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The soundtrack was heavy and funky and the audience’s mostly hooded heads were nodding. But it was not long before they noticed a serious omission that has them questioning the authenticity of the drama. No sirens. “Where’s the feds, man?”
Stan Becker, 21, swung around in his seat. “You think you can stand around on the street like that and no police come? Tsssk,” he said, sucking his teeth in disgust. “Every day you get stopped and searched by feds. You can’t even stand on a street corner round this estate. I’m out? I don’t stop, I don’t stop.”
He hauled his black hat down further over his ears and slumped back to the screen. With a dozen or so other young people aged from 10 to 26 from Hackney, Becker agreed to review for the Observer the new four-part Channel 4 drama Top Boy, which starts tomorrow. Set in a fictitious Hackney housing estate and filmed in east London, the programme is being judged by these critics with an unusually fierce eye. It emerged with broad approval but not unscathed.
They had been collected together in the Crib youth club by Emeka Egbuonu, 25, who has just self-published a book, Consequences, on his experiences of growing up in Hackney and then working with the kids and the gangs who came up behind him. He has lost friends to shootings and stabbings, and knows life stories as tragic as anything a TV writer could create. Outside the battered little low building on the De Beauvoir estate, the soundtrack to real life is interspersed night and day with the noise of the sirens of the emergency services that carry across the quiet estates and echo through the maze of concrete walkways.
Top Boy is set here. It’s about young people in a deprived estate struggling to survive, dealing with the temptations of violence, gangs and drugs, and touching on themes of mental health, single-parent families, neglected children and loyalty. Familiar issues for Egbuonu, but not, he insists, universal.
“There’s a lot of playing into stereotypes,” he said. “It’s a drama not a documentary, so it’s going to happen but I don’t like the glorification of the gangs, that worries me.”
He was showing Top Boy on his laptop. Finding the right equipment wasn’t easy. With 38% of the population of Hackney surviving on benefits, few homes are equipped with flatscreen TVs.
Top Boy, written by Ronan Bennett after extensive research into Hackney’s underclasses, undoubtedly has authenticity. “It’s true and it’s not,” said Michael Brown, 19. “It’s like they’re living in some kind of police-free heaven. They’d be busy, the police. Why it’s got to be about drugs, I don’t know. Yes, there is some drugs, cannabis mostly. Not much of the gang violence round here is about drugs.”
As the father of a six-month-old daughter, he said it was a myth that the estates were empty of fathers. “You can do right by your kids if you want to. Plenty people working hard for their kids. A lot doing two, three jobs.”
Tyrone Thomas, 21, was intrigued by the drugs. A cannabis farm inside a tatty estate flat got giggles of recognition, everyone was less sure of the harder drugs shown. “What are they selling? Who buys that shit? No one would carry that around. They done away with stop and search or something? No one in this gets no shit from anyone, no houses get raided, no one gets investigated … Rich drug dealers? I know they’re out there but I don’t know any. No one selling drugs round here getting rich.”
Seeing their own environment on screen delighted a generation raised on US cop shows and nitpicking was part of the fun. “Top boy? I’ve not heard that used since I was at school! No one says that.” Laughter at the recognition of characters or chat-up lines, seeing holes in the storylines: “You just put your phone in your pocket!” one shouted at a boy on screen calling out to an empty street for an ambulance. A character visiting his daughter’s mother got: “If that was a girl from round here she’d be effing and blinding man, not letting him in her bedroom!” “Snaking? He’d be dead, man, they’d stab him right up.”
In a Hackney still reeling from its portrayal as a hotbed of violence after the summer’s riots, there was a defensive note. Eche Egbuonu and Connor Boston, both 20, were worried about how Top Boy makes their borough look to an outside world. “Too much humour in it, someone got killed and there’s humour, the storyline isn’t too unbelievable but it’s not realistic, the use of real gangs is glorifying things, they should have changed the gang’s names,” said Egbuonu.
