own alternative ‘garden’ to tend. Most of their stories seemed at once credible and yet also honest and selfish. They wanted what was (seen to be) theirs at any cost. Actions were not being analysed, or thought-out, with the right considered emotions. And maybe this is the point.

Too often kids in tracksuits, and their older icons, are pictured as cold and emotionless, but the truth is obviously less straightforward and thus harder to swallow and understand. TV shows often don’t consider the alternative that there are those that are too emotional but still lacking the right tools of expression. These kids are thrust into ‘ways out’ every bit tedious as countless other quick-fix solutions such as dole or dead end job or long-term career – but far more dangerous. Where do you go – or how far do you go – after realising that even drug dealing, and crime, can be every bit as dull as most other occupations?

The plain truth is that some of the kids are not alright. And we are not serving them by casually apportioning blame to their lives from the comfort of our sofas. On top of this the plain truth is that we are not alright either if we don’t attempt to question and destabilize the confederacy of dunces that leads popular thought on these matters.

Top Boy and behind the scenes extras can still be seen at 4oD by clicking here

Austin Collings is currently finishing his first novel. Nocturnes – his first feature film – will be out in due course

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