“Top Boy” – Channel 4

Series 1 of Top Boy.

Series 1 of Top Boy.

Comparing the latest television drama to The Wire has become as predictable as it is tedious. But with Channel 4’s Top Boy, such comparisons were inevitable. For once, they were entirely warranted.

The main difference between them is that the latter is set in a fictional suburb of east London, and is only four episodes long, having been broadcast over four consecutive nights in November. But that aside, it’s a remarkably successful and convincing attempt at covering pretty much the same ground mined in HBO’s justly lauded Baltimore epic.

On the one hand, both deal with the lives of disenfranchised, inner city black kids whose sole avenue for expression and escape are the drugs that inescapably come to define them.

On the other, despite focusing on the three areas that television is traditionally least capable of convincingly dealing with, namely youth culture, blacks and drugs, they both succeed in brilliantly creating an all too believable parallel universe that seems to exist both right next door to us, and on another planet to the one where most television takes place.

Once upon a time, this was precisely the sort of thing that Channel 4 believed it had been created for. Home produced drama that shines a light on the vast areas of society conventionally ignored to give voice to the unseen and never heard.

Channel_4_ident_1982This iconoclasm was an attitude they proudly applied not merely to drama, but to the arts in general, and indeed sport. But that alas was before the arrival of Big Brother. Ever since which, they’ve lazily morphed into little more than ITV’s younger smutty, brash sibling.

So the news that they’d produced Britain’s answer to The Wire was met with justifiable skepticism. Happily, it was misplaced. Just as it had with The Wire, the success of Top Boy rests on a combination of factors.

First and foremost, there’s the writing. Both rely on extensively researched scripts that stubbornly refuse to judge their characters, focusing instead on the multiple layers of drama that result from the conflicting loyalties that underground lives produce. Secondly, they both make use of unconventional casting, turning to first time actors untutored in the niceties of traditional drama.

Inevitably, given that it all takes place over just the four episodes, there’s an ever so slightly rushed feel to Top Boy, and some of those loose ends could have usefully been left dangling. On the other hand, Ronan Bennett’s brilliant scripts were buttressed by Brian Eno’s evocative score, and by some meticulous directing by the French Algerian Jann Demange, who eschewed an over reliance on hand-held gritty realism in favour of a more measured, thoughtful visual palette.

It’s too early to say whether Top Boy represents a renaissance or an aberration in the Channel 4 story. Either way though, the bar for British drama has been significantly raised.



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