It has been billed as the British version of The Wire, depicting drug crime and gangs on an east London estate, but now a major new television drama has been accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes of black people. Top Boy, a four-part series written by Northern Irish novelist and screenwriter Ronan Bennett, will be shown on Channel 4 over four nights later this month. It has, unusually for primetime TV, an almost exclusively black cast, with many parts played by teenage first-time actors.
The setting is a Hackney housing estate, but the local council refused Channel 4 permission to film on any of its housing estates because it didn't want to be complicit in negative stereotyping.
The plot focuses on 13-year-old Ra'Nell, (played by Malcolm Kamulete) left to fend for himself after his single mother is sectioned. Ra'Nell tends a hydroponic marijuana farm in a council flat for his white neighbour and comes to the attention of local criminals Dushane (Ashley Walters) and his friend Sully (Kane Robinson). Dushane wants to be the area's "top boy" – to control the estate's lucrative drugs market, at whatever cost, even if it includes maiming or killing rivals.
Toyin Agbetu, whose organisation Ligali campaigns against negative stereotypes of black people, said: "There's a lack of imagination. You don't have to always portray the African community as drug-dealing, gun-toting criminals... This isn't the time to be going backwards and focusing on these stereotypes. We don't need to perpetuate more reasons for civil unrest; there are many great stories that don't need to focus on the boy in the hood."
Jules Pipe, the mayor of Hackney, said: "Estates aren't film sets – they are people's homes. Hackney's film office... considers whether the portrayal would have a detrimental effect on the reputation of the area. In this case, it was not fair on residents... having their neighbourhood stigmatised on national television as riddled with drugs and gangs."
Bennett, who has lived in Hackney for 25 years, said his inspiration for the story came after seeing a child dealing drugs near his home. "I was intrigued. Just a hundred metres from where I live you could be sitting drinking a latté in a café and just yards away youths could be talking about dealing drugs. The idea of two different worlds coexisting without either understanding the other, I thought, was something I should write about."
The writer said he did extensive research, interviewing "twenty or so" young people in Hackney over two years. "One of the estates I visited... it's on Morning Lane... I think it's called Morningside [it is actually Trelawney]. One of our actors came from there."
The language his interviewees used – "food" for drugs, "feds" (police) and "foot soldiers" (drugs dealers on the street) – appears in Top Boy, prompting the suggestion that it is the British version of The Wire, a US series about the criminal subculture of Baltimore, and that Hackney gang members were among its keenest fans.
Bennett rejects the charge that Top Boy, with leading characters who are either criminal, mentally ill, sexually feckless or absent fathers, perpetuates negative black stereotypes. Ashley Walters, however, who plays Dushane, gave a different response to the question. Walters grew up in south London, was part of the urban musical collective So Solid Crew and has served a jail sentence for possession of a gun. He says that while Top Boy is "a slice of life", it shouldn't be mistaken for a documentary. "This is fiction," he says. "It's authentic and real, but it's also to entertain people."
The director, Yann Demange, a Londoner of French-Algerian origin, acknowledged that at times the drama is bleak. "Whether one likes it or not, we're shining a light on a particular part of London and it is truthful. Yes, it's bleak in parts, but as Ra'Nell finds his way through, there is ultimately a positive message."