'Top Boy' - Is This The UK's Answer To 'The Wire'?

Monday night saw the first instalment of Top Boy, Channel 4's drama being hyped as the UK's answer to The Wire.

For those emerging from under a stone in the Outer Hebrides, The Wire is the Baltimore-based TV epic that failed to catch a glance when it was first shown on our small screens, but gained a word-of-mouth global audience on DVD.

Heralded as one of the finest dramas of its generation, The Wire delved into the labyrinthine elements of the city's underbelly, exploring the links between drugs, industry, education, local politics and media, and highlighting the stain of corruption that pervaded all.

The Wire had five series. Top Boy's got until Thursday, so any direct comparison is hopelessly overblown. Nonetheless, The Wire provides a useful prism through which to judge the achievements of this ambitious piece.

As in many of The Wire's instalments, we are invited to view this slice of East London life through the eyes of a child. Ra'Nell is a boy whose mother collapses into mental illness and absence in the first few minutes, leaving him at the mercy of other adult influences, positive and negative.

The acting is uniformly excellent, patient, collaborative. The connections, hints at past bonds and future attachments are all allowed to unfold slowly - quite an achievement given Thursday's looming finale. The narrative is elliptical and unassuming, leaving the viewer to do the work and make his own judgements. Until the violence strikes, sometimes comical in its ineptitude, but always disappointing, and a brutal contrast to the lyrical chat that has gone on only moments before.

The same turf battles we saw played out in Baltimore are here painted in brighter colours, and not one actor in the whole of Top Boy would look out of place in a Calvin Klein ad. A pregnant woman making ends meet with a DIY marijuana crop looks more wholesome than Felicity Kendall in this set-up, and the soundtrack full of bouncy grooves keeps the narrative skipping along, and helps provide a misleading sense of glamour.

Already we can see some common ideas coming into play. That for every wise child, there is a foolish adult. For every smiling girl ready to take a young boy on a magical mystery tour across the Thames, there's the same girl ready to put pills under his tongue. For every opportunist wanting to improve his lot in the world, there's a man standing on a corner offering an illegal shortcut.

With impressive cinematography, too, the limited time it has available will prove whether this proves to be a triumph over substance. For now, the same themes we saw on The Wire’s vast canvas are here drawn in smaller, neater strokes, but with just as much paint on the brush.

Top Dog continues Monday to Thursday this week at 10pm on Channel 4.