In the world of Top Boy, nothing is more iconic than the Summerhouse Estate. It’s the place Sully and Dushane hail from; it’s the place rival gangs have in their sights – it’s seen its fair share of shootings and drugs raids too.
“It’s the heart [of the show], isn’t it?” says series producer Tina Pawlik. “We’ve had so much happen over the years… we’ve seen love and loss, we’ve seen friendships develop; relationships develop; people fall out.”
Of course, an iconic location needs an iconic set, so enter Summerhouse’s real-life equivalent, the Samuda Estate. On the Isle of Dogs, the estate was built in 1967 and is still going strong, with 300-odd residents and a vibrant social life.
That said, Samuda wasn’t the Top Boy team’s first choice when they came knocking in 2017, when the show was revived by Netflix. “[For] a lot of the pre-production period, we were looking for an empty estate that we could cheat as our Summerhouse, because we were thinking there’s no way in the world that we can do what we want to do on a live estate,” Pawlik says.
“And to be honest, I think it echoes the story that we’re telling: there aren’t very many empty estates in or around London anymore. Lots of them have been bulldozed to make way for new housing… so we hoped that we would find our backup estate by the time we started filming, but we didn’t.”
As a result, Samuda (which has dodged the developer’s axe) became ever more important – and the Top Boy team essentially door-knocked “every single resident in the Samuda estate” to ask for permission to film there. “Everybody agreed to do it,” Pawlik says. “It’s incredible what we actually managed to achieve.”
Epecially when you consider the scale of the estate. As Assistant Locations Manager Andy Orr explains, “no matter how much prep you do, how many suspensions you buy from the council or how much security you have – if someone decides to park their car in the wrong place then you are done for.
“Luckily this happened only a couple of times – and there was something very satisfying (thanks to the prep we did do) in being able to get my book of car registrations out and know which car belonged to who meaning we could get it moved sharpish. That still didn’t stop me waking up in a cold sweat a few times...”
Heading up things on the Samuda side was Sharon Clachar, the services manager for One Housing, who manage the estate. S is at pains to stress how excited the Samuda residents were to have Top Boy there – to the extent that many of them made a habit of making the cast and crew cups of tea while they were on set.
“One a resident said to me, she was coming in with her shopping bags, and Ashley [Walters, who plays Dushane] was walking through the door, and she screamed and dropped the shopping,” Clachar says. “You know what I mean? A lot of them are just really excited just to be in the presence of famous actors. And just to know that their estate is part of it.” So excited, in fact, that many of the estate’s keenest residents can be spotted in the background of the show as extras.
Despite the enthusiasm of its residents, Samuda also played an important role in exploring the contemporary issues facing Summerhouse’s residents – in particular that of immigration and gentrification. Over the course of three seasons, we’ve seen Summerhouse fall into disrepair and developers move in on the land, while police officers conduct impromptu raids to evict those they accuse of being illegal immigrations.
The only problem: Samuda isn’t in any sort of disrepair. “Obviously our orange grilles that show our flats being sold and shut down – our art department was quite phenomenal in running around with skips and dressing that could be put on quickly,” Pawlik says.
“We would quickly have to dress an area of the estate to look like it was shut down flats. But obviously it still had 300 residents in it. So we were sort of dressing around them or dressing in the stairwells. And as soon as we would wrap that scene, we would quickly have to move all of that and tidy it all up.”
And true to the spirit of Summerhouse, filming has had another benefit for Samuda: an influx of money to the estate.
“We’re spending the money, so to speak,” Clachar laughs. “I mean, we’ve done trips, we’ve done Legoland on Monday; we’re doing a cockney musical for the older generation… we’re still putting back and giving back to the community. Thanks to Top Boy.”
“Top Boy is huge,” Orr adds .”I have never earned so many cred points with friends, cousins, nephews, etc once they knew I had worked on it – and then rapidly lost them when I refused to say a) what happened in the new series and b) whether Jamie was still alive.
“It was demanding in a way I had not experienced but I feel genuine pride in what we achieved, as a department and as a production. I can say that the scene I am most looking forward to seeing one of the final scenes in the park. As is often the case with Locations, I was about a mile away marshalling dog walkers when it was actually being filmed – but I think that it will be really something.”
Top Boy will be streaming on Netflix from September 7