Ashley Walters: ‘Some people feel left out of the worlds on their doorsteps’

The actor and rapper spoke to The Big Issue about the effect gentrification is having on communities across England

Ashley Walters is the star of Top Boy, which has returned to our screens after a six year absence thanks to the enthusiastic support of Canadian rap superstar Drake. Like most fans of the series, which shows the human impact of hard lives and harder drugs on an East London estate, Walters had given up hope of Top Boy ever coming back.

But Drake persuaded Netflix to do what Channel 4 would not and served as an executive producer on the third series, expanded to ten episodes to allow the world depicted to be expanded to take in key issues.

“It was really important that it felt like London now,” Walters told us. “That is why we have added things around the scenario of the underdog trying to get to the top – so you have got Brexit in there, you have got gentrification, the deportation of Aks’s mum. All those things are really important to have in there bubbling away.”

When The Big Issue caught up with Walters, he gave us the rundown on the politics of Top Boy

Gentrification

“I went back to Peckham not too long ago – that has changed like crazy. I don’t know anyone there, I don’t recognise faces. It is more like Brick Lane than the Peckham I remember. There are loads of positives that come from that but there is also the negative side of it as well.

“There are shots throughout the series where you see how close these Penthouse apartments are to the estate. You see the council estate and in the background you have the banks.

“As beautiful and exciting as they are, some people feel really left out of those worlds that are right on their doorstep. It does create resentment. It does create animosity sometimes between groups of people. It was important to bring those things into the show, because otherwise it wouldn’t be Top Boy.

“Gentrification is a difficult thing. I don’t begrudge it if people buy in an area because it is cheaper or easier to travel from – they are not intentionally going there to have people moved. But the effects are real. There are people I know who grew up in the Aylesbury Estate that were moved to Birmingham or Manchester, against their will, really. It was the only option they had. It is outrageous. But that is what is happening.

“And what is going to be built in the place of Aylesbury? A lot of apartments for professionals and doctors. We need people like that, but it would be nice if there was some consideration for the little guys.”

Windrush Scandal

“The whole Windrush Scandal was crazy to me. People who have lived here all of their lives – working, providing, adding to their community, adding to the country, are being treated that way. My gran and grandad were part of that movement and I have so much respect and love for them. If I had to witness my gran being sent home after all she has done for us, I would be devastated.

“It is important we highlight it, because it is actually happening. You see it on the news, but without seeing the full scope. We definitely wanted to put that into our story. For you to see how it is effecting everyone. A lot of these people are struggling anyway.

“Our deportation story leads to this kid getting involved in drugs to try to support his mother. We are putting those links together. Because they are linked. And it is really important we generate some sort of debate about it.

“I am on the street, I am on the ground, whether through music or through the shows I do, I am corresponding. I am telling people exactly what I can see. That is what Top Boy has always been about.”

Stop and Search

“I have been affected by Stop and Search growing up. I was going through that every week when I was going to school and it hurt. You felt victimised. You felt like you were being attacked for no reason. It was hard to deal with so I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through that.

“I have sons of the age where they could be stopped. One of my sons has just started driving and I had to have a big discussion with him about how you deal with it if you are stopped by the police. Because I am scared.

“You talk to your kids and you try to school them through it. But the best thing for us is to work through it as a country, as a people. And we can safely say that Stop and Search has never worked.”

Poverty

“The beauty of having ten episodes in this season is that we can explore that properly. There is a hunger, but it is not always being hungry for food. Sometimes it is being hungry for knowledge.

“There is a trap in these areas that is more mental than anything else. I was lucky enough when I was a kid to have a lot of different experiences, mainly through my acting which meant I travelled a lot, but also through my mum understanding very clearly that it was easy growing up in Peckham to feel that your immediate environment is the only environment there is.

“So if you watch five of your friends and your older cousins go to prison, you think that is what you are meant to do as well, that maybe it is a rite of passage. I watched them go to jail and come out and everyone respected them more. So maybe that is what I need to do to get respect. When you are living in those environments and those things are normal to you, it is kind of inevitable that those things happen to you.

“I pretty much knew I was going to prison before I went. It was always in the back of my mind that it was something that would happen to me at some point – and I suppose I subconsciously walked towards.”

Brexit

“Brexit has a huge impact, because everyone is forgetting about the issues that really, really matter. Brexit is important, what is going to happen before and after is really important, but the people being affected are the people on the ground – the people who need mental health help on the NHS while we are not talking about the NHS. Brexit has consumed politics for so many years now. To be honest, I am a huge fan of Question Time but I have stopped watching it. I can’t stand hearing about Brexit any more.”

Knife Crime

“I want to hear about the real issues on the ground – knife crime is really important to me, gun crime, knife crime, violent crime in general is so important. How we are going to stop that is not by locking more people up – it is actually that we need to  open up youth clubs, we need to give people opportunities they don’t have any more because they are taking them away because of all these cuts.

“Those things are just not being discussed. It is not that I don’t care about Brexit any more, it is just that while we are thinking about that, we are not thinking about all these other important things.”

Opportunities

“Michaela Coel and Letitia Wright were in season one. I have seen Giacomo Mancini come in having never acted before – cut to now, shooting all over the world. That is one of the great stories to celebrate about the show. It couldn’t be made without the balance of non-actors plus some cool experienced people. They get experience from us, we take on their raw talent, the raw vibe, and that is how we make the fly-on-the-wall style where a lot of it seems improvised. It wouldn’t be the same show without that process. We are giving people who come from that world the opportunity to have a leg up and get themselves out of it. That is a beautiful side of the show that people don’t realise a lot of the time.

“During filming I was listening to a lot of music by Kano, Dave and Little Simz. All my co-stars. Simz is a great artist – I listened to a lot of ‘Grey Area’. And it was hard not to listen to ‘Psychodrama’ [Dave’s Mercury Prize winning LP] because Dave was making the album throughout filming, so we got to hear it growing and being built, which was really cool.

“One of the reasons we have those guys in the show – they all show their vulnerability through their music which is a good indication that they can act.”

Read the full interview in this week’s Big Issue, available from your local vendor or from the Big Issue shop.

Top Boy is available now on Netflix

Image: Ross Ferguson/Netflix