The Arts Desk SEPTEMBER 10, 2013 - by Tom Birchenough


Short, sharp - and the best television drama this year?

Ronan Bennett doesn't do protracted. The writer of Top Boy has whipped us through another series, in the course of which an awful lot of water has flowed under the proverbial bridge. Except that it's blood rather than water that tends to flow in Summerhouse, and the first we saw of a bridge in that neck of East London was in the last seconds of episode four, when Dushane was hiding underneath one. He looked more than a bit cornered - not how we're used to seeing him.

Ashley Walters has grown Dushane into a character whose confidence knows few bounds. He's even arbitrated a feud involving Sully, the old friend-turned rival whose attempts at going independent hit considerable trouble. But their brief dream-team reconciliation hasn't lasted: Sully's got principles, and he's off to set up on new turf in Hoxton.

Bennett's script draws its power from the fact that there are plenty of principles - call them loyalties, if you will - around this neighbourhood. And plenty of characters who are trying to get ahead beyond the very limited opportunities that being born round there offers, though they're up against all sorts of obstacles along the way. Even veteran crime boss Joe decided from his hospital bed that it was time to leave his past behind. Shame he never got out of hospital.

We really came to feel for some of them. We hope emaciated Gem has got away from it all, after his dad - practically the only father in evidence around here - stepped in, and that the malicious Vincent has never heard of Ramsgate. And that his best friend Ra'Nell gets better luck with his football dreams: at least his mum Lisa exerts more influence behind the scenes than we'd thought, thanks to a late revelation that there'd been something in the past between her and Dushane. But there was no way out for poor terrified Michael, the one who went on about books, the smell of whose hangdog fear grew stronger and stronger. Scant consolation that his end didn't come at the hands of his friends, so he didn't have to face that final blow of fate. You just wished he'd called the police back when he still had the chance.

The cops are still fighting a losing battle in Summerhouse, though we felt their presence more. One of the investigating officers even got a name, Vicky, though she was hardly a match for Rihanna, who started as Dushane's solicitor, before being nudged by him into doing far more than she should. Until, that is, she decided that that was no way to go on - and, in doing so, inflicted the most brutal blow of all to Dushane.

When series three kicks in - here's hoping the wait will be shorter than between the first two - Dushane's got the extremely real problems of the Albanians on his hands, and they play rather by their own rules. But more than that, he's going to have to face up to something inside himself. It's not too far-fetched to draw Shakespearean comparisons (with the history plays, anyway) with some of the turf-warfare going on in Summerhouse. I can't wait to see Walters dealing, uneasily, with his own coasting victories. Unless Bennett decides to make the next round the last, and brings about Dushane's tragic fall. Only for another dynasty to rise.

Let's hope too that director Jonathan van Tulleken keeps Top Boy's current creative team together. From the opening panorama sweeping down over the brighter vistas of Hackney towards its dark, dark corners below, to an immaculate score from Brian Eno, mixing London grime sounds with his own sense of the alienated indifference of the streets, this has been television drama at its outstanding best.