ARTS : A very short, sharp shock

Eight weeks ago, Guy Jenkin's prison satire was a dream: on Sunday it hits the screen. Will topical drama ever be the same again? By James Rampton
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Guy Jenkin pitched the idea for A Very Open Prison one day and it was commissioned the next. The script was then written in five days, and it will be on our screens on Sunday, opening a new season of Screen Two a mere eight weeks after conception. The BBC had better watch out, or it might gain a reputation for efficiency.

Jenkin, a writer, director and the co-creator of Drop the Dead Donkey, is filming in the faded grandeur of Hanworth Park House, near Heathrow. The location is serving both as a prison and as No 10. He plonks himself down on the "prime minister's" smart red leather sofa and wolfs down lunch (it's a very tight schedule). He is still incredulous at the sheer speed of it all. "George Faber [head of single dramas at the BBC] and David Thompson [executive producer] will get thrown out of the BBC for breaking the code that you don't make a decision for six months," Jenkin laughs. The only drawback is that the five-day-wonder script has not made him very popular with other writers.

Even Thompson seems a bit taken aback by his own decisiveness. "It was something of a record. We're often accused of perpetrating development hell,'' he says. "This is an example of development heaven.'' And an all too rare one.

The point of such a fast turnaround is to make a topical drama that lives up to its name. There would be little sense in producing a film about the current crisis in the prison service that came out next year - by which time the Government will no doubt be engulfed by another, quite different crisis.

Geoffrey Perkins, the producer perched on the sofa next to Jenkin, feels the pressure. "I don't think anyone watching will make any concessions. They're not going to say, `It may look shoddy, but they only had a short time to make it.' They're just going to say, `It looks shoddy.'' '

Thompson, however, is adamant that the pace of the production-line won't affect the quality of the end-product. "The script wouldn't have got any better if Guy had had longer to work on it. The Donkey experience gave him the confidence to work fast, and he wrote it in a white heat. On American sitcoms, they're used to churning things out. Here, we worry scripts to death, and they just get worse. One of the best Between the Lines was written in one night." Even so, Thompson admits to "mild panic that we wouldn't complete in time. At one point, I even checked out the deadlines for Radio Times."

Jenkin didn't have time for much research; topical details - such as a wall-map of a prison golf-course - were added during filming. "People said to Andrew Davies when he wrote House of Cards, `but you don't know anything about politics'. He replied, `I've worked at the BBC and I've read Shakespeare'. That's the way I've approached this.''

Hat Trick Productions' A Very Open Prison locks in on a slippery Home Secretary (Tom Wilkinson, out of Pecksniff's Dickensian garb and into an M & S suit) called David Hanratty. (All the main characters are named after real prisoners; the chief executive of a private prisons company is called Silcott, and there is a Chief Constable Christie and an Inspector Sutcliffe.)

The Home Secretary is determined to cling on to his job despite a break- out by three three maximum security prisoners from a flagship privatised jail and a builder serial killer who keeps trying to kill himself. Any connection with reality is not entirely coincidental, so the lawyers have been all over the script like flies on a cowpat. Perkins says that "we know what we can say, which is basically anything - as long as it doesn't involve the Maxwell Brothers. Otherwise, real politicians should be flattered by the intelligence and manipulative abilities of the characters."

Thompson claims that "it's set in a parallel world to protect us from legal problems", while Jenkin's watertight legal defence runs: "I quite like the Home Secretary in this - which I certainly don't in real life."

Some are bound to take offence, though. "Any comedy will offend people who don't have a sense of humour,'' says Jenkin, "which probably includes most of this Government."

Perkins takes up the theme: "We're not saying anything high-flown about the prison service. We're just taking a jaundiced view. After all, the Parkhurst escape was funny."

Thompson is equally robust. "It's satirical comedy drama with a political edge. I read in the newspaper - probably the Independent - that satire is dead, but there are still lots of possibilities for satire."

He is keeping his eyes on the headlines: "We like to sail close to the wind, although a lot of stories are sub judice [the BBC had to postpone a film about Robert Maxwell after protests from his sons' lawyers]. But we would do something like the Barings story. Scandals and people's discomfiture have great scope for drama. There is another topical drama simmering, but I can't talk about it yet. Guy had two hours' sleep last night, but before he closed his eyes, he had another idea. We'll give him one day off, but we want it on our desk by Sunday.''

n `A Very Open Prison' is on BBC2 this Sunday at 10pm