‘Top Boy’ returns: “It’s bigger, and it’s better”

As TV's best crime drama serves up more episodes, we get back on the block in east London with Ashley Walters and co.

Ashley Walters has a big grin on his face. He’s just finished ribbing Top Boy castmate Kane Robinson (aka Kano) about his grumpy on-set demeanour. Kano shakes his head and chuckles. London drug dealers Dushane and Sully might bicker on-screen, but the actors who play them are best pals off it. “We have loads of fun,” says Walters, with a sideways look at Robinson. “It’s only Kane that doesn’t – he’s too busy learning his lines!”

Originally launched in 2011, Top Boy introduced the UK to the fictional Hackney estate of Summerhouse across two intense, four-part seasons. It was abruptly cancelled by Channel 4 in 2013 but soon found a second life on Netflix – its blood-spattered stories of ambition and power resonating with a global audience, including Drake. Wanting more, Drizzy put creator Ronan Bennett in touch with the streamer who ordered another 10-part series that aired in 2019.

The new episodes were an even bigger hit – and saw Dushane and Sully’s main rival Jamie (Micheal Ward) end up in prison. But with the estate under threat of redevelopment, the police armed with an intimate, in-depth knowledge of their operations (thanks to undercover cops Lee and Sarah) and a lot of fractured relationships to contend with, Netflix’s follow-up season, out this week, looks set to be even more dramatic.

“‘Top Boy’ is embedded in the culture now”
–Ashley Walters

“It’s bigger, and it’s better – it’s all those good things,” says Walters. “We’re really driving home who these characters are in this season.”

The limited arc of the original Channel 4 series (retroactively renamed Summerhouse) meant it often didn’t have time to tell its character’s stories completely. Now with double the runtime, that’s no longer a problem. “We really get the opportunity to spend more time with each character in this season,” says Robinson. “There’s this moment where Jaq [Dushane’s fierce second-in-command, played by Jasmine Jobson] goes home after [committing a violent act] and she’s in her room, with everything going around in her head. For me, that was one of the greatest moments of this show. We get time to get into these characters’ heads, which I think is beautiful.”

The latest season also continues to explore the effects of gentrification, xenophobia and the impact of Government immigration policy, alongside previously less-explored themes like homophobia and class.

“I wouldn’t say we have an obligation [to talk about these things], but we want to be real,” says Robinson. “If it’s true to those characters in that area that they’re growing up in, then it only makes sense that we speak about it. As long as we remain truthful, and not just try to box-tick, that is when the show is at its best.

“People keep reminding us how long the show’s been on for. It’s just embedded in the culture now,” adds Walters. “What we’ve created is a platform for loads of different people, from all walks of life, with all different aspirations, to flourish and succeed.” And judging by this interview so far, have a laugh too…

Top Boy
Ashley Walters. CREDIT: Netflix/Misan Harriman

Ashley Walters

Who they play: Dushane

His story so far: The original Top Boy, Dushane spent Summerhouse’s eight eps carefully building his drug empire before fleeing to Jamaica when a rival gang challenged him. The Netflix revival saw him return to London to sell drugs for local kingpin Sugar (Gilbert Chen), but by the end of the season he’d supplanted Sugar alongside more local rivals and was once again in charge.

What’s driving Dushane this season?

“Predominantly, it’s power. I don’t think he’s a materialistic person and I don’t think it’s actually about the money. I think he feeds off something a bit deeper, which has more to do with his status… His journey now is more about maintaining what he’s managed to get back, but also understanding what’s next. The endgame is in his sights, it’s just whether he’s willing to give up everything he’s created to get it.”

Will he be playing happy families with Little Simz’ Shelley?

“Do you believe Dushane is going to be a family man? Looking at his character, I personally couldn’t see it. I guess he goes into this season having that in the back of his mind. It might be an option and it might be the ideal thing for him, but it’s not what he really wants.”

Kano
Kano plays Sully in the series. CREDIT: Netflix

Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson

Who they play: Sully

His story so far: Dushane’s partner-in-crime during Summerhouse, Sully left prison at the start of Netflix’s reboot. He soon reunited with longtime friend Jason (Ricky Smart), the son of an addict introduced in Summerhouse’s second season who saw Sully as a father figure, to start selling drugs in Ramsgate. However, Jason was killed in a racially-motivated arson attack which led to, via one emotional breakdown, Sully teaming back up with Dushane. After being forced to murder backstabbing mate Dris (Shone Romulus) at the very end of the season, the new episodes find Sully a recluse, wracked with guilt.

After all that loss, where’s Sully’s head at this season?

“All over the place. He’s trying to find himself and his place in this world. More and more bags of money are turning up but he [feels like] he has nothing. He’s becoming more of a selfless person too. He doesn’t want to get involved in his daughter’s life because her current family setup is so good for her. He’s realised how selfish he’s been and is trying to work that out. It all started because he was dealing with the loss of Jason, which he thinks he was at fault for. There’s a lot going on in his head and there’s a whole journey to come.”

