TV has a funny relationship with the prison system. This funny relationship is that it doesnât show it very often. I’ve tried to cast my mind back to shows that have broached the subject and the only ones I can think of are Crimewatch, Porridge and the frankly grim acting of ITVâs Bad Girls. After that we’re left with Nightwatch with Steve Scott (which consists of 240 minutes of police stopping punch-ups in Hull at 3am, shown on ITV at 3am) and Worldâs Wildest Police Videos which contains generic nonsensical lines by John Bunnell such as “In this case it was out of the frying pan, into the jail cell.â?
So a documentary that has managed to give an objective account of the daily life of prisons, without pathetic voiceovers or a budget of 40p, on primetime, on ITV, cannot be overlooked. This documentary follows the daily ins-and-outs of Strangeways prison in Manchester, one of the largest and highest security prisons in the United Kingdom, containing some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK. In the first thirty minutes you see the aftermath of a man self-harming, people hitting over each other snooker cues, wardens finding weapons made out of wires and glass within cells, lots of blood and lots and lots of footage of depressing aimless fighting. The Shawshank Redemption this ainât.
But the real success of this programme is that it manages to portray people rather objectively, and although you see under their name that they are a murderer, you aren’t pulled into thinking that they are systematically EVIL or does not have a point of view of their experiences. The show starts off with Lee Smith, awaiting sentencing for a Â£500 million drug-smuggling conspiracy, which he claims that he knows nothing about. They follow every part of his journey, from the arrival at the prison when he has to put on a funky yellow-and-blue zebra outfit to the moment that he has been given a 15-year sentence. No judgement from the narrator, no overly edited footage that makes him seem worse than he is or makes the show seem like random crappy sensationalism. They interview him throughout the show and the viewer is left to decide for themselves whether he deserved his sentence or not. Pretty brave when you consider the subject matter.
The show wasnât perfect though. One part included a wedding between Adrian, a prisoner undergoing a seven-year-sentence and his frequent visiting long-suffering girlfriend Kelly. Whenever heâs on screen and sheâs seen preparing the wedding the music is all aaaahh ahhhh laaaa laaaaaaa, kind of randomly downplaying the fact that his crime was for armed robbery. Plus the narrator does sound like a drugged up Gary Barlow at times.
But ITV has to be given credit where itâs due. It has managed to boggle a topic that has the intellectual nature of Newsnight, with the human interest of Channel 4, without any of the downmarket appeal of other ITV material such as Sing If You Can. Quite an achievement when you come to think of it.