Monday 19 October 2015

Behind the Silver Screen: British Prison Films

Ask people to name famous prison films and the betting is that most of them will feature the US prison system in all its grim aspects. Titles that sprung immediately to mind include The Shawshank Redemption (1995); Escape from Alcatraz (1979) or Cool Hand Luke (1967). I’ve quoted examples of incidents from all these films in various posts on this blog, along with a whole one dedicated to the lessons of Brubaker (1980) when it comes to prison councils. It’s clear that the prison movie genre is heavily dominated by the US industry.

Not just about prison rape
Ask the same folk about British prison films and the list seems to be much shorter. Most people of a certain age seem to recall the borstal drama Scum (1979) mainly because of the infamous rape in the greenhouse episode, but more recently we have had Starred Up (2014) starring Jack O’Connell as a violent and troubled young offender. Beyond that, some might recall Porridge the movie from 1979, although the television comedy series starring Ronnie Barker is much better known.

In fact, British prison themes have been used fairly frequently; it’s just that their Hollywood counterparts seem to hog the limelight of popular consciousness. That is a shame because there is so little knowledge of our prison system among the general public, or at least those who have no personal or family experience of imprisonment.

And dad's gone prison gay
Beyond the regular diet of salacious gossip leaking out into the tabloids about former celebrities inside the nick or particularly notorious prisoners, there are occasional worthy documentaries produced when intrepid film makers have ventured behind bars and into the dark side. These do offer genuine insights into life inside, but don’t attract the mass audiences that the great classic prison movies have achieved.

Personally, I do blame both Scum and The Shawshank Redemption for fuelling male fears of gang rape that terrify so many first-timers as they head from court towards the prison gates locked in the tiny cubicles of GEOAmey transport vehicles. Even Starred Up required the obligatory enforced public nudity followed by a violent scrap in the showers, topped off by O’Connell’s character realising that his own dad has gone 'prison gay’. Is it any wonder that many first-timers are scared shitless as they stagger double handcuffed down the sweatbox steps towards Reception?

Less brutal than Scum
In a different way Borstal Boy (2000), based on the autobiographical book by Irish ex-con Brendan Behan and staring Shawn Hatosy and Danny Dyer, provides a very dated and often inaccurate picture of the life of young offenders back in the early 1940s. Although there is some reference to brutality between the youths, the main focus seems to be more on the unfolding sexual tension between the two main characters. Watching this film would probably not be a particularly good preparation for life in our dysfunctional and violent present day Young Offenders Institutions.

Of course, there are other British prison movies available. Bronson (2008), starring Tom Hardy, focuses on the human freak show presented by the rather pitiful character of Charlie Bronson (now renamed Salvador), widely billed as “the most violent prisoner in Britain” by the tabloids. Although utterly unrepresentative of life behind bars, the film does perhaps shine a light on the terrible impact of years of solitary confinement on an individual who evidently suffers from serious mental illness, as well as the Prison Service’s inability to manage unstable or dangerous inmates with any real degree of humanity.

Bronson: voyeuristic?
I can’t help feeling that the Bronson film effectively reduces a very damaged and disturbed man into a kind of circus sideshow. It has more in common with 18th century gentry paying visits to watch the inmates of Bedlam perform and howl in their chains and misery. Actually rather voyeuristic, and quite sick in its own way, even if it is based on Mr Salvador’s own writings about his tortured life in isolation cells.

There are much worthier – and more insightful – UK prison films out there. Two that don’t often seem to figure in anyone’s top ten are The Escapist (2008) which stars Brian Cox as lifer Frank Perry who is planning to escape in order to rescue his drug addicted daughter. I won’t spoil it by revealing the plot for the benefit of those who haven’t yet seen the film, but it does highlight the widespread prevalence of gambling in the nick on anything and everything – something that seems to be rarely touched upon in most British prison movies.

John Simm in Everyday
One of my personal recommendations is the more recent film Everyday (2012) produced by Michael Winterbottom and starring John Simm as a convicted drug smuggler serving a lengthy prison sentence. The power of this movie is that it was filmed using real time-lapse sessions over a five-year period, so the actual characters – including the inmate’s family – genuinely age as the film progresses. It not only provides a graphic portrayal of time going by forever, but also focuses on the daily struggles facing the wife and children of a serving prisoner, including the battle to get to visits when you have to rely on public transport. I think this is something that is all too often overlooked.

I didn’t get to see Everyday when it was broadcast by Channel 4 because I was banged up inside myself when it premiered. In some ways I’m glad I waited until I had been released before watching it. Although it lacks the brutal violence and high drama of Bronson, Scum or Starred Up, I commend the film for its gritty portrayal of wasted life and lost time which almost all prisoners experience during their period in custody. In many ways it does give a more authentic impression than most similar productions.

On hunger strike in prison
There are also a few overtly political films – with British prisons as the backdrop – such as In the Name of the Father (1993) and Hunger (2008). Both address different aspects of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the Name of the Father focuses on the terrible miscarriage of justice that was behind the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of the Guildford Four, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon. In contrast, Hunger deals with the political hunger strikes by members of the Provisional IRA and death of Bobby Sands and others in the Maze Prison in 1981.