What about the dynamic with Dushane. You’ve killed for each other but you’ve never seen eye to eye…

“I think they love each other, but I don’t think they like each other. It’s a rocky relationship. Sully feels protective over Dushane and vice versa. They will always come to each other’s [aid] but it feels like there’s not much more than that. Imagine that you’re willing to kill for someone, but won’t even have a beer with them. It’s a weird place to be.”

Micheal Ward
Micheal Ward. CREDIT: Netflix/Misan Harriman

Micheal Ward

Who they play: Jamie

His story so far: Introduced in the new Netflix series, Jamie is basically the younger version of Dushane, who quickly asserts his dominance over the Summerhouse estate. After a bloody, season-long war with Dushane’s crew, Jamie ended up taking the fall for his little brother, who was caught by police with drugs and a gun. When last we saw, he was in prison awaiting trial – but at the start of this season, Dushane offers him an unlikely way out. The new season sees the pair teaming up on a new project. Can it last?

What can people expect from Jamie this season?

“A lot of rebuilding of relationships, which is obviously very different to last season. Although Jamie does everything for his brothers, he’s also trying to figure out what’s going to be best for himself as well.”

What was it like joining a show like Top Boy?

“It’s crazy to join something that’s got history. It’s helped change my life forever but it’s always difficult, because you never know how people are going to react. You worry that people are going to miss the other characters. Luckily everyone loved Jamie. I guess this season we’ll see how people react again. I’m still fighting battles in my head about what people are going to think. It’s just a different experience that only a handful of people are going to understand.

Top Boy
Jasmine Jobson. CREDIT: Netflix/Misan Harriman

Jasmine Jobson

Who they play: Jaq

Her story so far: Jaq spent the first season of Top Boy’s revival climbing the rungs of Dushane’s network, establishing herself as a loyal number two by its end. She even told Dushane that her own sister Lauryn (Saffron Hocking) had been sharing information with Leyton, a member of Jamie’s rival gang. In the end, she refused to hand her over – instead helping Lauryn escape London.

What can we expect from Jaq this season?

“We see her be vulnerable a lot more. I’ve cried so much this season! Her loyalty is definitely tested as well. She kind of goes behind Dushane’s back again to look after her very big, but little sister. She also has her first homophobic attack, So there’s a lot that she’s going through mentally in this season. She’s battling quite a bit.”

Does she have aspirations to be the Top Boy?

“I think she did. I don’t know if she has the same kind of aspirations now. I feel that she’s kind of changing her perceptions on people that she used to look up to.”

Saffron hocking
Saffron Hocking plays Lauryn, Jaq’s little sister. CREDIT: Netflix

Saffron Hocking

Who they play: Lauryn

Her story so far: Lauryn was only meant to appear in two episodes last season but her role was eventually expanded to include a relationship with Leyton, one of the leaders of a rival gang. She shared details about Dushane and Sully’s activities, which led to them being ambushed and almost killed. When her sister Jaq found out, she was beaten up and banished from London.

Why is Lauryn back?

“She made a mistake, as do all human beings. But now she’s in Liverpool. She’s pregnant and she’s in a very toxic relationship. You know things have got bad if she’d rather go back to Summerhouse than stay where she is. She wants to be with her family, her friends and return to where she feels like she belongs.”

Was it fun getting to explore the character a bit more in this season?

“It’s a dream for any actor to be given such a juicy, meaty role. But while there was excitement, there was also a lot of nerves because there’s massive responsibility. I wanted to do the story justice but I didn’t want to glorify it in any way. I spoke to women’s domestic violence charity Refuge and their guidance was invaluable. I wanted to make sure that some awareness was brought to Lauryn’s story.”

Top Boy
Adwoa Aboah. CREDIT: Netflix

Adwoa Aboah

Who they play: Becks

Her story so far: a brand new character who starts a romantic relationship with Jaq.

What can you tell us about Becks?

“I don’t think there’s been a character like Becks on the show before. She’s not from their world at all but, like any Londoner, she’s streetwise and isn’t naïve to what’s going on. She’s attracted to the chaos and the drama [of their world] but has enough self-confidence to cope. She stands up for what she believes in. She comes with an amazing sense of vulnerability that I think is what she’s trying to bring out of Jaq, who might not understand there is so much strength in being honest, open and vulnerable.

This is your first major TV acting role – why Top Boy?

“I’ve always been a fan of Top Boy so it’s a dream come true, to be quite honest. As soon as the audition came to me, I knew I was going to fight tooth and nail to get the role. I remember seeing the show for the first time and I’d never seen so many people that looked like me on TV before, it was amazing. I think seeing yourself represented in any sort of way is so important.”

‘Top Boy’ returns on Friday March 18 on Netflix