You know a show has made it when it’s prepared to say no to its main backer, especially when that backer is a megastar rapper who is singlehandedly responsible for the show even being on TV. “When we first met Drake to talk to him about helping us to revive the series, he said, ‘Look, I’d love to be in it!’” says Top Boy creator Ronan Bennett, but this offer gave him a problem. “If Drake were to appear, it would have been a distraction. It would be hard to maintain Top Boy’s level of authenticity – so it didn’t happen.”
Since its launch in 2011, Top Boy has had a reputation for an unblinking depiction of the drug trade rife on inner-London estates. Soon, viewers will be treated to its second, hyper-realistic season on Netflix, nine years after it was cancelled by Channel 4 following two runs. Longtime fan Drake helped convince Netflix to commission the series, becoming executive producer along the way. It was also helped by calls from fans – including famous ones. When Kane “Kano” Robinson, the grime musician who plays gang leader Sully in the show, met Noel Gallagher, the first thing Gallagher said was: “When’s Top Boy coming back?’”
“It got annoying sometimes,” laughs Ashley Walters, who has played Dushane, another gang leader, since the start. “I love the fans and I love how much they love the show. But you kind of get drowned by it sometimes. It’s like you can’t exist as any other character. It’s like: ‘All right, that’s good. But when’s Top Boy coming back?’ It was a relief to have it return.”
This time round, the show is much bigger in scope. We follow the drug route into London from Morocco through Spain – prompting scenes of sun-dappled ocean waves gently lapping a yacht’s bow. Naturally, this being Top Boy, these scenes are followed by a naked man being shot in the head and dumped overboard. We also see into the police investigation of the various London crews, which is actually a first, even though the show has been dubbed the UK’s version of The Wire. (Bennett is quick to point out that this story has “not remotely been influenced by comparisons to The Wire.”) Plus, we see Top Boy do something it has certainly never done before – have a grime MC hang out in a bush with a fox called Roy, fork-feeding it from a tin while chuckling: “Here comes the plane!”
“Ronan had been showing us videos of him feeding a fox that was living in his garden,” says Robinson. “So when I saw that in the script, I thought: ‘Oh God, you’ve stitched me up.’” This is a result of his character retreating into a less urban lifestyle after the climax of the previous series. “I was a bit nervous. I don’t like foxes. I don’t think anyone likes foxes. You normally avoid them, don’t you?”
But some things have stayed the same. Just like the previous two series, this new season begins with Sully and Dushane falling out. “It’s an ongoing battle,” says Walters. “Every time we get scripts, Kane and I are like: ‘Ah man, again?’ But we’re always creatively trying to find ways to make it feel different.” Robinson adds: “It does blow my mind how long the show has been running, especially when I get a young person saying: ‘When the first series came out, I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I was 11 and my mum wouldn’t let me.’”
It’s not just Top Boy fans who have grown up with the show. Its actors have, too. “I just remember everyone in school talking about it,” says Brit award-winning MC Little Simz, AKA Simbi Ajikawo, who plays Dushane’s girlfriend Shelley. Jasmine Jobson, who plays Dushane’s deputy Jaq, chips into our group Zoom call: “Everyone in class would be like: ‘Oh my God, did you see what happened in Top Boy last night?’”
In the past, the show has been very male-dominated. But last month, a giant poster was unveiled in London featuring Jobson and Ajikawo. “There we are, faces as big as satellite dishes!” says Jobson. “Our boats are right there! I’m so gassed!” Ajikawo gets her own storyline, too, running a nail bar and being visited by a shadowy figure from her past. Meanwhile, as Jaq becomes a major player in the Summerhouse gang, we step into her love life and see her in the grip of a family drama that introduces a Liverpool-based crew.
So is there more of a spotlight on female characters this season? “One hundred per cent,” says Jobson. “The women who live in this world aren’t often spoken about. And the female perspective was something we were lacking, but now we’re opening doors.” Ajikawo adds: “Yeah, the earlier seasons were really male-led, but we’re pushing the narrative forward now. Not just in showing that these men have sisters, girlfriends and mothers, but also that they work with women who are leading their field.”
Top Boy has always been unflinching in tackling broader social issues, such as the county lines phenomenon, in which inner-city kids briefly decamp to small towns to sell drugs. Series four showcases the post-Windrush threat of deportation faced by older African-Caribbean immigrants, as well as homing in on gentrification and furious residents’ meetings whose attendees face rehousing in different cities. However, due to the series already being in production at the time of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement didn’t make it in. Does that feel weird?
“You have to remember what type of people the characters are,” says Robinson. “They’re violent drug dealers who come from a place that has made them that way. Are they going to Black Lives Matter marches? I doubt it. I doubt most people out there selling drugs are.”
Still, it’s hard not to look at Top Boy at least through the prism of BLM. For years, it has been depicting a side of the inner-city British Black experience often overlooked by the mainstream media. And it does so by casting actors from the community it represents, initially holding open castings for kids who’d never acted before, until – by season two of its Channel 4 run – they were swamped by thousands of applicants. Casting agent Des Hamilton’s dedication to giving roles to actors with no previous experience saw him win the first ever Bafta for scripted casting.
“That’s what I’m proudest of,” says Walters. “Top Boy is creating careers for people who wouldn’t otherwise have had that opportunity. You get to see new actors coming into the show, watch them flourish. That’s always been important to us.”
Top Boy has launched the careers of Letitia Wright, Michaela Coel and last season’s breakout, Bafta Rising Star award-winner Micheal Ward, who has since worked with Steve McQueen on Small Axe and acted with Sharon Stone. This season, it looks set to do the same for Jobson. “Top Boy has opened so many doors for me,” she says. “But I didn’t get into acting to win awards. It’s so important that we’re showing issues like gentrification because I honestly couldn’t tell you how many estates from areas I grew up in are no longer there. It’s heartbreaking. Sometimes that’s all people know – it’s where they’ve lived their whole lives, where their whole family grew up.”
Jobson’s journey to acting via her background in care was not only made possible by Top Boy but also inspired by it, in particular Wright’s shift into the Marvel universe. “Letitia is definitely a big inspiration for me. She comes from nothing. She was the lead girl in Top Boy – and now she’s smashing it.”
And what about Robinson and Walters, who have been with the show from the start – when will they get their Hollywood break? “I don’t know, man,” says Robinson. “I just want to do what I believe in. Top Boy suits me artistically. If I come across another project I believe in, I’ll give it a look. But it’s not something I’m chasing.”
Shunning Hollywood? Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, Robinson does star in Top Boy, the show that refused Drake a cameo.
Top Boy returns to Netflix on 18 March