Top Boy, by Ronan Bennett, Channel 4

Yet another teenage gang tall story glimpses beyond the moral panics and tired miserabilism of most poverty porn.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on December 1, 2011

Hackney(ed) Crossroads Reloaded. Television review – Tom Jennings

Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy (see Freedom, 28th May 2005) impressively blended realism and crime melodrama, daring to expose prevailing commonplaces of urban youth deviance as simplistically prejudicial. Subsequent UK cinema objectifying the streetwise innercity and appealing to cultural tourists – from Kidulthood and Adulthood to Cherry Tree Lane, 1 Day, Attack the Block and Sket – sadly panders hysterically to the reactionary assumptions surrounding such themes with little additional illumination.* Now, novelist and screenwriter Ronan Bennett’s Top Boy (shown on four consecutive weeknights from October 31st) resuscitates close documentary attention to contextual authenticity and developing personality arcs – the Hackney storyline, superb street-cast and skilful direction comparable to Dibb’s and, reinforcing déja vu, Ashley Walters playing another bad boy with a heart of tarnished gold.

The socio-economic climate over intervening years has exacerbated desperation; already unravelling kinship networks further impoverished. Parental psychological or relationship breakdown – or mere overworked drudgery – leaves kids fending for themselves amidst local drugs posses menaced by neighbouring predators. Lacking alternative prospects, brutality arises more from the vicious logic of the gangsters’ business than psychopathy – providing narrative dynamism while paralleling emotional suffering among the children, their elders, and intermediate cohorts. Highlighting the striving of Ra’nell, aged 13, to navigate through everyone’s stormy waters, its sophisticated weaving of trauma, love, pain and hope distributed among overlapping biographies takes Top Boy significantly beyond precursors. Despite an unfeasibly minimal cast and numerous consequent plot and character implausibilities, manifold constituents of crumbling community are convincingly sketched.

Even with escalating antisociality over-hyped by media and politicians, the anachronistically threadbare gangs and policing presence here suggestively indicate general institutional neglect – in dramatic terms allowing the collective texture of autonomous interaction to breathe. Notwithstanding current populist dehumanisations of the underclass crescendoing well after completion, the series then subtly undermines discourses of inadequate parenthood, positive role models, and the ‘Victorian values’ which may be toxic in any strata but have more tragic repercussions here. Correspondingly, Reality TV’s tough-love prescriptions presage soft-cop invasions cost-effectively transforming fucked-up estates into nuclear utopias. But professional sociocultural imperialism is also refused – social workers only useful if disavowing officialdom, following class-conscious noses instead of turning the latter up in punitive disgust at respectability’s failure to thrive.

The older characters seem similarly mired in individualistic tactics just as dysfunctional these days as the moral clichés which blatantly failed them. Acutely so aware, the youngsters are on their own in most senses – yet still combine feral intelligence and fierce interpersonal commitment in fashioning coherent possibilities from the limited material, elective and blood relations and ethics discernible in social democracy’s wreckage. Their tentative ambivalent strategies may have only modest chances of pragmatic success, but the ultimate ‘top boy’ is clearly Ra’nell – rejecting the false promises of Dushane’s reluctant embrace of addictive barbarity feeding fatal fantasies of fulfilment. Perhaps Top Boy’s writer retains radical sensibilities from an outspoken revolutionary libertarian-Leftist youth, even if in his dotage also accepting the limited political and artistic horizons of temporary redemption for isolated conflicted souls.

* honourable exceptions include Greg Hall’s The Plague (2006) and Same Shit Different Day (2010).

Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 19, December 2011.
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