Over its four decades, Channel 4 has been responsible for a number of significant television firsts. It was the first channel to broadcast properly in Welsh; the first to show that famous lesbian kiss on Brookside; and, well, nobody had quite dared to put anything quite like Naked Attraction on the air before C4 decided to make dating go full-frontal in 2016. Now, and quite without warning, Channel 4 brings us the first ever glimpse of a ministerial gonad. I mean literally, not as mere vulgar abuse. The b*****k is attached to the Right Honourable Johnny Mercer, former veterans’ minister, and we spy the lower portion of the knacker dangling like a clock weight as he is subjected to a full strip search in Banged Up.
As one of seven well-known names interned as prisoners for a few days in this pioneering series, Mercer is, like any other jailbird, ordered to strip and squat, and, incidentally, make history. It is just the first of many indignities meted out to Mercer, ex MP Neil “Tractor Porn” Parish, Gogglebox star Marcus Luther, Sid Owen (Ricky on EastEnders), actor Tom Rosenthal, singer HRVY, and the columnist Peter Hitchens, who styles himself as a “one-man think tank”. All have to offer up their bottoms to prison officer George Shipton and his colleagues for inspection.
Not that I’m seeking to trivialise matters. Despite its identikit reality show ingredients – ritual humiliation of celebs, voyeurism, contrived scenario –Banged Up is compellingly watchable and even socially useful television. The recent tragi-comic escape from HMP Wandsworth by terror suspect Daniel Khalife highlighted just how overcrowded and squalid our penal estate is, but we rarely see what life is like behind bars.
Short of installing CCTV in actual cells and filming real episodes of abuse, violence and mental health crisis in working prisons, Banged Up is about the nearest most of us will get to witnessing the life of a convict. A wing on the decommissioned Shrewsbury Prison is reactivated with cameras, former prison officers and ex-convicts to create a passable simulation, and the seven are subjected to bullying, intimidation, threats, violence and the intolerable boredom of being locked in a tiny shared cell with an open toilet in the corner for 23 hours a day. Some of the scenes are a bit hammy and improbable – a supposed attempted breakout by Sid Owen is particularly lame – but it’s realistic enough. You can almost smell the sweat, the s*** and the fear – parfum de Shrewsbury.
Apart from, one presumes, the fee, all have different motivations for volunteering for the experiment. Owen wants to see what life was like for his father and most of the rest of his criminally inclined family. Mercer seems genuinely intrigued, and is one of the few who challenges the “inmates” on their reasons/excuses for their lives of crime – “not everyone without a dad runs people over for fun” he informs his ex-contract killer cellmate, Kevin Lane. Luther keeps saying he wants to be a light in the darkness. Parish seems to be under the illusion that he’s inside for watching pornography in the chamber of the House of Commons, an offence that doesn’t carry a custodial sentence.
Watching this 67-year-old Devon farmer bumbling around the wing and coping with being bullied, one is tempted to feel sorry for him. That is until his cellmate Chet Sandhu (former drug dealer and pimp) shows him how to fashion a lethal weapon out of a toothbrush. Parish wields his “shank” with a disturbing look of anticipation on his face. I also noticed that when a screw asks him if he’s a member of any gangs, Parish looks distinctly shifty, as if his past membership of the parliamentary Conservative Party is about to be held against him. At any rate, he behaves like he’s enduring his own private penance.
HRVY, by contrast, has no idea why he’s there, and is plainly imported as bait. The androgynous former CBBC presenter looks alarmed, as well he might be, when one of the old lags yells at HRVY’s cellmate Akhi Ayman (violent robbery), “Have you got him pregnant yet?”
Revealing as it is about the gruesome, inhumane, futile aspects of prison life, Banged Up is no Howard League-style liberal propaganda. The prisoners come out of the programme as less sympathetic figures than you might expect – permanently angry and unable to cope with who and what they are. It’s understandable, given what they’ve been through, but they themselves admit that they made certain choices in their lives, albeit deeply regretted now.
I have no doubt that rehabilitation is virtually absent from the British system, its place taken by a sort of politically sanctioned collective sadism, but it’s also obvious that not all of those actually serving time (as opposed to these reformed characters in the Channel 4 Shrewsbury experiment) are ideally suited to going straight. That said, banging them up for almost the entire day doesn’t seem to be doing any of us any good. I wonder how many of us, celebs included, would stay sane and honest after a spell at his majesty’s pleasure in a British prison.