A celebrity fan brings a bit of kudos to any television programme. But Canadian rapper Drake’s love for the east London drug-dealing drama Top Boy is almost single-handedly responsible for its return after a six-year gap.
He’s an executive producer for this third series, now on Netflix, and has managed to persuade several members of the original team back – including writer Ronan Bennett and Ashley Walters, whose charismatic dealer Dushane grew from a subsidiary character to series lead in its original Channel 4 incarnation.
As the series opened, he was in exile in Jamaica attempting to go straight. But the temptation for “easy money” proved too strong and a botched robbery landed him in debt to a seriously scary Kingston crime kingpin. He offered to pay off the favour by returning to London and opening up a market for Jamaican drugs in his old stomping ground. But he faced competition from his long-time friend/partner/rival Sully (Kane Robinson), recently released from prison and a new kid on the block, Jamie (Micheal Ward), who is just as ruthless as the veterans.
The series has attracted criticism (as did the original) for glamorising drug dealing and stereotyping black Britons, with comedian and writer London Hughes making the fair point that it is possible to grow up black in London without joining a gang or witnessing a shooting.
But on the evidence of the first two episodes, the spurious glamour of the “player” lifestyle is depicted as just that – spurious. Dushane may think he’s in control but, like his fellow dealers, he’s simply perpetuating a grim cycle which only serves to make the bigger fish richer.
The attention to detail, sense of desperation and constant danger which marked the original out were still very much in evidence. But it’s been updated with some wry nods to Hackney’s gentrification – Dushane is baffled by a hipster barista the first time he tries to order a coffee, while Jamie’s suppliers are well-heeled but amoral white incomers.
And other plot strands – Jamie’s determination to keep his younger brothers in education and away from the route he’s taken; a hard-working mum on the estate becoming a casualty of the Windrush scandal – were a reminder that, while nobody is born a criminal and there is always a way out, social deprivation and government indifference don’t make it easy to be a saint in the city.
There was a bit too much going on, and an overly extensive cast was introduced in the first two episodes, but it’s got eight more to develop what look to be compelling storylines. The new additions to the ensemble – especially the rappers Dave, as Sully’s prison adversary Mobie, and Little Simz as Shelley, the carer who looks after Dushane’s mum – are as impressive as the familiar faces. And neither the passage of time nor a change of channel have dulled its pace and bite.Read More