Drugs

An Oral History of 'Top Boy'

The cast and crew told us about the making of the show and addressed all those rumours about season three.

by Steven T Hanley
05 May 2016, 1:00pm

Malcolm Kamulete, Ashley Walters, Kano and Giacomo Mancini in 'Top Boy' (Photo: Channel 4)

Top Boy, a show created and written by Northern Irish novelist and screenwriter Ronan Bennett, premiered on Channel 4 in 2011. Set on the fictional Summerhouse housing estate in Hackney, the series follows Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kano), who – along with a small crew – run a drug ring in the estate. Tired of being middlemen, they take matters into their own hands and try to make their rise to the top.

Mixing gritty realism with lush cinematography, the show provided an authentic depiction of life on London's estates, tackling issues like gentrification, mental health, street culture and lost children, all set against a frantic crime saga of drugs, violence and turf wars across east London.

Last year, Ashley Walters confirmed that the show will not be returning for a third series – news that left many puzzled. Top Boy received rave reviews, strong viewing numbers and has now become a cult phenomenon across the world. Recently, word spread that Canadian rapper and grime ambassador Drake, who's a huge fan of the show, had contacted Ashley to discuss getting a third series made. Then there was a rumour about an American version of the show, to be set in Chicago. And then Skepta said he was involved. Now, nobody really knows what's going on.

So over the course of the last two months, I spoke with the cast and crew to discuss the making of the show and the lives of the actors, as well as addressing all those season three rumours.

Ashley Walters (Photo by the author)

GETTING STARTED

Des Hamilton, Casting Director: We had open calls in every area of London, reaching out to kids from the inner city, as a lot of the show takes place around the estate. We didn't rule anybody out. Hackney's got a kind of atmosphere of its own, but, you know, if you're from an estate, you understand that world. I'm from a part of Glasgow not unlike the world of Top Boy.

Scorcher, Kamale: Des had seen a couple of videos I did, but they really liked the "Dark Night" video. They saw something in that and thought I may be right for a character. I came in for a small role, then they moved me up to the Kamale role. I got a lickle upgrade, still.

Ashley Walters, Dushane: When the scripts came through for season one, I'd never read something so true to what I knew. I remember reading it, thinking, 'This is not going to happen! This is too raw.' The cutting off of the fingers, the shootings – all these were true stories that [creator] Ronan [Bennett] had researched. It was really close to home. Kano and me would often look at each other on set and laugh, saying, "Look what we just did! Are they really gonna put this on TV?" The first season was due to screen around the time of the Olympics, but they didn't want [the show to reflect London at the time] considering there were loads of tourists coming over, so it aired in October.

Tat Radcliffe, Cinematographer, season one: I'd worked with [director of season one] Yann [Demange] on two or three other shows, and we always talked about doing something kind of epic, large scale and cinematic. Because of the content [of Top Boy] we spoke about avoiding making it dark and miserable, and instead trying to make London look vibrant. We just wanted to make elegant images, really. I just had to fit the tone and really try not to impose the will of the camera too much on the actors, especially since so many of them were kind of new to it all.

Giacomo Mancini, Gem: I knew Yann – he was like an uncle to me – and he wanted me to come in as an extra. My mum made me go because I was failing school. When I came in, Yann said to me, "I told you to learn the fucking lines," and I said, "I didn't like the script anyway." So I just started speaking to Lara, the casting agent's assistant, like we were on road, and all of sudden they thought, 'We want him for Gem.' So I was like, "Great – more money!" That's all I was thinking at the time. It went from literally [appearing in] one scene to me [getting a main role] and having a hand in finding someone to play Ra'Nell.

Des Hamilton: I'll tell you something funny: at the final auditions there were two or three people for Kano's part, and there was a bit of reticence around Kano. He is a beautiful-looking man, and they were saying, "He's too nice; there's a softness there." We were about to do a scene, and I would be improvising opposite him, so we went outside before the scene and I said, "Mate, they think you're a bit fucking soft." What a stupid choice of words – he looked at me, and I was, 'Ah fuck, what have I done?'

I explained, "Look, I'm a big boy – I can take it, so don't hold back. Don't fucking hospitalise me, but don't fucking hold back." It was a scene where he had to go off at somebody, and Jesus – he kicked my arse! I had bruises on my neck, I was all fucking sore. He slapped me senseless. But yeah, he got cast straight after that scene.

Malcolm Kamulete and Giacomo Mancini (Photo by the author)

CHARACTER INSPIRATION

Giacomo Mancini: As an actor, you have to find the closest way to actually experience those feelings before you can play them real, and for us, we knew firsthand how the ends work. We know from our real backgrounds that when you're a younger in the area, you wanna be the top boy, and for us in the show, that was Ash and Kano. Before I moved to Surrey I was living in the only estate in Chelsea, The World's End. It's a massive estate, and across the block there are £50 million houses, but the estate is so big there's even a police station on it.

