Ashley Walters: ‘I hope Boris Johnson watches Top Boy’

Thanks to Drake, the cult series is back on Netflix. Its star opens up to Ed Cumming about knife crime, not liking people, and the trials of bringing up his eight children

Friday 13 September 2019 07:15
‘There was a long period where every time someone was shot or stabbed the BBC would call me’
‘There was a long period where every time someone was shot or stabbed the BBC would call me’

I was devastated,” says Ashley Walters, remembering the day in 2014 that Channel 4 cancelled Top Boy, the gang crime drama that has been revived by Netflix. “It was a hard thing for me to deal with.”

It’s understandable. Created by the Northern Irish screenwriter and novelist Ronan Bennett, Top Boy starred Walters and fellow actor-musician Kano as warring gang members on the fictional Summerhouse estate in Hackney. Over two series between 2011 and 2013, its uncompromising plot, realistic dialogue and compelling performances won it an army of fans, a Bafta, and constant comparisons to The Wire from broadsheet critics.

For Walters, it was the kind of role he had been waiting for – a big part in an ambitious project with the potential to run for years, and an opportunity for stability in a career marked by highs and lows since his breakthrough as Asher D, a member of So Solid Crew (whose single “21 Seconds” was No 1 in August 2001, long enough ago to make this interviewer feel very old).

At the height of the So Solid era he was jailed for 18 months for carrying a firearm. The ensuing notoriety helped win him parts in Bullet Boy and Get Rich or Die Tryin’, but also meant he was typecast as gangsters and became a commentator on gang crime.

“There was a long period where every time someone was shot or stabbed the BBC would call me. I started to think, ‘I’m an actor and a musician, I don’t want to be a politician or a spokesperson’.” People are often surprised to learn he’s only 37. “I tell them and they’re like, ‘Bro, I thought you were 50!’ I think it’s because they’ve been watching me for so long. My whole journey has been televised: the negative and the positive.”

In person, Walters is thoughtful and reserved, dressed in all black. He has two main modes of sitting: one with his arms folded, elbows on knees, leaning forward, gym-enlarged biceps prominent; and another, slightly more upright, arms slightly more open. He has a ready grin but is not a lean-back-and-bellow-with-laughter kind of a subject, which is not to say that he’s an ungracious interviewee. He answers everything at length and with articulate good humour. It’s more that you sense it’s a version of openness, but there are parts he doesn’t want to show, perhaps to anyone. He confirms something I’ve read elsewhere, that he doesn’t have any friends.

“I don’t, really. People don’t come to my house. I don’t have friends come over and have dinner or a mate with a wife who’s friends with my wife or whatever. I don’t have that sort of lifestyle. There’s no one I can call and be like, ‘I’m coming round, let’s play some Fifa.’ Most are working relationships. When it comes to friends, as in people to relax with, that’s my wife and my kids.

“I think part of it is that I don’t really like people. I get a bit, ‘Can I go home now?’ Like, we’ve got the premiere tonight and I’m looking forward to it but once I’m there I’ll be trying to find an excuse to go home. I get distracted. I start to think ‘What are they wearing, why haven’t I got those trainers?’ The whole networking thing, having to talk to people when you haven’t got anything to say. It’s not my bag.”

Top Boy trailer

His frankness can be startling. As an actor, he’s able to shift from gravitas to menace without sacrificing a sense of underlying vulnerability. In Top Boy he had a part with enough depth for him to show what he can do, part of the reason the cancellation stung so much. “To this day, I’ve never had an answer from anyone,” he says.

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A mythology has already built up around the circumstances of the programme’s revival. Drake, the superstar musician who was already a champion of British artists like Skepta, stumbled across the series on YouTube and loved it. For Walters, who had been going door to door to producers trying to get the programme recommissioned, what happened next was miraculous. The TV gods move in mysterious ways, and sometimes take the form of Canadian rappers sliding into your DMs.

