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

How a tight-knit community became the crime thriller’s key ingredient

Top Boy S3
Photograph: Netflix/Time Out

With Netflix’s smash-hit crime thriller ‘Top Boy’ back for its final season, Thomas Hobbs explores how London’s Samuda Estate became the show’s home turf.

The final season of Top Boy arrives on Netflix this week, with the show’s massive global fanbase eagerly tuning in. Filled with drug dealers who can’t decide if they want to hug it out or kill one another on London’s fictional Summerhouse Estate – the rivalry between Ashley Walters’ Dushane Hill and UK rap legend Kano’s Gerard ‘Sully’ Sullivan comes to a head in the finale – as well as powerful messages about gentrification and working-class life, and action sequences that go full Michael Bay, it has another, less well-known key ingredient: Isle of Dogs’ Samuda Estate.

The show’s main filming location, Samuda has stood in for Summerhouse Estate since ‘Top Boy’ moved from 
Channel 4, its home in 2011-2013, to Netflix. (Prior to that, Summerhouse was Elephant and Castle’s Heygate Estate.) 

Samuda Estate
Photograph: Jess Hand/Noah BoonIsle of Dogs’ Samuda Estate

Built in 1967, Samuda houses around 1,500 residents across its 11-and-a-bit acres. The juxtaposition between its six-storey concrete blocks and 25-store tower, Kelson House, with Canary Wharf’s opulent skyscrapers in the near-distance feels almost Dickensian. Given the show’s themes, it’s the perfect Summerhouse stand-in. 

During filming, Sharon Clachar, island services manager at One Housing, the private firm that oversees Samuda House, has been an ever-present bridge between the production and residents. She chats to locals, calming any anxieties about the show and keeps them informed. ‘I’ve had to explain to hundreds of residents that there’s going to be filming in their home at 3am,’ she says. ‘I make sure everyone is happy and show them that they are going to be part of something special.’

I’ve had to explain to hundreds of residents that there’s going to be filming in their home at 3am

Thanks to Clachar, ‘Top Boy’ has had rare access to locations across Samuda, from the untidy kitchens of local residents (those cups of tea and full ashtrays you see in the show are not props) to the estate’s main atrium, where street-lamps bounce flickering light off imposing concrete at night. To build on those bonds of trust, the production has welcomed residents on set, giving them the chance to work on everything from design to cinematography. 

Samuda Estate
Photograph: Jess Hand/Noah Boon

Crucially, Samuda is never filmed as a hopeless place in ‘Top Boy’. Some of the wide lens framing is even reminiscent of a mythical kingly court from an old medieval-set movie. In one early scene in season 3, Barry Keoghan’s terrifying, baby-faced villain Jonny knowingly refers to Samuda as ‘a kingdom, innit’. Producer Tina Pawlik agrees: ‘Making the area look regal was definitely a focus. It is such an incredible location with this palpable community spirit, so you want to capture that.’

One old lady screamed when she saw Ashley Walters walking out the door as Dushane

From shooting the greasy spoon scenes where Dushane and Sully meet at Number One Cafe in London fields, to using Dalston’s Ridley Road Market for the gang’s deals, ‘Top Boy’ has always prided itself in depicting the real London. ‘It’s a show about authenticity,’ says Pawlik. ‘Other than season 2, where we got hit by Covid and had to build sets, we’ve always shot on location.’  

Top Boy season 3
Photograph: Chris Harris/NetflixDushane (Ashley Walters) and Dris (Shone Romolus) in ‘Top Boy’

The final season is going out with a bang, which created its own challenges when it was filmed in 2022. Some of the Summerhouse scenes were so explosive that filming had to shift to Clapham’s practically empty Plummer Road Estate, where the chances of keeping the 30 or so residents up at night were much lower.  

It’s a cautionary tale about cycles of violence, where those caught up are forced to reckon with the destruction they’ve caused. ‘The new season is about the importance of fighting for your community and knowing its worth,’ says Pawlik. ‘It’s also about working out that, while joining a gang might seem like the only route in life, it doesn’t have to be.’

Samuda residents wouldn’t turn a blind eye to police unruliness if the script played out in reality

The season’s opening episode features immigration officers detaining a teenager and Summerhouse residents coming together to block the police vans that are trying to take him away. Samuda Estate rarely matches those levels of violence or drama in real life, but Clachar believes that local residents would react similarly if the Home Office treated one of its residents with equal aggression. ‘There are residents who feel the approach [to immigration] is over the top,’ she says. ‘If the script played out in reality and, say, John next door was taken away by immigration and the police were being unruly, they definitely wouldn’t turn a blind eye.”

‘Top Boy’s accompanying sense of glamour isn’t lost on estate residents. Rap superstar Drake – an executive producer on the show – visited Samuda during filming in 2022 and happily chatted with locals. Unexpected sightings of cast members have always caused a stir, too, says Clachar. ‘An old lady returned home with her shopping and saw Ashley Walters [dressed as Dushane] walking out the door. She screamed and dropped her bags in shock.’ 

Samuda Estate
Photograph: Jess Hand/Noah Boon

I ask if ‘Top Boy’ has ever inspired copycat violence. After all, this is an area where crime rates already run above the national average‘There were those concerns, but we’ve honestly had no reports of increased crime or gang-related incidents,’ says Clachar, who views the show as a ‘cautionary tale’. 

There has been the odd resident complaining about the disruption, but the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. ‘Top Boy’s legacy for the Samuda Estate is one of new pride. On-screen, it paints a bleak picture of urban life; off it, it’s impact has been nothing but positive. ‘The residents are proud to know that their estate is being used for “Top Boy”,’ says Clachar. ‘There was a time where an Asda opening on this island was a big deal. Now we’re next door to Canary Wharf and have Netflix filming in the area. It’s been truly transformational.’ 

The final season of ‘Top Boy’ launches on Netflix worldwide Sep 8.

    You may also like
    You may also like