Top Boy (Channel 4)

Rachel Cooke celebrates a young actor she never tires of watching.

There is plenty of nonsense on television at the moment. On ITV, Downton Abbey grows ever nuttier, with its disabled characters who can suddenly walk (not to mention do other, more intimate things) and its heiresses who run off in the dead of night with Marxist chauffeurs. Meanwhile, on BBC1, Ben Miller is getting sweaty in a detective series set on a Caribbean island called Death in Paradise - and when I tell you that it's like Bergerac with coconuts, I'm not being sarcastic so much as concise.

So you'd think that Channel 4's Top Boy (31 October to 3 November, 10pm), a gangland drama set on a council estate in east London, would have been just the thing: a gin Martini of a TV show, rather than yet another sickly Baileys. I lapped up all of the advance publicity - the newspapers or, perhaps, an unusually nimble Channel 4 publicist, had done an excellent job of stoking a little mild outrage about Hackney stereotypes - and I thought: this is just what I need, and sod the Radio Times's exasperating fondness for the word "uncompromising" (usually this is its special shorthand for preachiness, slang and gratuitous violence).

But even the most expertly made Martini can fail to hit the mark sometimes. On the face of it, Top Boy was excellent television: well researched, well written, competently directed and, most of all, superbly acted. I couldn't fault the investment that had been made, from the deliberately slow unfurling of the plot to Brian Eno's atmospheric score (like someone scratching the inside of your head) and Channel 4's decision to screen it over four consecutive nights. And yet . . . the truth is that it was strangely uninvolving.

On some level, it lacked pace. It would have been better, more exciting, at half the length. I also think that it wanted, though for all the right reasons, to be too many different things. It had a conscience; you could see that in its moving depiction of the nervous breakdown of a woman called Lisa (Sharon Duncan Brewster), whose son, Ra'Nell (Malcolm Kamulete), was one of several of the estate's top boys (this one good, the others mostly bad).

It wanted to be funny and irreverent, too, however, in the style of The Sopranos; so there was a scene in which a drug dealer cut off a man's finger, only to find that he'd amputated the wrong one, which felt strangely second-hand. And it wanted to have moments - epiphanies, if you like - of oddness, whimsy and joy, as in Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank; so Ra'Nell doggedly painted his hospitalised mother's room yellow and hung a mobile from the ceiling. (A bit safe, I thought: Arnold would have studded the narrative with something far more unaccountable than an excess of B&Q sunflower.)

Oh, well. There was still plenty to enjoy, if that is the word. Hackney looked grim and lovely by turns, which it is, honestly. The slow crank of violence - the handle is turned and it ratchets up, inexorably, bewildering even its perpetrators, sometimes - was mostly convincing, as was the tacit racism (an Irish drug boss told his loser cockney employee that he would soon be dealing with the Turks if he wasn't careful). I relished the plot strand that had a man cheerily establishing a marijuana farm in the flat of an eager Tube employee and I liked the way the estate kids talked about sex (baldly, but with delicious incredulousness, too). And then there was Ashley Walters, who played a drug dealer called Dushane - "I want a life. I'm 26 years old. I've got nothing else to be except this" - whose mission in life was to get clever and plucky Ra'Nell to join him.

Walters is, in case you don't know, the member of So Solid Crew who served a prison sentence for possessing a gun. Does he secretly long to be in Downton Abbey? I don't know, though it would be fun to see him getting to grips with Lady Edith's corset (only he'll have to be quick: at Downton, all the talk now is of - creaky historical pointer, ahoy! - the "new fashions").

Whether he resents his casting or not, he is always wonderful, a talented actor whose understatement makes pretty much everyone around him look like the pinkest, juiciest, most clove-studded ham going. I'm increasingly weary of TV violence and even more exhausted by TV drug deals in dirty TV stairwells. Of Walters, though, I never tire. He's great.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban