A massive portrait of Ashley Walters looms over Kingsland High Road. Plastered across the second storey of a retail block, it gazes serenely over chicken shops, artisanal coffee houses, strip-lit barbershops, sourdough pizza restaurants. The Netflix logo nestles in the shadow of his chiselled jaw, alongside the release date for the new series of Top Boy.
Netflix has not erected any massive portraits of Ashley Walters in Chelsea.
Such targeted advertising is testament to the specificity of Top Boy, which aims to portray a very particular real world experience. “In this gritty, stylish drama series,” Netflix informs us, “two London drug dealers ply their lucrative trade at a public housing estate in North London.”Like Black Mirror, this is a show which drew critical acclaim with a limited run on Channel 4, before finding a larger audience- and budget- on Netflix. But it’s no universal dystopian sci-fi; the show has been widely praised for its authenticity in representing real life issues, and features an almost entirely black British cast, including grime star Kano. Walters, who stars as Dushane, recalled that taking the script “was a no brainer, because it dealt with [serious issues in low-income communities in London]”.
He also recalled that reading it, he didn’t know it was written by a white person.
A Telegraph review from 2011 pointed out that “Walters, once of rap group So Solid Crew and with real-life arrests for firearms crimes, knows the world he is portraying”. Despite its pearl-clutching tone, the comment highlights the expectation for writers to have some experience of the worlds they depict. So how was an ‘authentic’ representation of a black British experience created by a white Irishman?
Top Boy might be viewed as the latest and most evolved form of writing about an experience that is not your own. The show is the latest development in portrayal of the cultural ‘other’, which has grown from the status of one-dimensional plot device to a more collaborative and authentic effort.
‘Something is rotten in William McKinley High School’: culture as plot device, from Hamlet to Glee
Literary and theatrical depictions of other cultures have long functioned as a smokescreen for commentary closer to home. This method has shored up pillars of the English stage from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan; although it allows for dramatic fireworks and evasion of censorship, it also throws authenticity to wind, reducing the ‘other culture’ to a plot device. Hamlet’s Denmark is an obvious iteration, recalling Elizabeth’s court and contemporary fears about succession. The ‘setting’ of Denmark has scant cultural or racial implications, however, especially compared to Shakespeare’s depiction of “The Moor” in Othello. Rather than using Othello’s ‘otherness’ as shorthand for negative stereotypes, as per Shylock, Shakespeare tries to depict the character’s struggle to balance racial and cultural exclusion with his role as a statesman; the use of race in the play says less about Othello’s “Barbary” culture than it does about the white Venetian society which repays his service by calling him “the thick-lips”.
The glimmer of British interest in authentic depiction had guttered out again by the 19th century, particularly with the rise of ‘Japonisme’, an obsession with Japanese culture woefully prescient of the modern ‘weaboo’. This bout of cultural yellow fever saw librettist W.S Gilbert hail the Japanese in 1907 as “brave, wise, amiable to excess, and extraordinarily considerate to each other and to strangers”. Although the sentiment was quelled by the outbreak of WWII a few decades later, it produced public exhibitions of Japanese people; raging demand for Japanese decor; and a staple of the modern opera repertoire, The Mikado.
Like Hamlet, The Mikado uses an ostensibly ‘foreign’ culture to depict British affairs with impunity. For all its Nanki-Poo’s and Pitti-Sing’s, the opera is riddled with references to archbishops, stockbrokers, and Madam Tussaud’s. The supposedly foreign setting is necessary in a plot that hinges on the criminalisation of ‘flirting’, a coded criticism of Victorian sexual puritanism; this a clear example of one culture being absorbed to mirror and titillate another. While Shakespeare presents Othello as a character struggling with his own exoticism in a white Venice, The Mikado uses Japan primarily as an exotic punchline. Gilbert and Sullivan operas are known for their ‘lozenge plots’, in which a supernatural talisman transforms people into what they are pretending to be; Gilbert was forced to use Japan as a ‘lozenge’, as Sullivan refused to write any more supernatural operas.
These pillars of English dramatic tradition find an unlikely parallel in Glee, a more recent example of inauthentic use of another culture. Portrayals of gay people in mainstream American media have long been criticised for relying for two-dimensional stereotypes, where characters are visibly different in behaviour and appearance. Glee has drawn such ire for reducing its queer characters to trope: a 2014 monograph on “Raising Gays On Glee” complained that “queer woman of colour” Santana Lopez was not only poorly developed but oversexualised due to being Latina.
‘Sauvage’ before Johnny Depp
The all-too-recent conclusion of Glee is not to say that portrayals of other cultures have not evolved since the Victorian day. In fact, the 19th century also saw significant progress, as the unbridled exoticism of interacting with other cultures started to wear off, and authors began to develop an awareness of them as actual people.
19th century America was obsessed with the ‘savage’. Native Americans had loomed large in the cultural imagination since the start of mass settlement; fear and obsession with them peaked during westward expansion in the 1840s, when millions of settlers followed the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark and essentially stole all the Native American land. ‘Injuns’, with their tomahawks and scalping, became a key element of the ‘Wild West’, a clear ‘other’ to the self-righteous, Christian ‘manifest destiny’ claimed by the settlers. However, some 19th century authors proved capable of producing writing which, although dominated by the figure of the western narrator, has some self-awareness and aims to give a more authentic voice to other cultures.
Herman Melville is one such writer: going to sea in 1839, he gained an insight into non-Western cultures, and an outsider’s view of the West, both rare in people of his ‘genteel’ class. Melville tried to use his literary platform to share these perspectives: having witnessed the conditions endured by Irish immigrants on the New York-Liverpool circuit in 1839, he asserted in Redburn that “if they can get here, they have God’s right to come.” The crew of the Pequod in Moby Dick comprise at least 13 nationalities, from Chinese to Icelandic. Having worked, ate and slept alongside such diverse crews for 5 years, Melville’s portrayals aim to acknowledge their differences without fetishising them. Arguably, he does a better job of depicting modern non-white homosexuality than Glee: American critic Steven Hermann claims that “the Ishmael-Queequeg “marriage” in Moby Dick is the first portrait of same-sex marriage in American literature”.
Along the “search for the great Phallic Sperm Whale and his unending, unceasing, unlimited supplies of spermaceti oil”, Ishmael and Queequeg- a South Pacific islander and a cannibal- develop an intimate bond. Ishmael awakens in Chapter 4 with “Queequeg’s arm thrown over” him “in the most loving and affectionate manner”, adding that “you had almost thought I was his wife”.
The dividing line between homosexuality and homospirituality blurs to suggest a transcendent unity, offered by same-sex intimacy. This intimacy also allows the narrator to acknowledge cultural differences between himself and Queequeg with casual familiarity, rather than exoticism: Queequeg’s cannibalism even offers comic relief, when he recalls a bout of indigestion after eating 50 slain enemies.
Despite the efforts of Melville and contemporaries such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the one-dimensional treatment of Native Americans as exotic and savage is alive and well in Dior’s recent Sauvage campaign. Billed as “an authentic journey deep into the Native American soul”, the campaign drew heavy criticism for its stereotypical portrayal of indigenous people, seen dancing in the background as Johnny Depp strummed an electric guitar.
‘Einstein on the road’: from Satyagraha to Summerhouse
These examples suggest that a degree of real experience is necessary to create a multi-dimensional, let alone authentic, portrayal of another culture. But even in the case of more ‘woke’ authors like Melville, it is only some degree of experience. Their accounts try to represent cultures which were not given a voice in western writing, and although they made efforts to collaborate- Longfellow’s epic The Song of Hiawatha drew on conversations with Ojibwe chief Gaagigegaabaw- the figure of the western narrator still looms large.
Philip Glass’s portrait trilogy of operas- Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha andAkhenaten- draw on other people’s experiences to explore themes of science, politics, and religion respectively. All are inspired by someone else’s life, but they never pretend to a literal portrayal. Glass distances his works far enough from reality that although other cultures provide inspiration, he does not make pronouncements about them. Satyagraha looks at Gandhi’s life and philosophy, but lacks a linear plot, moves between myth and reality, and has a Sanskrit libretto constantly disrupted by the minimalist patterns of the music. These portrayals of other cultures are not repackaged to be comprehensible to a western audience. Like Melville depicting the ‘marriage’ of Ishmael and Queequeg, Glass combines different experiences to produce a transcendent depiction of the spiritual.
Top Boy is different. It’s been praised by the cast as well as by critics for its active representation. Little Simz, who plays Shelly, remembers “feeling like there’s something on television which represents us and where we come from, our culture… we were all hyped and super excited for it, it was so close to home, and we could connect and relate to it”.
Like his 19th century predecessors, Top Boy’s writer, Ronan Bennett, has some experience of the culture he depicts. “One brilliant thing about him that you have to respect is that he lives right in the centre of [Hackney], so he knows the community, he knows what’s happening there, he knows how people feel,” said Walters. Bennett attempts to translate the ‘feeling’ he has observed into a collaboration, where the author’s experience doesn’t overshadow that which he seeks to represent.
“Imagining it is one thing, getting it right is another. The depiction has to be authentic,” wrote Bennett in The Guardian. Bennett recorded interviewees, then wrote dialogue that was amended by his friend (now story consultant) Gerry Jackson. During rehearsal and filming, actors would replace words if they thought of a better one. The clearest sign of Bennett’s personal experience is the kneecapping introduced by Lizzie, the Irish drug dealer/property developer in Summerhouse; arguably, she veers the closest to racial stereotype in the season, chatting about the IRA and using her mystical Irish wisdom to intuit that Jamie’s lost a parent.
Top Boy is the end product of centuries of people not getting to tell their own stories. It’s a true product of globalisation- not least in that it was only revived thanks to the intervention of superfan Drake. Despite the multiplicity of voices involved in its creation- American and Canadian producers, an Irish writer- it is purely and primarily about a real-life London experience. Bennett sees his role as simply putting a narrative together, one comprised of the real-world experiences of others. The show aims to platform black British talent, from actors to directors, giving them the industry establishment to continue strengthening their cultural voice. The widespread approval it’s drawn- from real-life roadmen and Radcam rudeboys alike- is proof that people want to listen.
Photo: Drake and Ashley Walters on the red carpet (Picture: REX)