Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Viewers are likely to experience an uncomfortable vibration while watching Channel 4's "Banged Up" season - a persistent oscillation between feelings of concern and wary cynicism. Learning, for instance, that the daily budget to feed prison inmates is just pounds 1.37, you experienced a pang of fellow-feeling for those who were about to receive. Then again, when you encountered the practised self-pity of the habitual offender, whining about the monotony of the diet, it was tricky not to bridle a bit - what exactly did they expect? Gary Rhodes and a novel twist on classic British cuisine?

The uncertainty about whether prison is a punishment or a form of rehabilitation goes to the heart of the penal system, and can't easily be resolved at either extreme of the argument. There were points at which the two films last night brought home the sheer absurdity of attempting to socialise criminals by depriving them of every element of a decent society. But, argue that all these men should be regarded as "unwell" rather than bad, and you advance towards a different malignancy - Soviet Russia took just such a therapeutic line with its dissidents. The catch 22 is this: any workable definition of human liberty will have to include the freedom to injure your fellow humans so grievously that they are provoked, in the end, to take your freedom away.

This is a rather heavy load to rest on what was a slight but illuminating programme - Stir Fry (C4), a useful application of the sort of cookery challenge which is beloved of the food programmes. Antony Worrall Thompson, chef-proprietor and all-round entertainer (I use the description advisedly) was given the task of cooking a main meal on Her Majesty's budget - a tiny fraction of what he would have to work with in one of his London restaurants. The result mattered, given the disproportionate psychological importance that meal- times assume behind bars. If he got it wrong, it could well turn into Ready, Steady, Riot. The solution was fairly obvious (a heavy hand with the spice jar), but it was fun to watch him wrestling with the industrial- sized equipment (more suited to a steelworks than a kitchen), as well as the defensive aggression of the prison's head chef - a man who puffed up his chest-feathers and uttered sharp territorial warnings: "If you can cook that without sticking," he said, as Worrall Thompson prepared several kilos of rice, "then I'll show my arse in Woolworth's window." Woolworth's window remained unsmirched and Worrall Thompson, with the strategic flexibility which marks out all successful businessmen, put the dish on the menu as Sticky Rice.

Riete Oord's film, Barred Love (C4), effectively skirted round the big unmentionable - the fact that men might turn to each other for sexual satisfaction - but it offered plenty of other unmentionables in its account of the erotic life of prisoners, from how embarrassing it is to have a cellmate pleasuring himself in the bottom bunk, to the best technique for achieving full penetration in a guarded visiting room. An unmentionable thought kept on occurring to me, too, which was to wonder whether the attractive female voice on the soundtrack, asking intimate sexual questions of the men, had an equally attractive body attached to it. If so, it struck you that the process of filming would not exactly have made the enforced celibacy easier to bear. Like Stir Fry, Barred Love offered occasions on which convicted criminals presented themselves as the blameless victims of a social injustice, but it bent you much more in the direction of sympathy - if only because of the palpable need of the inmates for some place to which they could turn for dependable affection. The nervous excitement of Michael as he waited for a visit from his girlfriend, and his transparent hurt when she failed to turn up, confirmed that this was a punitive experience, but even the sternest viewer might have wished him less distress. Oord's film also reminded you that, for every partner inside, there's someone on the outside who didn't do the crime but still has to serve the time.