Malcolm Kamulete, Ra'Nell: I'm from the block. I live in Stratford. Acting gave me a new lease of life, really.

Giacomo Mancini: His area is one of the worst.

Malcolm Kamulete: Yeah, it's manic. I lost a friend during the filming of the show. I'll be real – in the area, when you hear, "Your boy got stabbed," it's kinda like, "Oh yeah, it's alright – just a couple of wounds, innit." It happens so regularly. Then, an hour later, we got another call saying he didn't survive. I didn't know how to feel from then on. You have your friends on the block, but there are always one or two real people who care about your wellbeing and what you're doing with yourself. This guy was one of those people for me.

Ashley Walters: For me, I imitated what I'd grown up seeing. I've been around it so much it that it wasn't like I had to get into a zone; I was comfortable playing the role. It's not me – it's not what I would be doing – but I was close to it all. What people don't understand is that there are the Dushanes and Sullys, and then the people who live next door to them who are adamant they won't go down that same route. There's a very thin line between going down the right and wrong road, and in the show Ra-Nell and Gem are at that stage in their life, [where they will take the wrong road] unless a positive male role model steps in.

My son is on the cusp of that now. I find it really hard – he's just turned 16 and I'm away working. Most of my conversations are via Skype or Facetime. I can sense that what he needs right now is for me to be physically there and to go out with him and do this and that. His friends are now informing him of what being a man is about, and he's stopped using me as an example. There's a vital, pivotal moment where you have to grab children who are impressionable – and a lot of them aren't caught and end up in jail.

Scorcher (Photo by the author)

SEASON ONE

Ashley Walters: It's a raw show and it's showing a lot of the violence that's happening in those areas, but we have to be true to that; these things are actually going on. There's a lot of organised crime among black people – it's one of the major things that pushed me into doing this role; I think people look at black crime as more slapdash and random, but [Dushane] was playing chess with people's lives. The way he set up Summer House was like a Mafia situation

Scorcher: I really enjoyed playing the villain. Everyone knows people like that if you're from that background, and I just tried to come with that wild unpredictable energy. I was trying to do this method acting thing, so some days I would just come in and screw with them lot – just come in and cuss Ashley and his crew. It was fun to be a bad guy. I'd swoop in, do a mad ting and I'm gone. If you see man's face, its time!

Ashley Walters: Kano is one the most natural rapper/actors I've ever met. He looked like he was acting for years. Kane adopted that character and he went fully in; when he was on set, he was always angry. Malcolm, who played Ra'Nell, butted heads with him a few times on and off set. That kid didn't know Kano actually liked him, and after filming he explained all this, but during filming, when the camera wasn't rolling, he'd say, "Take the fucking chewing gum out – the fuck's wrong with you? Show some fucking respect." Then I'd come along and say, "Come on, spit it out before you shoot, OK?" So I became good cop. That was perfect for how he needed to respond to both of [our characters] in the scenes.

Malcolm Kamulete: That was real! We were actually gonna get it poppin'. He wanted to wrap the scene really fast, but I left my prop behind – a bag. So when we began shooting, Yann was like, "Fuck! Fuck! Cut! You left your fucking bag!" I was like, "Shit, sorry." But Kane put a word in, like, "Shut up, you're a little yute." And I was throwing it back: "Nah, I'm not having it."

Giacomo Mancini: It got stopped quickly.

Malcolm Kamulete: Yeah, as soon as it happened we got hotted up by the director, saying, "You lot are actors – get it together." Then we had to do the scene and there's this real live tension. If you look at [Kano's] face you can see it. It's the scene where they say, "Your mum's in a mad house," and Kano goes, "It's Summerhouse – everybody knows." If you go back and look at it, there's real tension in his face. I think it took us all the way to the photoshoot to say, "You know what? It's cool now." But we're all good – I actually love Kano; he's a good guy.

Scorcher: [The scene where I was buried alive was] insane. I'd not done any acting before, and they were pussyfooting around me, saying, "Maybe we can film it this way and not show this," or, "[Here's a way to have] you not be naked here" and trying to make sure I was alright, and I was like, "Fuck that – does man just need to do this in my pants, yeah? Alright, cool, let's do it." And that was it. But it was freezing – we were shooting over by City Airport at night. Being buried alive is the most mental feeling: you go under and they give you this tube to breath out of and you get a count of one, two, three, and the tube comes out and you gotta stay buried alive while they're rolling, then you get dug out. So it wasn't hard [to act scared] – how the fuck do you not act terrified when you've just been buried alive?

Malcolm Kamulete [on his kissing scene]: Yann is a wasteman! Yann drew me out – he was like, "Yeah, you've got a kissing scene." And I was like, "Shit, how do I do this!" I had a girlfriend at the time as well. I remember this was BBM days. The kiss was so bad and so stiff. I was thinking about my girlfriend at the time, man – I couldn't do it. I know it's acting, but you need to feel some type of way to make it feel real.

