TV reviews: Top Boy & Search for Satan

The harsh realities of the drug business on a Hackney estate give Gary Day food for thought

November 10, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

And now for something a bit different. A television review that, in 800 words, will pack in as many programmes as possible without repetition or hesitation. The box can show you a world in a grain of sand or make an hour seem like eternity. Either way, the remote puts infinity in the palm of your hand.

Drama of the week was Ronan Bennett's Top Boy (Channel 4, Monday 31 October, Tuesday 1 November, Wednesday 2 November, Thursday 3 November, 10pm). It wasn't like The Wire because you could understand what the characters said. Set in Hackney, the first episode contrasted families and gangs. Schoolboy Ra'Nell's mother has a nervous breakdown and drug dealer Dushane (Ashley Walters) offers to look after him. But Ra'Nell (Malcolm Kamulete) is a good boy. Still, morality is a luxury when your mother is in hospital and your father is absent. And so Ra'Nell says "yes" when pregnant Heather (Kierston Wareing) asks if he will help her look after the cannabis farm she has in a flat.

Andy Hamilton wanted to track down the devil, a Greek word that originally meant slanderer or accuser (Search for Satan, BBC Four, Monday 31 October, 9pm). He stood in a shopping centre asking people to help him, but they were too busy snapping up the latest bargains. Peter Stanford, author of The Devil: A Biography (1996), was more forthcoming. Like Dr Frankenstein's monster, Lucifer was cobbled together from the body parts of different beings. Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, was one and Pan, the Greek god of nature and the wild, was another. There were others, including Lilith, but we are in a hurry.

Satan does not appear much in the Old Testament. He probably wanted to dissociate himself from all that violence and slaughter. In Hebrew, his name means "the opposer" and it's in that capacity that he first manifests himself, blocking Balaam's path and reproving him for thrashing his ass, by which I of course mean the creature carrying him.

A walk-on part in the Old Testament becomes a tiny cameo in the New, most famously when Satan tempts Christ in the desert. That there are so few biblical references to the Prince of Darkness was a licence to mythologise him. And in both Milton and Blake he takes on a starring role. The Church used him to explain the existence of evil. But, as a brilliant sketch featuring three early Christians showed, this simply ends up causing more problems than it solves. Satan himself, whose name could be a misspelling of Stan, popped up at the beginning and at the end. He looked like he had spent too long under a sun lamp. A likeable fellow, but you wouldn't trust him any more than you would a hedge fund manager.

Or a drug dealer, for that matter. Back in Hackney, Dushane is in trouble with the supplier, Raikes (Geoff Bell), because the stash of "food" has been stolen twice. No one, though, raises their voice. Everyone's expression is as blank as the tower block architecture that encloses them. For a display of feeling, you had to watch Simon Russell Beale's Symphony: Part One - Genesis and Genius (BBC Four, Thursday 3 November, 9pm).

In the 18th century, audiences gasped and cried out at Joseph Haydn's symphonies, yet another word derived from Greek and meaning concord or sound. What we owe to Greece ought to wipe out its debt to various banks. Haydn developed the symphony from church and opera music. Early symphonies had a three-part structure; exposition, development and recapitulation and, in Haydn's hands, it became not just a form of entertainment but also a means of exploring the great upheaval of European society in the 1790s. What a treat. More next week. Thank you, BBC Four.

It's hard to return to the mean streets of Hackney with the Eroica ringing in your ears. Lisa (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), Ra'Nell's mum, is now out of hospital. But it won't do her mental condition any good to hear that her precious boy is doing business with Dushane, who has just dispatched Lee (Cyrus Desir), Raikes' enforcer.

A group of smiling American students are on a mission to turn their British counterparts into Barbies (Sorority Girls, E4, Tuesday 8 November, 9pm). What's depressing is that the would-be contestants are queuing up to be lobotomised. In fact, some seem to have already indulged in a spot of do-it-yourself surgery to gain an advantage. But this is no programme for old men. So good luck to them all. Everything becomes clear in the final movement of Top Boy. Cannabis is the opium of the people, and the drug business, with its exploitation, double-dealing, destruction of lives and concentration of wealth, is a metaphor for capitalism. Damn! Someone's buzzed for repetition.

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