It’s not that far from Peckham to Belgravia, but it has been a long and eventful journey for Ashley Walters. Same city, different universe.
For reasons best known to themselves, the television people have arranged for him to talk about poverty and violence at an uber-smart boutique hotel in the richest corner of London. There’s a Joshua Reynolds in the drawing room, an unnecessary open fire and a distant tinkle of bone china teacups. We’re talking about knifings and crack dens, about black anger and poverty of ambition, as much as money.
The Summerhouse estate may be fiction in Channel 4’s four-part drama Top Boy, but the murderous, drug-ridden subculture portrayed there is, he says, “some people’s reality”. People like him, in fact. He’s an ex-con himself who could so easily have been Dushane, the ambitious drug dealer he plays, the aspiring “Top Boy” of the title. Instead, he’s an increasingly successful actor (Hustle, Five Days, Outcasts), sipping coffee in Cadogan Gardens, wondering aloud how it all went right.
Now 29, he grew up in a council flat on the edge of the North Peckham Estate, reputedly the most dangerous and drug-infested estate in Europe. His father had six children by six different women despite spending most of his adult life in jail. Ashley grew up angry. “All my anger, my lack of confidence was about him not being there for me.” Half of Britain’s black boys grow up without fathers, which he says is the root of all their problems. “No male role models, you see. I’ve seen the Government throw money into community centres, but the kids just wreck ’em. The way we think, our mentality, cancels it out.”
The crime and violence of the TV series were happening for real in the street outside, right down to the 11-year-old children trading drugs they concealed at the back of their mouths.
“I saw it happening. I had friends who were heavily into drug dealing and making a living from it at that age,” he says. One of the biggest drug dealers in the area lived next door. “I won’t lie. I looked up to him. One day when I was walking to school, he pulled up beside me in a brand-new Mercedes with white leather seats and that. It looked so glamorous to me.” Dushane, the drug dealer he plays, has the best line in the drama:”I haven’t anything to be – except this.”
Ashley has his mother to thank for having something else to be. She sent him off on the Tube to middle-class Marylebone and the Sylvia Young Theatre School.
There were problems at both ends: “I got sick of old white ladies clutching their bags as I went past thinking I was going to do something to them – I wanted to scream, ‘I’ve just come from a tap and ballet class.'” And he was constantly beaten up and mugged back in Peckham after word of where he spent his Saturdays got around. “I was jealous of the rich kids, but it opened my eyes to a different way of life. I wanted more.”
And he got more early: a part in Grange Hill (1997) and then instant local fame in his teens as the rapper Asher D with garage act So Solid Crew. Their lyrics glorified guns and violence; women were demeaned as “bitches” (though not, he says defensively, by him). They weren’t just playing at bad boys. There was so much violence, often involving firearms, at their gigs that promoters stopped booking them. Some of the band ended up in jail. Ashley has no regrets. “The music reflected the experiences we had growing up. We weren’t Westlife, know what I mean?”
Fame came at a price. He was kidnapped for a day then released when the kidnappers found he couldn’t get more than £250 from a cashpoint. He had all the windows shot out of his car – “I thought they were going to kill me.” Worst of all, a gunman pounced on him as he was arriving home with his baby son (he was 17 when he and his partner Natalie had the first of their children). “He held the gun to my baby’s head. I couldn’t go through this any more.
“People were very jealous. I suppose I had more than other people but I was made to feel I was doing something wrong by being out of the ordinary. They didn’t want you to achieve too much.” He took to carrying a gun himself, a converted Brocock air pistol, a real gangster’s sidearm. The police found it in Natalie’s handbag after they had a row with a traffic warden and he ended up receiving an 18-month jail sentence.
It was a shock, and a turning point. He saw himself becoming his father and the pattern repeating itself down the generations. He tried to get his anger under control. He got an acting break a couple of months after his release and now is in constant demand – he had a starring role in BBC1’s Small Island – and can look at his chequered past as a positive. “I wouldn’t be here talking to you if all that hadn’t happened to me.”
He lives with Natalie and their four children in a more middle-class part of south London these days and can be objective about the life he left behind. He talks of fear and hopelessness on the estates – “There’s a lot of self-loathing going on.” The insularity gets him. “A large part of the world is just off limits. They’re not only the criminals, they’re the victims. Why rob people as poor as you?”
That’s why the August riots were such a shock. But Ashley was not surprised. “The relationship between the authorities and these communities is really bad. And what’s changed is technology. You’ve got BlackBerry Messenger and everybody can find out things in seconds. You hear on the news that the Lewisham police have all gone to Hackney and two hours later there’s a riot in Lewisham. I don’t think that was a coincidence.” Now he plays on screen what he might have been, and works on being a family man and role model for his children.
“Lots of the kids we put in prison for knife and gun crime are fatherless boys who’ve never had a male role model in their lives. I want to be the first and best role model in my kids’ lives. At every stage of their lives I want to impress them enough that they look up to me. Because if they lose that, they’ll start looking for role models outside the house.”
The names of three of them are tattooed on his chest (there isn’t room for the fourth, Antonia, who was born last year). He says he tries hard to be humble. “The minute I cause a stir, people will say: ‘I always knew he was like that’ – Asher D, the gun-toting gangster.”