When the incendiary crime drama Top Boy first aired at the end of 2011, many assumed that its creator had a clear understanding of what life was like in a house in east London. Fans, especially those who grew up in or around Hackney, identify with the plot about rival drug cartels, financial struggles, and family relationships, and assume the writer is withdrawing out personal experience.
o frankly, they think Top boy written by a black, working-class Londoner and not, as is the case, a slightly older, white Irishman…
Top boyBelfast-born writer Ronan Bennett (66 years old) is well aware of the online comments surrounding crime dramas. He read tweets about the dissimilarity between his identity as a famous novelist (The second prison, The Catastrophe, is overthrown by strangers) and the tone of the TV series sink, and talking on Zoom today, he seemed to find them interesting.
“It is getting worse for me,” he laughs as I issue an old tweet that points out: “Do you recognize Ronan Bennett as a middle-aged Irishman?” “The last one I saw said it was written by an ‘old white man’ – I went from middle-aged to old in the span of a few years…”
Bennett, who lived between Spain’s Cádiz and London, had the idea of Top boy when he saw a kid dealing drugs outside his local supermarket in Hackney. The sight delighted him, and he asked his friend Gerry Jackson, “a well-known and respected figure in the community,” to introduce him to young men and women who had grown up being bullied. surrounded by drugs, crime and violence.
Young people opened up to him and shared their stories, which he later drew on when writing the screenplay. Jackson’s endorsement for him was probably made for more outspoken accounts, he agreed. But in pressing it, he admits that his approach could also be helpful.
“I try, when I talk to people, I try not to talk too much,” he said. “There are many ways to listen, right? There are ways of sympathetic listening and a little more aggressive ways when people ask confusing questions and don’t really understand the world of the person they’re talking to.
“I think it’s someone who comes to them and cares about them… I’m not looking for details of murders or drug deals. I asked how life at home, school, girls, boys, clothes, music…”
The stories Bennett told were loosely incorporated into a commissioned script and then vetoed by the BBC. About a year later, Top boy is green-lit by Channel 4.
The show was an instant success when it was shown for four consecutive nights in 2011 but Channel 4 canceled it two seasons later. Fans were left disappointed and at the time, Bennett said it “felt like a slap in the face to the community it represents”.
Crestfallen, Bennett gave up on her beloved characters but then, three years later, a serendipitous turn of events conspired to put the show back on the road. His agent contacted him to tell him that a Canadian singer was watching Top boy and wanted to help produce the third series. The Canadian singer turned out to be multiple Grammy Award-winning artist Drake, who flew with his partner Future to London to meet the team. “They said, ‘We loved the show, we wanted to do everything we could to get you up and running,’ recalls Bennett. “[Drake] very humble, at least that’s how he came across. He’s not trying to let you down. He’s not egotistical, the type of person I feel I can get along with.”
As an executive producer, Drake helped promote the series for Netflix and consult on the soundtrack. Two years later, in 2019, the third season debuted on the streaming platform, introducing a global audience to Dushane (Ashley Walters), Sully (Kane Robinson) and the buzzing east London street slang .
Drake almost appeared in season three but, between jigs and reels, that didn’t materialize. “What he said was – and he said this very politely – he said, ‘If there’s a role for me, obviously I’d like it,'” Bennett recalls.
The writer went and created a character who had never seen a face – “you’ve only ever seen him behind an oven”. He didn’t want him to have to speak with a London accent, “so we made him American or Canadian, I can’t remember”.
The character has potential but sadly no one on the team is particularly happy with it. Drake’s schedule is another matter, as is the challenge of making a global hip-hop giant look like he belongs in the fictional Summerhouse estate.
“I can’t remember any writer who talked about bright stars,” noted Bennett. “And [Drake] there’s that – even if you dirty him a lot, he still has that glow. “
However, even without a guest appearance from Drake, Top boy has earned a reputation for its unique – and award-winning casting choices. Casting director Des Hamilton has cast unknown and untrained actors, and several rap artists, as well.
Bennett says he enjoys writing all of the show’s characters but the drug dealer partner turned rival to Sully and Dushane are people he thinks he understands. “They grew up in a situation where they had to do everything to survive, obviously not all for the good. I understand that dilemma and it’s been fun to write about. What do marginalized people have to do to survive? What paths are available to them? ”
Bennett’s upbringing was never as extreme as the family dramas depicted in Top boybut he says he can understand, to some extent, the pressure to deliver.
“I grew up in Belfast with an older brother and a mother. My father is not here. She was constantly worried about paying the rent, paying the marker, buying food, buying a pair of shoes for us… and as a little boy I could see her anxiety. .
“In my childish fantasies, I imagined finding £10 under a bush on my way home from school and being able to give it to her… Obviously I’m not alone, I’m not making a big deal out of it. but it’s just something in my head and the idea of being able to give my mom something… that would be a dream and, in a way, I do it with these characters. They deliver but they do things – they do terrible things – to deliver. “
A lifelong Republican activist, Bennett’s boyhood was spent briefly in prison. At the age of 18, he was falsely convicted of participating in an IRA bank robbery in which a policeman was killed and sentenced to life in prison. He spent 18 months in Long Kesh (Labyrinth) prison before his sentence was overturned.
Did he have a strategy for surviving prison life? “I don’t know the strategy, but the plan… the plan broke, I did and I was revoked. My only criminal sentence after multiple arrests is to escape from legal custody…”
He read “voraciously, in a rather one-sided way” while in prison and went on to study history at King’s College London, where he received a first-class honors degree. Years later, he was hired by Labor MP Jeremy Corbyn as a researcher, who was heavily criticized for giving the role to a former political prisoner.
Today, Bennett is clearly enjoying Top boyHe’s culturally savvy, but he has no interest in going down with the kids. He gets no credit for the show’s hip-hop and Grime-heavy soundtrack, describing himself as more of a Chieftains fan. He loves hearing actors talk in ‘bruvs’ and ‘fams’ but, no, he himself would ‘never try to talk like that’.
Bennett’s life has changed dramatically over the past decade. His wife, journalist Georgina Henry, died of cancer at the age of 53 in 2014 and he became a single father to their children, Finn and Molly, then 14 and 12 years old. Top boy was taken from him and then returned in the most extraordinary way.
Most people will feel a bit tired of fighting at this point but the writer seems to have one of those souls who simply refuses to be defeated. As for aging, ‘old people’ comments aside, he said he doesn’t think too much about it. His only approach, if you may call it that, is to be relentlessly curious. “I think the worst thing you can do is be grumpy,” he notes, “or say things like ‘why does everything have to be on the internet?’ – it’s boring. ”
Top Boy’s fourth season returns to Netflix on Friday, March 18
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/when-top-boy-was-cancelled-it-felt-like-a-slap-in-the-face-irish-writer-ronan-bennett-41459438.html ‘When Top Boy was cancelled, it was like a slap in the face’ – Irish writer Ronan Bennett