The weirdest thought flickers through my mind not long after meeting Jonathan Asser, the first-time screenwriter of acclaimed new prison drama Starred Up. We’re sitting in a deserted old boxing gym on London’s Harrow Road and the authenticity of the place is getting to me. I’ve just been hearing how Asser told his therapist “I’d kill you” if he felt angry during a session. And now Asser is telling me about his old performance-poetry persona, a “terrifying predatory psychopath” who would traumatise audiences worried that it might not be an act. I can’t help wondering: am I entirely safe?
The brilliant, visceral Starred Up might also be to blame for my anxiety: nominated for eight British Independent Film awards last year, it tells the story of a violent young offender, Eric, played by former Skins star Jack O’Connell, who is transferred to an adult prison, and the prison therapist Oliver, played by Rupert Friend, who attempts to help him reform. The story is based on Asser’s own 12-year-stint as a prison therapist.
It had taken me hours to stop shaking after watching it, and meeting Asser is reviving some intense sensations. Intense is exactly the word for him in fact, which bodes well for his new screenwriting career; Starred Up is his first script, but a second, set against the backdrop of the boxing world, is with directors now, and he’s already working on his third, about “the bucolic upper-middle-class blood sports set”.
It’s amusing, later, to recall my momentary unease, because, after those early conversational transgressions, Asser is at pains to stress his innate pacifism, a quality that guided him in his work rehabilitating some of Britain’s most violent men at HMS Wandsworth, a Category B prison in south London.
Asser’s own troubles began in rather different sorts of institutions: boarding schools (The Dragon School, in Oxford, and Radley). After those, and his undergraduate years at Exeter University, he entered the real world unable to cope, he says. “I was scared and bewildered by relationships and people without the structure of a total institution around me.” Years of “mental health problems” led to therapy and he started writing and performing poetry to help work through his issues.
This, in turn, unlocked the door to the first place Asser had felt comfortable since emerging from a system that had unwittingly driven him mad: a prison, or Feltham, the young offenders’ institution, to be specific, where he went to give a poetry reading. “Once I’d got inside the prison gates, I felt a sense of calm, peace and safety that I hadn’t felt since I’d left prep school, public school and university.” This new-found calm killed off the “inner psychopath” of his verse, he says. “Within days of going into prison I lost interest in the performance character.”
The reading led to his volunteering in the prison’s education department, running “heated” discussion groups that were popular with some of Feltham’s “more violent” inmates – “particularly the ones concerned with status and hierarchy. They were getting stuff off their chest and because we could de-escalate it, they could leave the session without having to look over their shoulder.” He wound up getting a paid therapist’s job at Wandsworth, which he juggled with some formal psychology training. It was here that he developed his award-winning therapy programme, “Shame/Violence Intervention”, which he replicates in Starred Up.
Watching the film, it’s easy to assume that Asser based the part of Oliver on himself – but that would be a wrong, “if natural, assumption”, he asserts. Yes, Oliver is part-Asser, but so are the two other main roles, Eric and his also-incarcerated father Nev. Asser, in fact, identified very strongly with the inmates who attended his group. “Me and them were in the same place. We were traumatised,” he says.
What Asser did through his therapy work – and Oliver does on screen – was to help his group participants work through their personal sense of shame, which he believes triggers the over-reactions that cause violence. “Every violent episode I witnessed had a shame trigger. Shame is a sense of exposure and it’s terrifying because if someone else can see it, we feel we’ll drop down the hierarchy. So we use violence to convert that feeling of exposure to one of dominance.” The trick, he thinks, is activating “shame awareness”, which means you can “work with your shame, stay with it, and you don’t have to get into your fight-or-flight response.”
The bottom line is that it worked so well that Asser had the run of Wandsworth for 12 years, making his own choice of inmates for his group. The perception of his group as a “super-gang” meant it was popular with the most violent prisoners, who were traditionally excluded from rehabilitation programmes. And it worked: “We had no blood on the walls. There was never a contact-violent incident in one of our sessions or between sessions involving active participants.”
Which isn’t to suggest, going back to the fiction, that Starred Up goes easy on the violence: it certainly doesn’t. But the violence isn’t gratuitous, Asser says; the film also suggests a solution to ending it. “We’re offering a message of hope. That there is a way of working through this.”
However, without giving too much away, I can reveal that the tone of Starred Up was affected by Wandsworth’s abrupt decision to axe Asser’s group at the end of 2010. Personnel changes at the prison may have played a part, Asser says, but the exact reasoning remains a mystery, and it’s not something the Ministry of Justice was willing to talk about when I enquired. “Once they pulled the plug and behaved unethically, it inevitably impacted on the type of story [I wrote]. It could have been celebratory.”
The up-side is that Asser, who for the record no longer sees his own therapist, has plenty of free time to write. And that is something the cinema-going public is going to be very pleased about.
‘Starred Up’ is released on 21 March