Although I must confess to a certain guilty pleasure in watching prison films, despite having experienced incarceration at first hand myself, I do find there is a temptation to try to spot inaccuracies and improbabilities in the portrayal of life inside. While some aspects of Starred Up seemed authentic, there were also a few implausible situations, presumably introduced to develop the dramatic tension. I often wonder whether any of these productions could be improved by having an ex-con on the team as a reality consultant.

The very fact that British prison films continue to be released every couple of years does indicate that there is still a popular appetite for jail-themed movies and television dramas. Most soaps now seem to include an obligatory prison sub-plot in which a key character gets banged-up for a few episodes.

However, what is almost always lacking is a realistic insight into the sheer boredom, humiliation, fear and grubby drudgery of real life in prison for the thousands of men, women and children who live through it day after day, year after year. Vast, overcrowded human warehouses where rehabilitation is non-existent, but substance abuse, debt, self-harm, neglect and even suicide are all part of the picture. Now that really would be a challenging artistic project to sell.


  1. I don't think the public is really that interested in a realistic portrayal of life behind bars. If it was realistic it would be incredibly tedious. The movie equivalent of watching paint dry. Days can go past in prison without anything of not happening. All the days seem to blur into one sooner or later and so do the weeks and the months because every day is the same as the day before and the day before that ad nauseum infinitum. The reality of prison is usually mind numbing tedium and no much else.

    1. Macvicar and Wally Probyn, were in fact consultants on the film about Macvicar and his prison escape .....they do get information galore on films re prison but i understand what you mean.....

  2. Films that focus on tedium are rarely successful which is why I think no 'realistic' prison films have been made.

    As an officer often dealing with prisoners first night I assure newcomers it's more like Porridge than anything else (it helps calm nerves and is pretty true) they may have seen or heard.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I definitely agree with that analysis. I wrote about it last yet in a post about the 'Long littleness of prison life'. As regimes have come under pressure from understaffing ('benchmarking') and other resource issues, daily life - which was already pretty monotonous - appears to have got much worse.

      I suspect a truly accurate prison film might be more like Andy Warhol's unwatchable 8 hour black and white movie 'Empire' (1964) which just consists of the camera focused on the Empire State Building or his other 'masterpiece' 'Sleep' (1963) which just shows a bloke sleeping for over five hours.

      Funnily enough, I was told much the same as your comment about 'Porridge' by an old and wise wing officer who had seen it all during his 25+ years in HMPS. He once remarked that being in the slammer "was more like 'Porridge' than 'Scum'".

    2. I once saw a really great film based around a group of actors who go into a prison and work with the inmates. I can't remember the name of the film - can anyone help?

  3. I managed to watch hours of "Waiting for Godot" in one sitting, I'm sure I could watch a film about tedium in Prison.

    1. Try Andy Warhol's 'Empire' (see above) or his film 'Sleep' and that would be a good analogy with prison life!

  4. Your comment on Bronson/Salvardori or whatever prompted me to look him up on Wiki. His career is absolutely astonishing. Of course he would have started off at a disadvantage being reared in a conservative club plus having a depressing dismal dump such as Luton for a home town.
    I think your right in your assessment, they don’t know what to do with him when it is pretty obvious he is psychotic. No institution for the criminally insane wants or can contain him so he is locked in some deep dungeon. He probably could be redeemed/cured but nobody seems to be doing much about it. They just, as you have pointed out, allow him to be treated as some sort of exhibit which just feeds his sickness and makes him worse.
    I also noticed that there is a movement to have him released onto an unsuspecting public in his current condition.
    Sad old world

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad that you were interested enough to do some research. Mr Bronson/Salvador seems to me to be a prime example of how prison time can reduce a person with mental health problems to little better than an animal-like existence. I challenge anyone to live naked in a cage for even a short time to emerge unscathed, let alone for months or even years.

      I've met similar - if not as notorious - men inside prison who kick off purely because of the mind-numbing boredom. Some of them are illiterate so have little else to divert them. Getting into a fight with other inmates or assaulting a wing officer (even better a governor if they can get at one) provides a little sideshow.

      I'm afraid the ongoing personality cult surrounding Mr Salvador - which most serving prisoners consider to be nonsense - really isn't doing him any good. In the absence of any appropriate support or rehabilitation strategy I imagine this circus will just go on until he dies in some dark segregation cell.

  5. somehow i can't post a comment without replying to one, sorry...

    i think the writer for 'starred up' is not an ex-con but someone deeply fascinated by prisons. he basically wrote himself into the film as the therapist.

    i loved loved loved 'everyday'. there's something so quiet and devastating about it, i love how because it's told over so much time, the impact is felt so much more.

    bronson, although i loved it, is too artsy to be a real prison movie.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Martina. This has proved to be an unexpectedly popular blog post. Over 600 people have already read it, which just shows the interest in prison-themed films.

  6. Jonathon Asser wrote "Starred Up" after he worked as a Shame/Violence Intervention therapist at HMP Wandsworth.

  7. Love Starred Up and Cell 211. Prophet was bleak and gritty.

  8. Hi

    Would you be at large to write a post about the process of going to jail? Such as what happens as soon as you leave court, first night, inductions etc?


  9. Scrubbers is an old but good prison film,similar to Scum but set in a female prison.