ASHLEY Walters doesn’t know when he was more scared – being bottled in the neck at 15 or having a gun held to his one-year-old son’s head.
But his experiences of growing up in South London have shaped the character of Dushane in the hard-hitting drama Top Boy, which returns for a long-awaited third series today.
It is a terrifying portrayal of gang warfare on London streets, where kids are intimidated with violence and groomed into a life of drugs and knife and gun crime.
But – in the week it was revealed that there have been over 100 deaths from violent crime in the capital so far this year – Ashley says the violence portrayed in the show is a grim reality for kids living in deprived areas up and down the country today.
Last year, there were 252 fatal stabbings across the UK, and it’s all too familiar to him.
Speaking exclusively to Sun Online, he says: “To those of us who grew up in these areas, it’s not shocking, it’s one of those things. You’re just trying to make sure it’s not you.
“Maybe the weapons of choice have changed, maybe the types of people have changed, but the actual acts of violence are pretty much the same. This has been going on for a long time and for the same reasons.
“If it is getting worse, it means our understanding of it is becoming worse.”
Kidnapped by gang who tried to force him to mug old ladies
Ashley – now a dad of eight and married to actress Danielle Isaie – was brought up in Peckham by mum Pamela Case, a government worker, who enrolled him in a Saturday acting class at the Sylvia Young School at the age of four.
While he did well at school, the violent crime that was rife in his neighbourhood often touched his life.
“I wasn’t in front of people having their fingers chopped off but you hear a lot of violent stories,” he says.
“There were a lot of muggings and the older guys in the area would get the younger boys to commit robberies or to mug old ladies and steal handbags.
“I was asked a few times. I didn’t actually rob anyone but once I was kidnapped by two older boys for half a day and they were trying to get me to steal or mug someone. They weren’t violent to me but they were intimidating and it felt like a thing that you had to do otherwise you might be beaten up or there would be a backlash.
“Afterwards I told my mum and she was devastated and obviously worried but I remember not being that concerned.
“For young boys like me, growing up in that environment, those things were normal and you never really felt too shocked by it – that’s the shame of it.”
Stoned in his car and gun held to baby’s head
By 18, Ashley had embarked on a music career – joining the 30-strong So Solid Crew as rapper Asher D – but success brought more violence.
“I was still in an area where there was a lot of gun and knife crime and I was backed into a corner because we having all this success with So Solid but my wages didn’t match that success.
“Straight away people think you are a millionaire. At the same time the type of music we made was about the streets, our lives and our anxiety and putting that stuff out there gives people a reason to test you.
“So people targeted us quite a bit.”
The last straw came when the car he was in was stoned and a gun held to baby Shayon’s head, leaving him in fear of his own and his family’s life.
“It wasn’t retaliation for anything I’d done but someone who was jealous of my come up. He wasn’t trying to kill me it was just a threat, or a warning, but it’s not the best feeling in the world for a dad.
“I took the bait, going out and getting a firearm, believing that I was in a situation where I needed to do that. In hindsight that was completely the wrong thing to do. Years later I’m still paying for it and I advise other people not to make that same mistake.”
‘Kids see going to prison as a rite of passage’
In 2002, Ashley was arrested while carrying the loaded air pistol and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
He now admits that, growing up with a dad who was in and out of jail, he had always seen that as inevitable.
“A lot of kids growing up in these areas feel like that’s normal, because they’ve seen it so much,” he says. “They feel that going to prison is a rite of passage.
“I had an inkling that I was going to prison before I actually did, because I’d witnessed my father and my elders going through it. It seemed like that’s the way that you got respect, which is a sad thing.
“But that indoctrinated mind still exists in those areas.”
Ashley says prison taught him to be “smarter” about how he lives and who he spends time with and left him “ready to take on the world but in a different way.”
‘We’re preaching at kids – but they’ve grown up differently’
Now living in North London, Ashley says the daily violence is familiar to kids in the show who were all cast because they live on the Hackney estate where the series is filmed.
“This is their lives,” he says. “Top Boy started from the writer Ronan Bennett, who lives in Hackney, looking out of his window, and seeing a kid selling drugs who was far too young, under ten.
“He talks to the kids and the people who live in the community and for us it’s important that, if we’re telling those stories, we tell them right.”
Ashley believes soaring knife crime and gang violence is partly down to recent cuts.
“Socially, we’re in a really bad place where the connection between the government and these communities is non-existent.
“Youth projects and services have all been taken away and it’s no coincidence that the amount of street activity has risen.
” When I was young, I would go to youth clubs after school, run by my teachers and there were places to go where you could talk things out or enjoy sport with kids from different areas so territorial barriers were broken down.
“We need to start engaging with these kids on their level. So rather than trying to feed kids with things that they don’t want to eat, we need to give them food that they like and we can easily do that through the arts.
“At the moment we’re preaching and trying to tell kids what to do but this generation have grown up differently, they feel things differently and they want to consume things differently.
“We have to work out a way that we can do that and the same time guiding them in the right way.”
‘Tough childhood made me a better father’
Ashley is honest with his children about his past, and his brief spell in prison, and hopes they can learn from his mistakes.
“I can only guide them to a certain extent but at the end of the day, they’re exposed to everything, just like me and just like a lot of other kids,” he says.
“I try to teach them to be strong and confident and hope that what I’ve instilled in them, at a time that I could, is enough to take them through.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are ups and downs and I don’t get on with my kids all the time. Sometimes they make decisions that I hate, but I have to understand that it’s part of their process and my job as a dad is to there when it goes wrong, just like my mum was for me.
“My experiences, as everyone would understand, have really influenced how I am as a father so a lot of the things I was exposed to I try and keep them from but there is a balance because you do want them to have some sort of life experience.”
Ashley’s return to Top Boy comes six years after Channel 4 dropped the series in 2013. A year later Drake posted a picture of his character Dushane, saying he loved the show. He then messaged asking when it was coming back – and Ashley told him it wasn’t.
He replied “We’ll see about that,” – and five years on the ten week series is airing on Netflix, with Drake as executive producer and providing new music for the soundtrack.
The return coincides with daily reports of stabbings in London and around the country, reports that kids are being used to sell drugs by ‘county lines’ gangs and that more and more children under 10 are carrying knives.
Although he says more police could prevent some crimes, we need to get to the root of the problem – and start when kids are young.
“You need to engage these children before they’re five or six years old,” he says. “And start making them understand that where you’re born, where you grow up is not the only place in the world.
“My mum was well-travelled, well-educated and made me understand from books, from my imagination and from just taking me away on holiday once a year, wherever she could, that the world was bigger than Peckham.
Most Read in News
“A lot of kids in these areas are trapped mentally and believe what is in front of them and is what they’re going to be and what they’re going to achieve.”
While Ashley is now a successful actor and a happily married dad, he says he doesn’t regret the mistakes he made: “It’s made me the person I am today.
“If I hadn’t had my jail experience, if I hadn’t had the negative experiences with So Solid, would I be credible enough to play Dushane? Who knows? You have to take the rough with the smooth.”
Top Boy is available on Netflix from Friday September 13