Did we like it?
While painting an interesting and disturbing picture of life in Birmingham’s Winson Green prison, this well-meaning documentary series was heavily let down by flippant narration.
What was good about it?
• Despite the obvious difficulties with filming inside a prison, the programme launched straight into a nauseating scene involving a ‘dirty protest’ by an unhappy prisoner. While not easy to watch, it signalled that this series will not seek to gloss over unpleasant realities.
• Senior Office Phil Chamberlain was probably the most impressive character on view. Chamberlain clearly cared deeply about his job and about the issues surrounding the prison service – it was him who brought up problems such as the gap between governors and uniformed officers and the increasing problems of over-crowding.
• For a while it appeared as though the programme might duck some controversial issues, raising questions of what sort of agreements with the prison service the BBC had to make before filming at the prison. Fortunately though, as the programme progressed more of these problems were dealt with. Chamberlain’s concern about over-crowding was perhaps most disturbing: “Everyone knows that with more over-crowding you get more suicides.”
• Governor Charan Mehat was faced with a particularly difficult situation when attempting to deal with a prisoner threatening self-harm. This, combined with her worries about staffing and staffing costs forced her into tough negotiations. Admirably, Mehat managed to talk the prisoner out of more self-harm.
• Career-driven No.2 governor Victoria Jones was a fascinating character. Just 30 years old, her passion for the prison service was laudable, although she seemed ill-at-ease at times when dealing with prisoners, although allowances should be made for the presence of the camera.
• Chamberlain’s apparent at-least partial rehabilitation of problem prisoner Raymond Wilkinson was a triumph of patience and perseverance.
What was bad about it?
• The single worst thing about this was the appalling narration by Max Beesley. Perhaps in a misguided attempt to reflect the prison officers’ attempt to remain upbeat and jovial, the script was punctuated with poor jokes and light-hearted asides that were simply inappropriate for the subject matter. This sort of script may be acceptable for docusoaps such as Airport when granny has forgotten her false teeth, but not in a series focusing on the troubled prison system.
Just a couple of examples: when narrating the case about a man who had barricaded himself in the cell: “How locked in does he want to be?”. And: “Phil and his officers are like shepherds – with crooks, obviously.” And when footage of a criminal who had several times set fire to his cell, Beesley said: “He may look and sound like Anthony Worrall-Thompson but he won’t be cooking up any trouble here.” Naturally, dangerous prisoner Wilkinson’s only resemblance to the TV chef was that he had a beard. By that rationale, he also looked like Fidel Castro.
• The narration was also awash with needless and obvious statements, such as, “Winson Green is open 24/7.” This was a revelation for most people watching, who assumed all prisoners were let out at the weekends to go and watch the football and in the evenings to go clubbing. The use of the phrase ’24/7′ was also irritating. This wasn’t, as far as we were aware, a documentary made for kids. Beesley also proclaimed after footage of the dirty protest by the prisoner demanding a new type of medication: “Imagine if we all did that if we wanted paracetamol instead of aspirin… It’d be horrific.” Well, quite.
• With the numerous incidents and interesting procedures to focus on at the prison, it was puzzling that the programme was packed with filler such as Victoria Jones picking her boss up from the airport and Victoria Jones going up on the roof of the prison to look at the view.