When you’re writing, everything goes into the mix.
At one o’clock in the morning, in the Homerton hospital in Hackney, east London, our daughter, Molly, was born. It was a sweltering night, the hottest of the year, the late August bank holiday in 2001. A couple of hours later, I left the maternity unit, walked along some corridors, descended the stairs and passed into reception. I heard shouts and threats. Two groups of angry youths were screaming into each other’s faces. They pushed and shoved while visitors and staff did their best to stay out of the way and safe. A few punches were thrown, but the punches were, like the confrontation itself, disorganised and random. I steered myself through the melee and exited to the car park, where I saw a shirtless young man hooked up to a drip, dressings on wounds on his arms and shoulder, trading shoves with an antagonist.
At 10 the following morning, Georgina called. She wanted to come home. I put Finn, our 20-month-old son, into the car and drove the short distance to the hospital. Georgina was glad to be out. It was a beautiful day. She suggested we go to the Old English Garden in Victoria Park.
We sat on a bench and marvelled at the baby. The garden was past its summer best, but the sky was blue, the sun shone and we had a beautiful new daughter. A lady walked by with a male companion. She was, I would guess, in her 70s. She did a double take and came back a step. “That’s a very new baby,” she said. “When was that baby born?”
“One o’clock this morning,” Georgina said.
The lady burst out laughing. “In my day,” she said, “they kept you in for two weeks. They wouldn’t let you get out of bed.” She went off laughing quietly and shaking her head.
I was full of admiration for Georgina. So strong. So determined. Invincible. Life could not be better.
Twelve years later, Georgina and I were watching the final episode of season two of Top Boy on Channel 4. Suddenly, her left eyelid dropped involuntarily. She had had her right eye removed the year before. Further radiotherapy gave her some control over the wayward eyelid and restored her partial vision. She died four months later. No one is invincible, it turns out.
After her death, my priorities were, first, the children, then work. To work, I had to organise a system in the house. Finn and Molly, by then 14 and 12, would have to learn to cook and take turns to make the dinner. When one cooked, the other would have to wash up. They had to keep their rooms tidy. They had to be responsible about making sure the front door was double-locked and the windows closed when they went out. We became a tight and, eventually, once again a happy little unit.
On Georgina’s birthday, we went to the same bench in the Old English Garden and recalled funny little stories about her. It was sad and happy. I left a flower on the bench when we left.
Shortly afterwards, I came across a heartbreaking story in a newspaper about a husband and wife who died within days of each other. There was a photograph of the two of them in the hospice, exhausted, semi-conscious, near the end. Their beds had been pushed next to each other so they could hold hands. They left three children. The eldest became guardian to his younger siblings.
Everything goes into the mix. I knew that one day I would write about these things and I knew where I wanted to write about them. In Top Boy. On buses, on walks, in the shower, I started to build on these scenes and invent characters and relationships. I knew all this would work in Top Boy.
The only problem was that Top Boy had been cancelled.
Top Boy began life a decade ago when I witnessed a small child dealing drugs outside my local supermarket (I wrote about the show’s genesis in the Observer when the first season came out on Channel 4 in 2011). My interest piqued, I talked about it to my good friend Gerry Jackson, a well-known and hugely respected figure in the community. He vouched for me and young men and women began to open up and tell me their stories. The more I heard, the more interested I became in the why of the lives they led. We talked a lot about drugs, police and prisons, and the mechanics of dealing, but we also talked about homes and mothers, fathers and siblings; about school and college; clothes and trainers; music and TV. They were all – every one of them – from poor and disadvantaged families. And they were mostly black.
When I was ready to write I approached the BBC. A script was commissioned and delivered. But the head of drama balked at the subject matter and the language. The word milf was, back in the pre-Fleabag era, not acceptable. It was clear that I looking in the wrong place for a home for the show. Discouraged, I put Top Boy into the computer’s metaphorical bottom drawer.
