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Best drama of 2011 - by a mile

Top Boy ended badly. For the characters, that is. Some of them ended up dead, others doomed to repeat the cycle of violence and drugs. No one escaped unscathed.

For the viewer, though, Ronan Bennett's drama ended brilliantly, delivering a finale that absolutely crackled with tension and menace, potential death and disaster lurking around every gloomy corner of the grim Hackney estate it was set in.

There were no real good guys here, no police -- little more than a peripheral, barely visible presence throughout -- to come and save the innocent and vulnerable. There were just bad guys and then even worse guys.

True, there was the odd, tiny moment of predictability. Did anyone for a moment believe that decent Leon, who'd been trying throughout to keep young Ra'Nell on the straight and narrow, would survive? He didn't.

He was shot dead by Dushane's thick sidekick, Sully, during a tussle over a holdall full of weed from Ra'Nell's pregnant neighbour Heather's "farm". Ra'Nell tried to sell the stuff to Dushane while Heather was in hospital giving birth, so she could buy her ticket to a better life.

Dushane agreed to buy, but Sully decided they shouldn't pay for what they could steal. Dushane, meanwhile, was being pressurised by the gang boss Briggs to sacrifice Sully in order to take the heat off the rest of them.

He seemed about to agree, then blew Briggs's head off instead and planted the gun Sully had used on Leon in his hand. Dushane's the daddy now.

Ra'Nell (an excellent, naturalistic performance by young Malcolm Kamulete), who was ultimately the real focus of the drama, was reunited with his mother.

We saw him gazing out over the light-pricked urban landscape. It was an ambiguous shot. Things could go one way or the other. Later, Dushane had the money for Heather delivered to Ra'Nell. Was this an act of kindness and decency, a latent pricking of Dushane's conscience? Or was it simply a down payment on Ra'Nell's soul?

In a bleak closing scene, we saw Ra'Nell's mate Gem and his girlfriend cheerfully preparing to set up their own cannabis farm in Heather's vacant flat. One of the strengths of Top Boy was that it didn't paint every character as a victim of circumstance. For some, like Dushane and now Gem, crime is a career choice.

I said the other week Bennett's Hidden was the best British thriller of the year. Well, Top Boy is the best drama of the year -- by a mile. The makers of RTE's silly, sanitised Love/Hate, with its soft-hearted hero and its supporting cast of moisturised young drug soldiers, all of whom look about as dangerous as the auditionees for a Louis Walsh boyband, could learn a lot from it.

Thanks to David Attenborough's stunning Frozen Planet, television is covered with ice right now, so do we really need another documentary about Antarctica? Maybe not, although Of Ice and Men was worth a look.

It examined how the most inhospitable place on earth has fascinated explorers, poets, novelists, painters and even composers. Captain Cook tried and failed to find land there but his exploits inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Then came the heroic age of exploration -- Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, Byrd et al. Pulp sci-fi writers explored the Antarctic with their imaginations, fancying monsters lurked under the ice, while in the 1950s and 1960s, it became a fitting prize in the Cold War, before the superpowers decided their scientists should set up bases and work together (they got drunk together, as well -- a lot).

The romance of exploring Antarctica drained away decades ago.

Fifty years after Shackleton planted his Union Jack, his son was ferrying rich tourists there. Reaching the South Pole means nothing now.

"It's extreme sports," said one historian, adding that there's nothing wrong with that. But you could tell by the look on his face that he thinks there is. He's right.



top boy HHHHH of ice and men HHHII


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