“It was amazing,” Walters says. “I woke up one morning and I was all over his Instagram. He messaged me to say he was a fan and asked what was going on with the show. I said it was done. He said, ‘We’ll see about that’. Drake put in a few calls. Soon Netflix bought the rights to the original two series, and commissioned a third. Depending on how this one goes down, more could follow. “We’ll see what happens,” he says.

At the start of the new series, Walters’s character, Dushane, is in Jamaica, hiding from his past sins in Hackney. Circumstances soon force him back to London, where there is a new top boy in the form of Jamie (Micheal Ward). The new cast also includes the rappers Dave and Little Simz. London has changed since Dushane was last there. In one early scene, he is confounded by a hipster coffee shop on Broadway Market, an evolution Walters can relate to, having grown up in lately gentrified Peckham.

“When I was growing up we called Peckham Little Lagos,” he says. “Then last month I was doing a gig there in this old bakery. I hadn’t been back for a while and I was prepared for it to be quite a hostile atmosphere. Then I got there and there were three black people there. I felt like I was in Truman’s Brewery [an east London venue that, it’s fair to say, will rarely have been described as Little Lagos]. It was relaxed and comfortable, but a very white crowd.”

Among other things, Top Boy is one of the most cold-eyed appraisals of contemporary London on television. Property developers hover like carrion birds. Turkish drug-dealers discuss the effects of Brexit. Home Office officials turn up unannounced to threaten single mothers with deportation.

“It’s political, but it’s not in-your-face about it,” Walters says. “But you see the camera pan from Summerhouse to the City with the banks and the penthouses. There’s a lot of animosity created in that gap. People are pushed out from their communities which creates tension elsewhere. In south London, kids from Brixton and Peckham were pushed into Croydon, which eventually gave Croydon the highest knife crime rate. It’s important these things are part of the show. Everyone talks about knife crime like we don’t know where it comes from. Sometimes I watch Question Time and just want to turn it off. Most of these kids feel disenfranchised. They’re angry, and as far as they’re concerned they are not part of society. The backdrop of racism is still there, too. I hope Boris watches Top Boy.”

Walters pictured in his So Solid Crew days in 2005 when he went by the name of Asher D

While he might not want to be a spokesperson, Walters knows that his example could be helpful. “I don’t want to say I’m a role model because I’ve not been the most clean-cut person, and there were times I could have gone the other way. But I’m still here, doing what I’m doing, and for other black kids that can be an amazing thing, because I didn’t have too many of those people to look up to coming through.”

The example starts at home. Walters has eight children, four sons and four daughters, two with his wife, Danielle, and the others from previous relationships. “People will say I’m sexist, but girls have been easier for me, especially in education,” he says. “They’re more willing to learn. My eldest son is nearly 20. At 17 I had left home and had him, so the fact he’s not got a job and is doing this and that angers me sometimes. I think, ‘Are you not scared about your future?’ because I was, but then maybe that’s because I had to be and he doesn’t have to be. At the moment there’s part of him that wants to be more street and hard like his friends, but the fact is, he’s had a better life than them. There’s no reason for him to sell drugs or be knocking around on the street or stupid s*** like that. So any time he tries to get involved, I’m like, ‘You’re ridiculous – do you want me to tell your friends actually how your life is?’” There are layers of irony: a son wanting to be more like Top Boy despite the cushioning privilege afforded by his dad, famous from starring in Top Boy.

Walters and Kano in ‘Top Boy’

There’s another series of his detective buddy show Bulletproof on the way but, apart from that, Top Boy has him signed up for as long as Netflix wants. Walters doesn’t seem worried by the prospect.

“Work has saved me,” he says. “Work and my kids. If it wasn’t work, it would have been something else. I’ve always been completely focused on climbing. I’ve never wanted to feel comfortable or secure because that’s when you get taken out, or start to let go. But the unfortunate thing is that you don’t stop to congratulate yourself.”

He’s quick to congratulate others, though. “I’ve had really good influences and people in my life. My dad wasn’t there, and financially unstable, but my mum was just so solid…”

“You’ve rehearsed that one,” I protest.

“Nah, it just came to me. But I thought I’d go with it.”

Top Boy is available on Netflix now

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