About a year later, my agent, Charles Collier, introduced me to Alasdair Flind and Charles Steel at Cowboy Films. Over lunch, Aly, Charles and I explored possible projects to work together on. I mentioned Top Boy. They brought it to Liza Marshall, who was then head of drama at Channel 4. Liza green-lit the show almost immediately. Yann Demange, whom I had met at a screenwriting lab in Jordan a week or two before, came on as director.
If you write a good novel, it’s a good novel. But film-making is different. You can write a decent script, you can have a director as talented and original as Yann, you can have actors as compelling as Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson (AKA rappers Asher D and Kano), you can have truly brilliant production designers, directors of photography, sound recordists, colourists, music supervisors and composers and all the rest – and still the thing you create together lacks magic. It’s very painful.
Equally, film-makers know when they’ve made something special, even before the critics have had a chance to see it. You watch the rushes, they’re promising. You watch the first cut, it’s looking good. There are more cuts, then picture lock. You watch again. Your pulse quickens. Is this as good as I think it is? You watch the final grade and mix. And then everyone knows.
Top Boy’s first season, screened over four consecutive nights, was an instant hit. Set on the fictional Summerhouse estate, it tells the story of two young dealers Dushane (Ashley Walters) and his friend Sully (Kane Robinson) as they fight to take over the drug trade in their area. But Top Boy was much more than a crime story. It located Dushane and Sully in a community. Family was the beating heart of the show. Love and loyalty tugged at the characters as they weighed their decisions and the consequences of their actions.
Young audiences in particular loved it. They saw their lives on screen and responded with huge excitement. Replying to the gushing of fans on Twitter, someone pointed out: you do realise that Ronan Bennett is a middle-aged Irishman? Yup, that’s me, as if being one thing precludes you from writing about another. After all, writers imagine themselves to be all sorts of things, from serial murderers and time travellers to eighth-century Anglo-Saxon concubines.
But writers don’t just write. They live in communities like everyone else, and they watch and they listen. In the bad old days of stop and search (bad old days which are apparently on the way back, astonishingly), I would look out the window of a bus and see young black men surrounded by (almost always) white police officers, their hands up, their pockets turned out, their expressions variously angry, humiliated, scared, resigned, defiant.
Later, out canvassing with my local Labour party colleagues, I would knock on doors to have them answered by people with all kinds of problems: benefit sanctions, electricity bill arrears, deportation threats, untreated mental health problems, damp, overcrowding, vandalism, piss on the stairs, lifts that don’t work, children in trouble with the police. The thing these problems have in common is that they all arise directly from or are exacerbated by poverty. This is the world in which top boys thrive: the world of deprivation, racism and exclusion, in which youths take whatever opportunities come their way in order to get ahead. All of this goes into Top Boy.
It doesn’t take much imagination to think your way into this world. And maybe if you’re Irish it’s a little easier. Whenever I see the photograph of the infamous No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs sign hung in an English boarding house window, I feel proud. There’s an empathy there. An understanding. Back when I had heroes, one of my earliest ones was George Jackson. Google him. One of the Soledad Brothers.
Imagining it is one thing, getting it right is another. The depiction has to be authentic. I recorded my interviewees. They talked about paper (money), brown (heroin), dubs and white (crack and coke), the po-po and feds (police), snakes (informers). The dialogue on the page started with my version of it (I got better at it as we went along). Then Gerry would look it over and make amendments. Later, the scenes were workshopped and the actors would replace words if they thought of a better one. In Top Boy, I don’t care how an actor says it as long as the line carries the same meaning and nuance. In season three, Sully orders someone to be killed: kill him, in my script. Light him up, in Kane’s version.
Just as important as the dialogue is the casting: the actors have to look like they come from the Top Boy world. Here we had the great good fortune to have Des Hamilton cast for us. Des, who hails from a background not a million miles away from that of the characters themselves, has a natural empathy with the sidelined and overlooked and he knows how to unlock their potential. In season one, only a handful of our cast had acted before. One of the standout performances was that of Shone Romulus as Dris. Des and Yann found Shone hanging around the forecourt of his block of flats in Hackney.
