Irish writer Ronan Bennett has teamed up with Drake to resurrect gritty drama Top Boy, writes
Life as the world’s biggest rap star brings with it many perks. You can insist that your latest stage show feature a flying inflatable Ferrari.
You can install a full-size basketball court at your Los Angeles mansion. And you can bring back your favourite TV show six years after it was cancelled.
The television series Drake Aubrey Graham has helped resurrect is Top Boy. This tale of feuding drug dealers in inner city London was a critical hit on Channel 4 in 2011 and 2013.
Even after C4 declined to renew, it went on to have a unlikely afterlife as a cult hit on Netflix USA. Which is where Drake, kicking back in his LA palace, discovered it.
He also learned that Top Boy had been shuttered after just eight episodes. There and then, Drake resolved to right what he regarded as a terrible wrong.
“The first time we met Drake, I remember he was drinking pinot grigio,” recalls Irish writer Ronan Bennett (57), who based Top Boy on his own experiences living in Hackney in East London.
“I didn’t even know who Drake was until my kids told me about him. What struck me was how humble he was. He wasn’t coming in saying, ‘I want to do this or that’. He said, ‘I want to be the gasoline to your fire’.”
“There was a degree of trepidation when we went to meet him,” adds Bennett’s co-producer Alasdair Flind.
“There were rumours he wanted to re-make it in America. We wondered if he wanted to make it a starring vehicle for himself. What he said was, ‘what you’ve done is fantastic — there should be more’.
Drake’s clout within the entertainment business proved unrivalled. With a few phone-calls and meetings he convinced Netflix to take a punt on Top Boy. It returns Friday September 13 for its long-awaited third season.
The setting once again is the fictional East London housing estate of Summerhouse. We catch up with rival drug dealers Dushane (Ashley Walters, aka So Solid Crew’s Asher D) and Sully (Kane Robinson, aka grime superstar Kano).
Time, however, has moved on. Dushane and Sully are now the wrong side of 25: old age in the drug dealer game.
“Once you get past 24, 25 your sell-by-date is fast approaching,” says Bennett.
“How would these older men respond to what had happened in their lives since we last saw them? That was the challenge.”
“We always wanted to come back,” says Roberts.
We love the show. We’re fans of it as well as being in it. We never stopped caring. Netflix is the best home: it gives us the space to do the storylines.
Top Boy goes where other British inner city dramas rarely venture by painting its characters as three dimensional and full of contradictions. Dushane and Sully do bad things.
But that’s not all that they are. They are capable of moments of grace as well as of wickedness.
“When you play someone that’s one-dimensional…it’s just not real,” says Kano.
“Everyone is multi-faceted. With Top Boy, you have the opportunity to peel back the layers and not just see the actions.
“Why does this character do what he does? How does he feel afterwards. What are the consequences? They’re not just selling drugs and in the club drinking champagne afterwards.
"There’s loss. When someone dies.., how do you react to that?”
When he read the original the script for Top Boy in 2011, Walters had no idea that Bennett was a middle-aged Irishman.
He just recognised a voice that caught the reality of growing up black and poor in modern Britain.
And then, when he looked into Bennett’s background,he understood why he might be interested in telling this story.
“He’s lived man,” says Walters. “He’s had quite the life.”
That isn’t an exaggeration.Bennett was born in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim and attended St Mary’s Christian Brothers school on Belfast’s Falls Road.
He became politically active in the early years of the Troubles. In 1974, at age 18, he was convicted by a non-jury Diplock court of murdering an RUC officer during an IRA bank raid.
He had been in Long Kesh prison for a year when his conviction was declared unsafe and he was released.
Later he left the North for Britain, where he studied at King’s College London and was hired as a researcher for an obscure UK Labour backbencher named Jeremy Corbyn.
His first novel, the Second Prison, was published in 1991. He wrote his first TV drama, the feature-length Love Lies Bleeding, two years later.
It was directed by Michael Winterbottom and starred further Oscar winner Mark Rylance.
In 2009 the scripted Michael Mann-Johnny Depp caper Public Enemies, about Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger.
Top Boy is perhaps his most personal work. It is set in a community on the margins of society, distrustful of the police. Parallels with his formative years in West Belfast are unavoidable
“As a writer or an artist, whatever your life experience is part of the whole,” he says.
When you come from a community that’s under attack and you then see a communities suffering the same problems and issues, it doesn’t take much to identify with that. I didn’t consciously have that idea [of drawing on his memories of the Troubles]. It’s part of who I am as a writer.
He was inspired to write Top Boy when he saw an eight year-old selling drugs outside his local supermarket. Bennett was aware of a poor, largely black community living around the corner from his well-to-do terrace.
He talked to youth workers and teachers there, and to the kids hanging out on the corners.
He became determined to tell the story of young black people abandoned by society.
“London has changed massively,” he says.
“I live in east London and have seen it happen all round me. You have mixed feelings. Who doesn’t like a nice coffee shop? But there are real issues.
"Where do you put poor people when they can’t afford to live there any more? Where do they go?
“There is a very cruel system of shunting people further and further out: that’s one of the things we explore in the third season.
"Writers live in the real world. If you are interested in these things, [the truth] isn’t hard to find.”