Tag Archives: Ronan Bennett

At the Top

Actor Jasmine Jobson and the creative team behind British drama Top Boy discuss reviving the Channel 4 series for a third season on Netflix and bringing authenticity to the fictional Summerhouse Estate.

Six years after its second season came to an end on Channel 4, British drama Top Boy returned to screens last year with a third season on Netflix. Ashley Walters (Bulletproof) and Kane Robinson (better known as UK rapper Kano) reprised their roles as Dushane and Sully, respectively, in the gritty and stylish crime series about two London drug dealers on the fictional Summerhouse Estate.

The new episodes pick up as Dushane returns from exile to London to reclaim his throne in the highly lucrative drug market. He teams up with Sully, his spiritual brother, partner and sometime rival, who is also returning to the same streets after his own form of exile – prison – comes to an end. Awaiting them both is Jamie (Micheal Ward), the young, hungry and ruthless gang leader whose ambitions leave no place for Dushane and Sully.

As part of Bafta Television: The Sessions, actor Jasmine Jobson and the creative team behind Top Boy recalled how Canadian rapper Drake rescued the series from being axed, the challenge of depicting the uniqueness of London and how Jobson gets into character.

Jobson is nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Virgin Media Bafta Television Awards this Friday for her role as Jaq in Top Boy’s third season. Earlier this month, casting director Des Hamilton won Bafta’s first ever Scripted Casting award at the Bafta Television Craft Awards for his work on season three.

Drake attends the Top Boy season three premiere

Drake was a fan of Top Boy and teamed up with creator Ronan Bennett to take it to Netflix…
Bennett: After two successful seasons on Channel 4, when Top Boy was cancelled, it was one of those ones I wasn’t able to shrug off. It meant too much. It was an incredible family feeling about the cast and the crew and filmmakers. It was very hard and difficult to understand. When I heard that Drake was interested, I didn’t pay it a lot of mind, partly because I didn’t know who he was. It wasn’t until I met him a bit later that it became clear he was serious and we really had a chance of going forward.
I realised maybe it turns out he’s quite big. We met him in London, myself and my colleagues, and he was great. He was very genuine and just really loved it, and all he said to us was, ‘We just want you to do what you do and all we want to be is the fuel to your fire and to help it get back up again.’ He didn’t want to control it, he wanted us to do the same thing again.

Ronan Bennett

Bennett lives in Hackney, the London borough where the series is set, which helped him to reflect real-life communities on screen…
Bennett: I’m originally from Belfast in Northern Ireland. I would say the community I grew up in was faced with similar problems that the black community in London is faced with. So there was an immediate identification there and a shared background. Then it’s just about, as a writer, keeping your eyes open, keeping your ears open, talking to people.
It becomes very easy for creative people, once you can make a living for yourself, not to move from behind your desk, to stay in front of you computer writing. But I’m really interested in the world around me, I’m interested in my neighbours, I’m interested in the people I pass on the street. When any of them find the time or generosity to talk to me and answer any questions I have, I will always take [the opportunity], because that’s how you learn.
I’m always very happy when people say Top Boy reflects their lives because I’m obviously not from that community, but I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about every aspect– not just being on the road, but school, family, expectations, dreams, all of those things. As a writer, everything goes into the mix. All the things you see and hear and feel, they all go into the mix.

Talking tough social issues is something Jasmine Jobson loves about the show…
Jobson: It’s so true, so raw, so edgy. It’s been like that from the very first season. Ronan’s been very good at not sweeping anything under the carpet and outlining some of the things that need to be said.

With every role, Jobson strives to embody her character…
Jobson: I have to take a few traits from myself and add to the character, a few from the character and add to myself. I would definitely say that’s my process for getting into Jaq. One of my things was how I was going to be able to separate myself from my character because it’s one thing becoming my character, but you don’t want to bring that person home with you. I noticed I’d be in my trailer and, every day, getting out my costume, every layer of clothing I took off was a little piece of Jaq I was putting back. Every piece of clothing that was my own was a little piece of myself I was getting back to go back home with. That is my process.

