Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Top Boy, Channel 4

My latest review on Orange. I worried I was being a bit hard on it, but after enjoying Hidden I was expecting much more from writer Ronan Bennett.

A lot of the drug-related stuff seemed a bit over-familiar and hackneyed, and it would have been interesting to see more of Ra'Nell having to take care of himself.

It's by no means a bad drama, but it could have been so much more.

Top Boy is a four-part drama being stripped across Channel 4 this week, billed as “an honest and gripping rendition of inner-city drug and gang culture”. However, despite coming from the hot pen of writer Ronan Bennett (Hidden), the opener was just another humdrum excursion into familiar territory.

At the heart of the drama is Dushane (Ashley Walters) – a “soldier” in a local drug network who's sick of bottom-feeding and fancies a shot at the big time. When top boss Bobby Raikes (Geoff Bell) gives him his opportunity, Dushane also has to deal with the unwelcome attentions of a rival gang, led by the violent Kemale (Tayo 'Scorcher' Jarrett).

Meanwhile, schoolboy Ra'Nell (Malcolm Kamuleke) is left to fend for himself when his mum Lisa (Sharon Duncan Brewster) goes into hospital with mental health problems, leaving him vulnerable to the temptation of working for Dushane. Elsewhere, Lisa's pregnant mate Heather (Kierston Wareing) is moving into the dope farming business.

As a bit of drama, Top Boy works OK; there's quite a bit going on and the performances are convincing – especially from Kamuleke and another young actor, Giacomo Mancini, who plays his friend Gem. However, the big problem is it doesn't seem to give us anything new about this shadowy side of society.

Normally we'd get at least some attempt to show the social forces that push people like Dushane into criminal lifestyles, but here it's hard to care, and even harder not to feel like we're being manipulated into fearing for youngsters like Ra'Nell and Gem.

For all the ripped-from-the-headlines trappings, by the end of the episode we're in the familiar dramatic scenario of a couple of Jack-the-lad types needing to find a lot of money quickly to pay back Mr Big.

I'm sure the people behind the series went into it with the best intentions, but by the end it the first episode of Top Boy seemed like another cheap holiday in other people's misery: nothing we haven't seen done before, and done better.

My advice: stick to series 1 of The Wire.

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