Top Boy won an Royal Television Society award for best drama and Brian Eno won a Bafta for his score. We got an audience too and, what’s more, the kind of audience broadcasters are chasing – young and diverse. Channel 4 immediately ordered a second series.
By the time I went to work on the scripts for season two, Georgina was dying. Our house, where I usually worked, was full of loving and busy friends and family. Sometimes, I went to the Cowboy offices to write. Charles and Aly worried about whether I would get the scripts written. Standing down a production because the writer can’t produce is an expensive business. They were right to be concerned. Some days, my heart was so low and my thoughts so inward that I couldn’t write. There were appointments with the oncologist and surgeon. There were scans and then the wait for the result. There were sudden dashes home to deal with emergencies. There were ambulance call-outs and races to A&E in the early hours of the morning. There were endless packages of drugs to be collected from the pharmacy. Georgina underwent major surgery at the Charing Cross hospital, a long way from Hackney. Later, when the cancer spread to her bones, her left femur became so brittle that she had to have a metal implants to keep it from snapping. Finn and Molly still had to be taken to swimming and got off to school with packed lunches in the morning. The house still had to be a happy home for them.
I poured it all into the scripts. In season two, directed by Jonathan van Tulleken, Joe, an associate of Dushane’s is shot and seriously wounded. He ends up in intensive care. There are a lot of hospital scenes. There’s a darkness about the whole season. Death hangs over everyone. The final sequence is harrowing. Had my head been in a different place, I would have questioned the ending. Unlike season one, whose ending was tough but nevertheless had hope, season two finished on the death of a child. Dushane, the protagonist, is last seen running for his life. There was no hope because at the time I was living without hope.
Bleak as it was, season two received the same ecstatic reviews and audience enthusiasm. Channel 4 ordered the pilot for a third season. Charles, Aly and I started to discuss storylines. The new head of drama invited me to lunch. As soon as I walked into the restaurant I could see from his body language that he was about to break some bad news.
Screenwriters learn to roll with the blows. A show you believe in doesn’t get made. A show that gets audiences and the critics onside is cancelled. You sigh. You shrug. You move on to the next thing. But Top Boy was special to me. It was intensely personal. It was hard to let go. We discussed trying to make a movie. There was talk of doing it as a musical. But in the end, we accepted that was that. Time to move on.
Three years ago, Charles called me to tell me that a Canadian singer had seen the show and wanted to help get it up again. In showbusiness, lots of people express interest in lots of things. “I’m excited” is a much-mimicked showbiz line. I didn’t pay much attention. But some months later, Charles called again to say that the singer was in town and wanted to meet. Molly and Finn asked where I was going. To meet some singer called Drake. “What?! How do you know Drake?” I Googled him quickly. Turns out he’s big.
In person, Drake is a humble man. He and his manager-partner, Future, simply said they loved the show and they wanted to do whatever they could to get it up and running again. We want to be gasoline to your fire, Future said. We decided on an approach to Netflix. At the pitch, Drake was passionate about why the show had to be brought back: there is nothing else on television like it. It shows a world that is ignored. Young people – white and black and everything in between – identified with it.
We gathered the old Top Boy team and added some new faces. Daniel West came on to the writing team. Dave Omoregie, better known as the rapper Dave, joined the cast, along with Little Simz, Micheal Ward, Jasmine Jobson, Saffron Hocking, Lisa Dwan and a host of brilliant young unknowns that Des found for us.
One of the new team was Reinaldo Marcus Green, who made the astonishing Monsters and Men. Rei came on to direct the first block of three episodes. One hot summer afternoon, I walked to the Old English Garden where Rei was shooting a scene from episode two, in which a tight little unit of three orphaned brothers have gathered. It’s their mother’s birthday and they talk about her, about how strong she was. Jamie, the older brother, tells his siblings Aaron and Stef the story of how they sat together on the same bench the day Stef was born. And how an old lady went by and couldn’t believe the baby had been born at one in the morning. In her day, they kept you in for two weeks. The scene is tender, happy and sad.
Everything goes into the mix.
Ronan Bennett is executive producer of the new series of Top Boy, which is on Netflix from 13 September