The Royal Institute of British Architects is grandiose first-floor restaurant couldn't be further removed from the inner-city London estate setting of Channel 4â's engrossing four-part drama, Top Boy. We're at Riba to talk Top Boy with Bafta-nominated director Yann Demange (Criminal Justice, Dead Set) and Kane Robinson, aka gifted rapper Kano, who is chillingly convincing in his first acting role as menacing drug dealer and enforcer Sully.
Top Boy follows mid-twentysomething school friends Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully's quest to become 'top boy' drug dealers on Summerhouse estate. Meanwhile, 13-year-old Raâ'Nell (Malcolm Kamulete) is finding a place in the world as a young man and must fend for himself when his mother falls ill.
Inevitably the two worlds collide, however, Top Boy is a multi-stranded, ensemble piece, written by novelist and acclaimed TV screenwriter Ronan Bennett (Hidden), that unpicks the lives of Raâ'Nell, his gormless best mate Gem, his mother and her pregnant friend Heather (Kierston Wareing - Fish Tank, The Shadow Line).
The camaraderie and bond between Demange, 34, and Robinson, 26, is palpable; they even choose the same steak meal for lunch.
'When I read the script I could relate. It's my world, I grew up in the same areas and had friends like Sully, Dushane and Ra'Nell,' says the softly spoken Robinson. 'I identified with the characters. But since I was at school it's got deeper - we didn't have the postcode wars.'
The effusive, larger-than-life Demange picks up the theme. 'When I grew up in the 1990s in Streatham it was about 'back up'. You might get into trouble with the wrong person and someone's hard cousin would come down and there would be a fight. Now you talk to 13 and 14-year-olds and their friends are getting stabbed. Being a teenage boy in London now is scary,' he says.
Top Boy opens a window on to a parallel universe, where 'food' (drugs) offers quick bucks, respect and girls and when everyone knows where you and your family live - straps (guns) and shanks (knives) provide protection.
'It's an invisible world. What makes London unique is we live cheek-by-jowl. In Paris there are ghettoes on the peripheries. Here you can be on the Kings' Road, where there's a £2million house and an Aston Martin outside, and 200m away is World's End estate, where you can score heroin, and there are guns,' explains Demange.
'Top Boy came about because Ronan, who's lived in Hackney for 20 years, went to his local Tesco to do his shopping and saw a 12-year-old do a drug deal outside,' he adds. 'He thought: I live in this borough and don't really know it.'
So far, so grim, however Top Boy is much more than a bleak, kitchen-sink drama it's beautifully shot, unhurried and uses colour imaginatively and subtly. There's an abundance of warmth, humour, dreams and community on the estate, while the friendships, between Ra'nell, Gem, Dushane and Sully are exquisitely observed.
'Growing up, there wasn't a father between my friends and me but it's amazing the solidarity we had. Friendship and being there for your boys had to run through Top Boy - it becomes an extension of family and is so important. They're each other's support network,' says Demange.
Just as Demange had major input on bringing Ronan Bennett's idea to life, so the cast, including many first-time actors, influenced the director's vision. 'If Kane or Ashley said: 'I wouldn't say that', we'd workshop it. It would have collapsed if we were too fixed on dialogue, too. We were so lucky, it could have been anarchy but some of my favourite moments are when a 13-year-old has been spontaneous. It's magic,' explains Demange.
As Top Boy unfolds, it's clear that it wouldn't have worked as a film. Is British TV currently a more creative, dynamic storytelling medium? 'Independent cinema in this country isn't what it used to be and TV's filled the gap,' says Demange. 'Box set culture means TV has proper characters and textural moments that movies don't allow because you're told this scene doesn't push the film forward. It's an exciting time in TV, people are taking risks.'T