Jasmine Jobson joined the Top Boy season three cast as Jaq

Aneil Karia, who directed the final three episodes of S3 after the first seven had been filmed, was a fan of the original series and was excited to join the show…
Karia: Obviously there’s a certain amount of pressure in finishing off a series that’s come so far like that, but it’s a bunch of wonderful people. And by the time I was coming on set to start on episode eight, it was already feeling like I was part of a family, as trite as that sounds. It does feel like that on that show.
It was tough. Everyone started off Top Boy in sun-drenched July in London and, seven months later, it was -6°C and I came on board and everyone was slightly fed up. For those guys, it was the final slog, and for me it was the beginning. So that was an interesting one, but it was a fantastic experience.

At the heart of the show is a universal story to which audiences around the world can relate…
Karia: There’s escapism television that takes you elsewhere, away from the heaviness of the planet right now, and then there’s something at the other end of the scale that speaks to exactly what this world is becoming, what it is for better or worse. The most exciting opportunities are saying something about what is a hugely problematic system that we all live in. It was a privilege to be able to work on something so relevant with such a voice. Struggle is pretty universal, I suppose. I’m not surprised it has that kind of global appeal.

Top Boy stars Kano (left) and Ashley Walters

The diversity of Top Boy’s cast was one of Karia’s favourite aspects of the series…
Karia: Trained actors, actors who didn’t have training but have been in the game a long time, musicians who were acting for the first time, street-cast people – that mix brought such a unique energy to the whole production, and I loved working with a cast who came to their roles with such varied approaches.
Everyone has a different approach. Ashley is a machine. He fires it and can give you 12 different versions like that. With Kano, it’s about in-depth conversation about backstory. With Jasmine, it’s a whole other approach. Everyone is a total individual, and learning about how you best work with each person is the magical part of the journey.
Everyone knew when it was flowing well, and I guess there must be some link there to the number of people who were involved in music as well as acting. I can’t help but think that brought something really special.

Bennett never thought about becoming a writer…
Bennett: The first things I started to write were pieces of memory and things that were important to me. Eventually, that turned into a novel. After the novel was published, I was contacted by an exec producer at the BBC who had read the book and asked if I’d like to write a film, and I said ‘sure!’ I had an idea for one, and the film [1997’s Face, starring Robert Carlyle and Ray Winstone] was made. It was a hit, and that was it.
One of the things I think you find in this business is one successful show can really help you. People will be interested in you if you do something. That was it for me.

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Blast from the past

Kit Harington stars in and exec produces BBC1’s Gunpowder, which dramatises the plot to kill King James I. Alongside co-star Liv Tyler and the show’s writer and director, he reveals his very personal reason for getting involved.

Most people have at least one black sheep in their family tree, a relative who perhaps earned a less-than-honest living or brought dishonour to the family name with their actions or lifestyle.

However, very few of us can claim to be related to someone who tried to kill the king of England. Step forward Game of Thrones star Kit Harington – a direct descendant of the chief conspirator in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I.

For anyone thinking that means Jon Snow himself is related to Guy Fawkes, think again, as while Fawkes was the man caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder under the House of Lords, it was Harington’s “great, great, great, great, great something-or-other” Robert Catesby who actually spearheaded the plot.

As such, it’s Catesby, played by Harington, who is at the forefront of BBC1’s three-part miniseries Gunpowder, which aims to be a faithful dramatisation of the events now marked across the UK every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires.

Gunpowder stars Kit Harington as his ancestor Robert Catesby

The Game of Thrones star also executive produced the show, which launches this Saturday at 21.00 – “the Taboo slot” – and was produced by Kudos. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.

Discussing the appeal of the programme, Harington says he “prefers to avoid the term ‘passion project,’” but admits: “Really the idea spawned from a piece of family curiosity, which is that my mother’s maiden name is Catesby, my middle name is Catesby… I was always told, ‘Did you know you were related to the leader of the Gunpowder Plot?’

“More than that, me and Dan [fellow exec producer Dan West] couldn’t really work out why it hadn’t been dramatised. It’s such a significant piece of typically English folklore and we mark it every year, so it seemed odd.”

Indeed, while the gist of the Gunpowder Plot is one of the best-known slices of history in the UK, the facts and detail behind the story are much less widely understood.

With a PhD in history, writer Ronan Bennett is surely better equipped than most TV scribes to bring a truthful account of the events to the small screen. Yet even he admits that, upon being approached to pen the series, “I had forgotten if I ever knew about Catesby; that Catesby was actually the real mastermind of it.”

Liv Tyler also has a major role in what is her first UK television series

Bennett adds: “If you ask most people what they know about the Gunpowder Plot, they’ll go, ‘Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament’ – something like that – and everything else is empty. People don’t really know anything about it.”

