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Photograph: Ali Painter/Netflix Ashley Walters as Dushane in Top Boy Season 3

Baseball bats and big emotions: a night on the set of ‘Top Boy’

The smash-hit crime drama is coming to an end – but not without fireworks

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Top Boy is coming to an emotional end – and a violent one. Time Out’s Jason Okundaye heads to south London to witness the shit hit the fan on Netflix’s smash-hit crime drama

It’s nighttime on a biting October night, I’m in London’s Clapham Park Estate and there’s a riot on the cards. Around me, the estate is being fitted with pyrotechnic devices, protest banners are being hung and police vans parked up. The cameras are rolling on Netflix’s hit crime drama Top Boy, where the estate’s modernist surroundings will double as the show’s fictional home turf: Hackney’s Summerhouse Estate. Ashley Walters is on set as drug kingpin Dushane Hill, and shit is about to go down.

Twelve years on from its debut on Channel 4, Top Boy is coming to an end – and Time Out is here to witness it happen. The show has already had one farewell in 2014, before Netflix picked it up three years later. But this one looks like being for keeps.

Top Boy goes out as a truly global sensation – a crime thriller and an acute psychological portrait of what it takes to come out on top in the merciless game of drug supply. 

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Photograph: Netflix/Chris HarrisDushane (Ashley Walters, right) and Sully (Kano) in season 2

Homecoming kings

More than the sum of gang rivalry, international supply chains, and relentless murders, Top Boy has always been elevated by its depiction of London – the city’s homes, communities and everyday struggles. It’s always felt ahead of its time, and that’s a source of pride around here. ‘When we started the show on Channel 4, it felt quite ahead of its time,’ says executive producer Charles Steel when how making the show has changed now it’s a globally-renowned, Netflix-produced smash. ‘But it’s very much of the moment now. The Crown shows one aspect of the UK; Top Boy shows another.’

London will be in the box seat for the final season, reveals the producer. ‘The first (Netflix) season had a bit of Jamaican flavour to it,’ he says, ‘and last year we went to Morocco and Spain. The aim for this season was to bring it back to its core characters, and hone into what was the heart of the show from the beginning: Summerhouse.’ 

Top Boy Season 3
Photograph: Ali Painter/NetflixWe predict a riot: things kick off on Summerhouse Estate in season 3

Tonight’s scene will see fiery clashes between Summerhouse residents and the police, though their exact catalyst and outcome are being kept tightly under wraps. Steel does give one hint: there’s something symbolic in the looming violence – especially so close to the end of Top Boy. ‘The estate has erupted in the same way as the emotions and dynamics between the characters,’ he says. ‘All of it is exploding at the end.’ 

London is crazy enough – you don’t need a 100-strong film crew setting fire to your bins

So why Clapham rather than Summerhouse’s normal location, Isle of Dogs’ Samuda Estate? It turns out the production needed somewhere quieter to cut loose with the pyrotechnics. ‘This is an empty estate with only [a few people living here], so we can do all the special effects we wouldn’t have permission to do at Samuda Estate,’ explains producer Tina Pawlik. ‘If we filmed this scene where there are residents, it’d take two weeks rather than two nights. 

Or, as a passing crew member points out: ‘London is crazy enough that you don’t need a film crew of a hundred people setting bins on fire in your back garden.’

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Photograph: NetflixAshley Walters as Dushane on location in Clapham Park Estate

Family business

Top Boy has always prided itself on benefitting the local community, too. Today, there are some young locals on set, a visit organised by the housing association that’s redeveloping the estate. As Pawlik tells me, community outreach has been on the show’s agenda from the beginning. ‘We shoot 100 percent on location and on every season we’ve had opportunities for people to come and see it. We want people to be inspired and we want to help them get a foot in the industry as well.’ There are even a few locals among tonight’s extras. 

As a drone flies overhead to capture the clashing scenes from above, the set erupts. Calling the shots tonight is William Stefan Smith, a season 2 veteran who is calling the shots on the final two episodes of the finale. He chats passionately about working on the show’s dénoument, sharing his approach to Top Boy’s big moments with me. ‘It’s always about grounding the story in truth,’ he says, ‘and telling it in a cinematic way – in a way we’ve never seen before.’ 

It’s being told in a way we’ve never seen before

Night shots are notoriously gruelling, but there’s a palpable buzz tonight. Despite a number of challenging scenes still to be shot, there’s a sense of something major drawing to a close. ‘I had a very romanticised feeling that we would just be breezing through the last few days,’ says Pawlik, ‘but we’ve left all our biggest set pieces to the end. Once we actually finish shooting, that’s when reality will hit.’ 

For a Top Boy veteran like Steel there are mixed emotions. ‘It’s been tough shooting, particularly last year when we did back-to-back seasons – one during Covid – so part of me is looking forward to a new chapter. But it’s also really sad. This is like a huge family.’

Top Boy Season 3
Photograph: Ali Painter/NetflixDirector William Stefan Smith on set

The sense of an on-set community is obvious. The show’s crew have returned to Top Boy year after year, and that feeds into it. For the man behind the camera tonight, it’s ‘an honour’ to be seeing the show out. ‘The fact they had me back means a lot,’ says Smith. ‘Kano and Ashley (Walters) have lived with these characters for so long, so they definitely have sway in terms of who they work with.’ 

For Smith, it’s all about creating a world that young black Londoners can confidently champion and recognise. ‘I’m not sure how many shows feel like that for my community [of Black Londoners]. It’s such a cultural phenomenon in the UK.’ 

And it’s going out with a bang. 

Top Boy season 3 launches on Netflix worldwide Sep 8.

Inside Kano’s kingdom: the London estate that made ‘Top Boy’ what it is.

London on Screen: The Summerhouse Estate in ‘Top Boy’.

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