Top Boy’s East London, through the eyes of actual residents – Eastlondonlines

In previous seasons, the London-based Netflix drama Top Boy would end with a characteristically tense question mark of a cliffhanger – but last September, an abrupt full stop followed the fifth and seemingly, final instalment. The BAFTA award-winning series follows the escapades of gang members Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane Robinson), and the notorious drug-selling gangs they’re entangled with. Set in Hackney, the borough is more than just a backdrop to the action – it is more like another character, a vital element in understanding the two protagonists’ crime-fuelled lives. 

After 12 gripping years, fans waved goodbye to The Summerhouse Estate for what they assumed was the last time on September 7, 2023, when the finale was released. However, at the end of January, Top Boy Creator Ronan Bennett revealed in a conversation with BBC 5 Live’s Nihal Arthanayake that there may be a spin-off underway, following discussions with Netflix. The sequel will tell the Summerhouse gang’s story from the perspective of female character, Jaq Lawrence (Jasmine Jobson) and adapts Bennett’s novel Jaq: A Top Boy Story. 

The TV show has had over 5.8m views. It has immortalised Hackney as much as the show’s characters. But how has the show’s raw representation of each location impacted the lives of those who live there?

The Top Boy Cafe 

In London Fields, a dark-red painted greasy spoon cafe with shiny green plastic chairs is a go-to spot for Top Boy enthusiasts. Number One Cafe is arguably the show’s most iconic location, and Dushane and Sully conduct their business there throughout all five seasons. 

In reality, the cafe is a family affair. It was opened 25 years ago by the father of the current owner Haslan Arslan, who now manages the cafe with his eldest son, Ozy. 

In 2011, the Top Boy location scout came into Number One to inquire about featuring it in the show, and the rest is history for the all-day breakfast venue. Ozy says Top Boy has helped the business grow throughout the years, and the support was especially appreciated throughout the Covid-19 Pandemic. “It’s been a blessing,” he says. 

Number One Cafe, London Fields. Pic: Rosie Harris-Davison

The vast majority of the cafe’s Google reviews are Top Boy related, cementing them as a hotspot for the fan base seeking to feel part of Dushane and Sully’s lawlessness while chowing down on bacon and eggs. Ozy says they’ve also been approached by rappers, fashion brands, and businesses all keen to shoot content in the cafe – such as TK MAXX filming an advert there in 2022. 

On October 6 2023, the release day of Drake’s album For All the Dogs, his marketing team used Number One for promotion, plastering the album’s artwork over the cafe sign and seating dogs at the tables. In December, the Rapper Uzi filmed a music video inside, and Ozy says very recently another rapper did the same, with Top Boy actor Giacamo Mancini featuring in it. 

“Just a couple of days ago, we had ten German lads here who own a clothing brand,” says Ozy. “They had breakfast and politely asked if they could take some pictures in the ‘caff’ for the brand at the table where the characters sat.” 

Although Number One hasn’t become a shrine to the show, there are a few characteristics that would make any Top Boy buff swoon: a framed, signed portrait of Ashley Walters (which has become a popular selfie spot) and an option on the menu called ‘The Top Boy breakfast platter’ – a full English with a good helping of fried bread on the side. 

The Summerhouse Estate 

Dushane and Sully grow up on the fictional Summerhouse Estate, and this is where much of the action takes place. Ronan Bennett based Summerhouse on real East London estates, particularly the De Beauvoir Estate in Hackney. However, the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle was originally used for filming, and when it was demolished in 2014, filming moved to the Samuda Estate in Isle of Dogs for the last three seasons.

The production used Samuda’s residents’ real flats, including details such as over-spilling ashtrays and mugs of tea belonging to property dwellers. The crew won residents’ trust by including them on set, and many stood in as extras. 

Built in 1967, Samuda was a buzzing community hub until Canary Wharf’s arrival in 1988 when the estate fell into disrepair. According to some residents Eastlondonlines spoke to, it remains this way, with issues such as broken intercoms and landing lights, “frequently out of order” lifts, and a general lack of cleanliness. 

Charlie Allen, 39, has lived on the estate for ten years and told ELL he didn’t think there were “any benefits from the Top Boy money being spent on the estate.” Allen says the filming brought an “air of excitement around the estate,”  but not much else changed. Rubbish collection services have got “worse and worse” over the past few years, he claimed, with bins left overflowing “most weeks.”

IMG 6980 editedThe Samuda Estate. Pic: Charlie Allen

One resident, who has lived on the estate for almost 30 years but wished to stay anonymous, said, “One Housing didn’t seem to put much money [earned from Top Boy] back into the estate other than a few trips to the seaside. The revenue should’ve been spent on cleaning the estate up.” But, they added, seeing their home on television “was bloody amazing.”

A spokesperson from One Housing Group, the association who manage the estate, said in a statement after filming last summer that they had “carried out numerous consultations asking residents to share their ideas” on how to spend the money earned from the filming. Instead of refurbishments, it was used for “days out that many had shared they were previously unable to experience.” 

Undeniably, Top Boy has stitched a map using the fabric of East London. The show re-shaped the city’s gang life into a globally acclaimed drama, while off-screen, a bittersweet mark has been left on the lives of those in the community. Despite leaving our screens, Top Boy’s legacy lingers. Sitting in those green plastic chairs, we reminisce over Dushane and Sully’s charisma and chaos – accompanied by a mug of tea and a Number One Cafe fry-up. 

Top Boy is available to stream on Netflix

Read the rest of our series, Lights, Camera, Action! here

Recommended For You