Making the show, therefore, became something of a history lesson for all involved, including the impressive cast, which also boasts Hollywood star Liv Tyler, Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss and Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen, who plays Fawkes.

“I think I knew more than some people about the Gunpowder Plot, but not a lot,” says Harington. “It was only by doing some research into it that I started to understand who [the conspirators] were.

“[Catesby] is a widower, he doesn’t connect with his son, he’s experiencing huge persecution and he’s a very proud man,” he says of his ancestor who, along with his accomplices, attempted to take drastic action against the king’s discrimination against Catholics. “In some ways, he’s on some kind of a death wish and he pulls a lot of people – some innocent people – with him into this plot.

“It was just fascinating learning about this piece of history.”

Guy Fawkes is played by Tom Cullen

Harington also reveals that, as the production went on, his feelings towards the plotter changed significantly, adding that what was once almost a sense of pride over Catesby shifted to feeling “desperately sorry for him.”

“As you will see, he was a deeply sad man who botched the one thing he wanted to do. He fucked it up. Deep down, he was tortured.”

Securing Tyler’s services marked something of a coup for the production, with the high-profile actor only having one other TV series to her name, HBO’s magnificent Damon Lindelof drama The Leftovers.

Now living full time in the UK, having moved to London last year, Tyler’s first UK series sees her play Anne Vaux, who assisted Catholic priests when practising the religion was outlawed.

“I don’t think these guys would have been thinking of me at all for this part, but I read it and I loved it,” she says. “I was really drawn to it. As an American, I know a little about the story but I don’t know everything, and it’s always nice to be learning something.”

The show’s first episode depicts executions in graphic detail

As for her convincing English accent, Tyler, who previously had to lose the American twang to play Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, says it “kind of just came back – it’s like skiing.”

Gunpowder also marked a first for J Blakeson, who became the latest in the ever-growing line of film directors to try their hand at TV when he signed up for the show.

Having helmed features such as The Disappearance of Alice Creed and The 5th Wave, Blakeson says the involvement of big names like Harington, combined with the subject matter, meant it was an “easy decision” to board the project.

“You get a lot of scripts and read them, but very rarely are they ones you want to do. But this one… to read a script where you’re 25 pages in and you’re still in the first scene, it’s a rare thing.

“It was incredibly well written and it had that dream thing for a project, which is that people think they know [the story] and there’s recognition of it, so people are interested in it, but actually you have a story to tell that’s interesting and enlightening and people don’t know it. So there’s a real opportunity there.

Derek Riddell as King James I, the principal target of the Gunpowder Plot

“But primarily it was just a really good script and I really liked it.”

A strong sense of authenticity runs through the production, not least in the language, with Bennett explaining that many lines in the script were lifted directly from historical accounts.

That realism also extends to the depiction of the harsh era in which the story unfolds. One scene begins with King James defecating into a bucket just inches from his bed, with the royal stool then being carried away by an unfortunate servant.

But what really stands out in the first episode is the explicit portrayal of capital punishment. Indeed, a grisly and prolonged execution scene is as graphic as anything you’re ever likely to see on the Beeb.

Warts-and-all representation of the era was key to Blakeson, who says: “We have this very nostalgic view of the past, of it being this lovely place, but one of the great things about Ronan’s script is it’s not described as that at all. There’s no indoor plumbing, there’s no sewer system. People would die in the street – death was everywhere. It’s a horrible place.

“So showing the history as being like that – being textured, being lived-in – was quite important. It was like a living, breathing version of history.”

Gunpowder’s story is obviously not one that lends itself to a sequel, but having clearly enjoyed his first taste of exec producing, could more work behind the camera follow for Harington after Game of Thrones concludes?

“Yes,” is the resounding answer from the actor, who has launched prodco Thriker Films along with West and describes Gunpowder as being “like a tester” for projects to come.

“We very much want to continue looking for things, sourcing things, producing things. We’re looking for that next thing now,” he explains. “This was a test to see if, on a personal level, this was something I enjoyed doing, and I did enjoy it very much. I felt so proud of it all the way along, in a way that I find much harder to do as just an actor.”

Still, with Harington’s Catesby bearing Jon Snow’s trademark curly locks and beard, no one could blame the actor for seeking something totally different next time out. “Why I keep desiring to film in cold, muddy places on horses, I have no idea,” he jokes. “It must be something built into me from a past life.”

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