Anything with Tony Garnett in the credits is worth checking out. As a producer, he’s worked on some of TV’s most ground-breaking dramas, from Cathy Come Home in the 1960s to This Life and the wickedly funny Cardiac Arrest in the 90s. That said, he also produced the sugary Ballykissangel and unconvincing dotcom series Attachments, so you can never be quite sure what you’re getting.
After one episode, it’s hard to be sure about Buried. Channel 4 bills it as a “tough new prison drama”, where “every day is an exercise in survival”. The problem is that it doesn’t come across that way. With Garnett’s track record for gritty realism, ‘tough’ should mean very tough indeed, but instead the general atmosphere at HMP Mandrake seemed more like an updated Porridge.
There was plenty of long-shot camerawork with close-up sound (a gritty-realism favourite), but the effect was spoiled by the dialogue, which was much too obviously scripted. Having opted for the dramatic approach, the film failed to maintain dramatic tension for quite lengthy periods, during which it seemed like a reality TV show with dialogue-coached participants. The classic prison-drama nasties – sex, drugs, violence – were present, but it felt as if their impact was being minimised on the grounds of good taste. By 1970s standards it was hard and shocking, but by today’s it was almost middle-class, a sort of This Lifers.
The show’s major problem, however, is its central character, inmate Lee Kingley (played by Lennie James). Clearly supposed to be charismatic, he comes across as merely self-important, considering himself “morally innocent” despite having shot a man with an illegal firearm, and stalking the prison landings with a serious look on his face like the officious charge nurse who used to run the children’s ward in Holby City. Unfortunately the other most noticeable character, the prison’s psychiatric counsellor, seems to have an equally high opinion of himself. The result is a drama whose two central characters don’t inspire much desire to see them again, quite a drawback when there are still seven episodes to go.
The trailers for Buried show Lee lying in a strip-cell and being led handcuffed through the jail, giving the impression of a black man victimised by the system. In fact he’d been treated with exemplary fairness, and was in solitary for destroying his cell-mate’s belongings, and in handcuffs after deliberately taking the rap for a stabbing. Misleading promos like that show that Channel 4 aren’t too sure about Buried, either.