Boston was pleased it touched on the issue of depression. “The mum’s mental health was portrayed well. So many people around here with such issues. That was important although whether in real life someone would get help is something else,” he said.
The use of a gang name bothered everyone. “They implied London Fields is running things,” said Jason Mayson, 20. “Using a real name is making London Fields a Hollywood gang. Is this writer from Hackney?”
Bennett is white Irish and does live in Hackney, they are told. There is an explosion of laughter. “Ireeeeeesh?” It becomes clear that while those outside these estates stereotype those inside, these young residents also have their own set views of every nationality in Hackney’s ethnically diverse melting pot. The boy whose dad owns a chip shop? Must be Turkish. The Irish? Dogs and guns. Jamaicans are figures of fun and Chinese are to be avoided.
Colour doesn’t come into it so much but Heather, the white female character in Top Boys, was the most virulently disliked by our panel. Not because she is white, maybe because she is middle-class, but definitely because she wants to get out. Heather is pregnant and does anything she can to raise the deposit for a flat outside Hackney, including enlisting a young black boy in an echo of the way the gangs operate, to help her. Our panel did not believe such a relationship could exist, not across that generation gap.
“She a friend of his mother’s right? No way I even talk to a friend of my mother’s. No way they know my business, not even my auntie,” said Mayson. “No way you’d talk to any of your mum’s friends about food [drugs],” agreed Tyrone Johnson, 21.
More credit then to Janet Williams, the Crib’s founder, a lifelong Hackney resident and a grandmother, who is coaxing debate out of our recalcitrant panel. But she does not like Heather either. “Why everyone wants to get out in this? There’s good people in Hackney and a good community. A lot of middle-class people want to get in. They’re buying in Hackney. They just want us to go, is that it? You only want to get out of Hackney if you’re in that lifestyle and you got to get away from your situation.
“A lot of things here are true, and I know a lot of these things have happened. I know a killing happened last year just like the one in this drama, I know a lot of little kids getting sucked in.
“You see a lot of young boys tired, so tired, from running around selling the drugs for the older boys. If they lose the drugs then they have to work it off and you see them working all hours. Oh, those bits are real!” she said.
“But don’t think estates like this are full of little kids with no parents running around after dark because there are a lot of good families in Hackney. Some people here do have two parents, you know.”
The theme of fatherless children is strong in Top Boy, and not unknown in Hackney. There was recognition of a scene when a man bumps into his father, with a five-year-old half-brother he has never met, and another of a child who does not know where his mother is.
Lisa, 16, said she saw her father “out sometimes” but they did not acknowledge each other. “He beat my mum and I don’t need that. I don’t need to grow drugs either to get money, I just working hard at school and I’ll get a job. But I want to live here in Hackney where my friends are. It’s not scary. I know people do get taken away in car boots, my brother’s friend did in the summer. He was hurt but not dead. A lot of the boys gets hurt if they’re not careful, but they just want to get into the gang culture. They don’t have to if they don’t want to. Some of them have families but they’d rather have this new one [the gang] because they think it’s ghetto, it’s popular.”
When the final twist came in the drama, Top Boy won full approval from our panel. Everyone enjoyed it and intended to watch it again. As they spilled out on to the dark streets, no one was worried about walking home in the dark.
Poverty and unemployment is rising in Hackney and the Crib has had a 75% funding cut. Crime fell 18% in the 12 months ending in September 2011, and murders fell from six to three, according to police statistics. The panel was asked which character they thought was the Top Boy. To widespread agreement as he pulled his Puffa jacket hood back over his head, Johnson said: “Well, it’s the little kid innit? The one who doesn’t get sucked into the gang. “
Top Boy is on Channel 4 on four consecutive nights, beginning tomorrow at 10pm
• This article was amended on 2 November 2011. It originally said that most youth clubs in Hackney had closed. This was incorrect. While funding has been cut, Hackney Council has asked us to make clear that no council-run youth club has been shut.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010