Ashley Walters and Kano in 'Top Boy'

SEASON TWO

Jonathan van Tulleken, Director, season two: [In terms of directing season two] I really love that mix of hand-held, steadicam and really interesting, visually-motivated directing, combined with that intimacy that naturalistic performances and real locations bring. It lets you flex a couple of different muscles. Without sounding wanky, it relates to directors like the Dardenne brothers, who made The Son [2002] and The Kid with a Bike [2011], and Jacques Audiard, who made A Prophet [2009]. That was a very big reference for Chris Ross, my director of photography, and I. We were looking at stuff that really felt like you were there – very immediate, very believable, but also having some weird poetic lyrical quality, too.

[In terms of the script and how much improvisation there was on set] Ronan writes a pretty tight script. He's got a really good ear for it; he listens very carefully and consults a lot of people. I think what we were keen to do is not make the slang [the kind of thing you'd hear in] a shit gangster movie. If there was slang, we wanted it to be real – there was a real mandate on set about that stuff.

Giacomo Mancini: For me, after season one came out, everyone thought I was a snitch. I hate snitching. When I was 14 I got arrested for someone snitching on me, so before the second series came out everyone thought I was a snitch, and obviously you couldn't tell people the plot of the new series.

Malcolm Kamulete: You couldn't tell people anything. If anyone would ask, I'd say, "I'm working on Harry Potter part six," or something, and guys would be like, "Really? I've never seen a black guy in any of those films."

THE LEGACY OF THE SHOW

Ashley Walters: To this day, every day, 24-7, I get Top Boy messages. I'd put the most beautiful pictures of my daughter on Instagram, and the messages would be: "WHERE'S THE FOOD, DUSHANE?" or "FORGET ABOUT YOUR DAUGHTER, WE WANT TOP BOY!" You can see the hunger for it is just crazy.

Jonathan van Tulleken: It was such a great show to be a part of. It's got a worldwide following now. Just the other day I got an email on Facebook from a friend I hadn't spoken to in 20 years, messaging me from Calgary, saying, "Did I just see your name as director on Top Boy?" I'm currently shooting in Malaysia, and at the production offices here in Kuala Lumpur, when I came through the door the guy who runs the company said: "High-five! Me and my friends love Top Boy!" They live in KL and watch it on Netflix.

Scorcher: It was all a crazy experience, especially being my first time on a production set. But when you feel you put so much into something and then it's sick, it's one of the most fulfilling feelings. I'm glad I gave it my all.

Malcolm Kamulete: There's a different type of buzz about it now because it's gone worldwide since hitting Netflix. It has a big following in America. I remember I was on Instagram last week and someone commented, "We fuck with you so hard here in The Bahamas." I was like, "Shit! This is a big following." Just knowing that people are watching this show all around the world is a feeling I can't replace.

WATCH ON NOISEY: 'Skepta – Top Boy (The Documentary)'

SEASON THREE

Des Hamilton: There will be a season three. It's got a huge following. I know there's talk. I've been vaguely sounded out about availability to work on a season three – but yeah, nothing solid. I definitely think they will – there's no reason why those characters shouldn't evolve. Everybody involved would do it again.

Ashley Walters: [Ronan] had started to [prepare a script for season three]. I sat down with him and he told me the ideas for three, and I was really happy. I can't say what they were, but it would have been amazing if it was going to the next level. I have no idea [why Channel 4 cancelled Top Boy]. I think their direction has changed with where they want to take the station. It's not government-funded, and maybe they're trying to push themselves into a situation of making more shows that are sustainable and more recognisable, like the BBC. That said, I've got a brilliant relationship with Channel 4 – we're still working together on projects. Every time I have a meeting with them I ask, "Can we try Top Boy again?" And they say no. And Cowboy, the production company who made both seasons, have said no also.

[Drake] spoke to me via his Instagram. I then had a long conversation with Future from his management team. They had been fans of my work. For the last year-and-a-half, me and Drake and his team have been going back and forth over finding a way to make season three. The most recent thing that's come up is Netflix have thrown themselves into the mix. Cowboy sold the rights to Netflix America and it just killed! It was so big out there and in Canada, and now it's hit Australia and people are really on it over there. Netflix have seen that success, and hopefully they'll do season three. It's gonna take a lot of money and a lot of hard work, but hopefully it can come together.

There were rumours that Drake wanted to take it to America – Top Boy America or Top Boy: Chicago, or something like that. So this wouldn't involve me, obviously. I've never heard that from his mouth, so I don't even know if that was real. We stopped talking until this year's Brit Awards, when he came over and chatted to me again and said, "It's still going on – we're going to do it, don't worry about it." We were meant to have another meeting about it, but our paths didn't cross. So I'm assuming [Top Boy: Chicago] was a load of bullshit. The general consensus from Top Boy fans is "don't let that happen", and that would be my opinion as well. [As far as] Skepta being involved, I have no idea what that's about. I've met Skepta maybe twice in my life. We've had no discussions about Top Boy. Maybe him and Drake have, but I haven't been involved in this.

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