Two excellent British TV series are released on DVD on May 3rd. As well as both having compelling storylines, Top Boy and The Shadow Line share similar themes, both concerned with crime, power and the complex relationships that exist within criminal organisations.
This four-part series is set in a fictitious Hackney (London) estate called Summerhouse. The show follows two central characters; 13-year-old Ra’Neil (Malcolm Kamulete) who is trying to navigate the moral and physical perils of life as a teenager on the estate, and twenty-something Dushane (ex-So Solid Crew member Ashley Walters) a street-level drug dealer who is attempting to rise to the position of top boy on the estate.
This British show has been compared to The Wire, probably because it takes a similar approach to its characters and understands that drug dealers are more than just criminal stereotypes. However in scope the two dramas are quite different with Top Boy focused solely on the one estate and not looking at both sides of the criminal spectrum.
Ronan Bennett, the show’s creator, spent two years interviewing young people from East London to research his drama and this intensive research has paid off with the young cast feeling fully drawn. This series indicates pretty early on that viewers are in for a rough ride, the harsh landscape of the estate not pulling any punches for the young characters you grow to care for during the series. The lack of police presence in the show is a little confusing, but this oversight is easily forgiven and I for one am eagerly awaiting Series Two.
The Shadow Line
Where Top Boy stands out for having a young, exciting cast, The Shadow Line‘s strength comes from the experience of its actors: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, American Gangster), Christopher Eccleston (Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, V for Vendetta), Sir Anthony Sher (Shakespeare in Love), Rafe Shall (One Day), Kierston Wareing (who also appears in Top Boy) and the list goes on.
This drama begins with the murder of a top London criminal, here the narrative splits with both the police and the crime family investigating and hunting for the perpetrator.The lead detective, Jonah Gabriel (Ejiofor) has amnesia, caused by a bullet lodged in his brain. With £250,000 missing from the evidence room, and his colleagues all pointing their fingers at him, Gabriel has to try and work out if he is a good or bad cop.
This sharply written series is more complex than it first appears, with nothing quite as it seems. In fact what at first presents itself as a crime drama is in fact a conspiracy thriller. Watching the show you can feel the influences of John Le Carré’s spy novels and 70s American thrillers, which have certainly guided aesthetic choices for the series.
Over eight episodes the mysteries at the heart of this BBC series unravel, with some very unexpected twist and turns. Ejiofor is excellent as the tainted policeman, desperate to prove to both himself and his colleagues that he is morally sound . Also standing out are Spall as the psychopathic nephew of the murdered criminal, and Wareing as Gabriel’s tough, no-nonsense partner. Like the title suggests no character in this show escapes the moral quagmire. In this series every character, no matter what side of the law they are on, seems to be walking the shadow line.