I saw the final episode of Top Boy Season 5 last week, then instantly returned to Season 1 to rewatch this incredible TV drama.It bought back so many memories. FilmFixer were very involved with that first series back in 2014, because the production chose a housing estate in one of our boroughs for the bulk of their filming.The estate will remain nameless, or we could call it “Summerhouse 1” as it was the first to portray this fictional Hackney estate that provides the setting for the series.
The photography in that first series was stunning. I remember being asked about securing rooftop camera positions at 4am, so the crew could catch the first glimmer of dawn. The views out of the windows of the flats, the large light interiors and scruffy stairwells; all of it helped to make Summerhouse a characterful backdrop to the series.Plus the acting was just fantastic, with standout performances from Ashley Waters and Kane Robinson, with the pre Wakanda Letitia Wright in Season 1 showing us all what an luminous star she would become. I was particularly pleased to see Little Simz in season 4 and 5, who played “Meleka” in a Channel 4 youth series called “Youngers” which shot two series in Peckham in 2013/14. Southwark Council were very involved with this production, offering the producers Big Talk, production office space and many locations at reduced rates because of the tight budget.
The Top Boy production team and cast got to know the residents of the estate pretty well during their four week shoot in 2011. When I look online I see that most reporters name the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle as the location for Series 1, though the church on the Heygate was used, the rest of the estate was in a very dilapidated condition as it was about to be demolished, and did not feature.
The residents of Summerhouse 1 made a request that the production company should not name the estate, and they have been as good as their word.
The residents did not want their estate to be named because they had become fed up of being portrayed as a backdrop for stories about “guns, drugs and crime.” The residents accepted that the filming would bring benefits such as work for local people, funding for community projects and a bit of cash for people who allowed their flats to be used by the production, but they preferred not to publicise this connection.
By the time Season 2 got commissioned in 2012 the request was made to return to Summerhouse 1, but it was turned down. Regeneration works had begun on the estate and filming was not practical. The production moved to West London, with filming on the South Acton Estate in Ealing (handled by our colleagues in Ealing Film Office). The show was cancelled after series 2 (shame on you Channel 4!) and not picked up until 2019, when Canadian rapper Drake convinced Netflix to give it a go.
FilmFixer got involved again for the Top Boy reboot, helping the location team to secure many different locations for Seasons 3, 4 and 5. The main estate was actually in the Isle of Dogs. The Samuda Estate is in Tower Hamlets, managed by our colleagues at The Film Office, the Waterloo Road Estate in Havering became home to an integral storyline for Season 3, with production utilising the empty estate for both interior and exterior key scenes. Once again the Housing Team playing a vital part in helping filming to go ahead. It nestles below the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf (obviously confusing people who know that Hackney is miles away), and became Summerhouse for the last three seasons, most notably in Season 5 where the many residents became involved as extras in riot scenes that were shot there in 2022. The production did try to break things up a bit, some scenes were filmed in garages and walkways on other estates elsewhere in London, several of them managed by FilmFixer. This included the Grahame Park Estate in Barnet and several scenes filmed in Haringey, including Crouch End’s Priory Park and Middle Lane, Highgate’s North Hill and Muswell Hill’s Fortis Green Road.
The question about “negative” portrayals of housing estates is one that FilmFixer has faced many times. On one hand residents do gain benefits, but on the other it is rather depressing to see your estate being used as a stereotypical backdrop for one crime drama after another. FilmFixer will always make sure that residents’ wishes are respected whenever a filming proposal is put forward. We often have to rest in an area, especially if they have had a lot of filming activity take place. Each request is taken at face value and residents’ opinion is sought, obviously, the community has to support a shoot if it’s going to happen.
An example of the added value that can be brought is our Set Ready training and work placement programme. We work hard to make sure that the production offers entry level work opportunities to local people, and pays these trainees a decent living wage. Top Boy were fantastic in this regard, helping many residents of our boroughs into jobs. Our Set Ready programme ensures that the trainees hit the ground running, building up the experience they need to launch themselves into the film industry as crew members. We have trained over 200 young people and found them jobs on many big productions shooting in our boroughs.
We will miss Top Boy, it was a wonderful series, which launched many fruitful careers, both in front and behind the camera. Congratulations to all the talented creative people who brought this story to our screens.