Top Boy, Channel 4, Monday to Thursday
Louis Theroux: America's Most Dangerous Pets, BBC2, Sunday
Any drama about street-corner drug dealers will be compared to 'The Wire'. This one falls far short
Sunday 06 November 2011
Who'd want to produce a drama about urban gang life? You're only going to be compared to The Wire, HBO's peerless Baltimore crime saga – which has been the fate of Top Boy, a self-consciously wide-ranging examination of the vortex of drugs and violence on an east London housing estate.
Channel 4 also granted it the current hallmark of quality programming, "stripping" it across four consecutive nights.
The "top boys" are Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane Robinson), gang members trying to climb the narcotics career ladder. As they try to defend their patch, others on the Summerhouse estate fall into their orbit: primarily young Ra'nell (Malcolm Kamulete) whose mentally ill mother is hospitalised, requiring him to fend for himself; Heather, a pregnant friend of Ra'nell's mother, who resorts to hydroponic marijuana cultivation to fund her departure from Summerhouse; and Leon, a family acquaintance who appoints himself in loco parentis to Ra'nell.
Leon, it transpires, is the lone male character with a sense of social conscience and responsibility, and it's to writer Ronan Bennett's credit that fathers are barely raised as an "issue" – it quietly becomes apparent that they're just not there. In one of the better scenes, Dushane discovers he has a younger half-brother when he bumps into his father on the street. Ra'nell, meanwhile, barely concerns himself with his own father, long gone; rather it's his mother's mental illness that threatens family stability – would that Bennett and his director Yann Demange dared to bring some emotional depth to this, their drama's most affecting relationship.
As it was, Top Boy seemed cast adrift over four hours. Handsome it undoubtedly was – judging by the honeyed tones of the photography, Summerhouse was bathed in the evening light of an endless, Tuscan golden hour. The editing lingered over artfully composed shots and no significant sequence was complete without a plangent bit of electronic noodling. While Demange played with his filters, the actors were left to flounder, their performances flat (apart from Letitia Wright as a self-confident gang member), and their dialogue shoved way back in the sound mix. Murders, mutilations, romance, robberies ... all were presented with a frustratingly off-hand manner. The result was a plot that proceeded glacially over four long hours. We had time to pick away at the plot's numerous holes, the biggest of which was the absence of the police.
If there was a narrative purpose to all this torpor, it seemed quite a depressing one: that these characters were almost passively resigned to their fates. Where was the wit, the tension? Things came to a head, not unimpressively, in the final episode, if anyone was still watching, as Bennett tied up loose ends frayed almost beyond repair. But after August's riots, we deserved more than a drama of working-class, black British strife with all the dynamism of a Jacobean masque.
We all think penguins are cuddly, but none of us would want to own one, right? David Attenborough on Frozen Planet reminded us of the first part of that statement, while, on Sunday evening, Louis Theroux made the case that ownership of wild animals is a responsibility not to undertake lightly, if at all. Which may seem obvious to you, but wasn't to the subjects on Louis Theroux: America's Most Dangerous Pets. There was the woman who defended her ownership of Cooper, a 120lb chimpanzee who put a fist through her sitting-room window, and the wild-eyed menagerist who called a young baboon his "daughter" even as he admitted that he neither loved nor respected his wife. These were the subjects with whom Theroux is happiest: nut jobs of varying degrees of sympathy, who couldn't read their guest's blank features as we avid Louis watchers can after all these years in the field.
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