Media: They'll be laughing in the cells

ITV had high hopes for Bad Girls. But prisoners and critics alike are calling the jail drama unrealistic and ridiculous. Is it a criminal waste of meticulous research? By Angela Devlin
Bad Girls, ITV's new women's prison drama, has been panned by most critics. "A criminal waste of time", complained The Guardian, and The Mirror's Tony Purnell was equally dismissive: "The Aussie soap Prisoner: Cell Block H was always considered a bit of a joke but it is quality drama compared with Bad Girls. They should put producer Brian Park behind bars and throw away the key!"

I first met the series devisers, script executive Anne McManus and writer Maureen Chadwick, in January this year at the AGM of Women in Prison, a support group for female prisoners. I write books about prisons, and I was impressed at the extent of the writers' knowledge about women's incarceration - and by the fact that here they were, on a cold winter's night, listening to a small group of campaigners. Most scriptwriters hire researchers to do their homework, but Chadwick and McManus spent months visiting women's prisons and interviewing inmates and staff. They consulted ex-prisoners working for Women in Prison, and spoke to organisations like NACRO and the Prison Officers' Association. They took advice from a retired female governor and hired an ex-prison officer as on-set adviser.

"Anything that's recently been produced about women's prisons, we've got it and we've read it," says McManus. "We amassed a large library of research material which we made available to the cast." The library included three of my own books, particularly Invisible Women, about female prison conditions.

Maureen Chadwick wrote three of the ten episodes. She feels Bad Girls has a clear moral purpose: "It costs pounds 500 a week to keep a woman in prison, but until the BBC broadcast Jailbirds, the people's medium had done little to inform us about what we're all funding, and whether it works. Unless they film in secret, documentary makers need Home Office approval and the co-operation of the prison authorities. They can't access the reality of drug-dealing, sexual exploitation, bullying and neglect." McManus agrees: "We're wearing our liberal hearts on our sleeves and every line of the drama screams that out. The drama was written because we were so shocked by what we saw in women's prisons."

I met up with the writers again and we had a number of telephone conversations about storylines. In mid-February I visited the Bad Girls set in Docklands. The replica jail, the biggest standing set ever built in Britain, cost millions to produce. But why, I asked production designer Mike Oxley, was HMP Larkhall based on a male prison? The only female jail with landings and low-ceilinged cells was Risley women's unit, which has closed. "We visited Winchester jail, but the women's unit there is modern, not like a prison at all," explains Oxley. "We needed to create something like viewers would imagine a prison to be so we based the set on elements of Winchester men's prison and on the decommissioned Oxford jail - all the outside scenes are shot there."

The costumes looked wrong too: Debra Stephenson, playing prison bully Shell Dockley, was wearing a leopardskin top and a tiny mini-skirt: "When I went to Winchester prison the women were all in jogging pants and sweatshirts but I suppose you need dramatic licence," said Stephenson. "The character I play is pure evil. I spoke to one of the prisoners and she said, `Please don't make us too nasty, because it really isn't like that. Women are supportive to each other.' But obviously we have to beef it up to get the drama."

As I left the set, alarm bells were ringing. They rang even louder when the marketing hype started to appear, showing a scantily clad Stephenson under the headline "Sex in the Nick: TV's frankest and steamiest prison drama ever". The working title, Jailbirds, had to be dropped when the BBC appropriated it for its spring documentary, and McManus and Chadwick hoped viewers would recognise the Bad Girls tag as subtly ironic, because the series would explode public misconceptions that female prisoners are a bunch of Myra Hindleys.

Any sense of irony was lost on prisoners and prison officers who watched the first two episodes. I asked staff and inmates with personal experience of nine of the 16 women's jails for their views.

"We just burst out laughing," says Jane, a Cookham Wood lifer. "All the girls thought it was ridiculous!" A woman officer agreed: "We've had a laugh about it ourselves, but actually we think it's outrageous that they're claiming this stuff is true to life in a women's prison, and that the public might believe it."

The prisoners objected most to the overt sexual content: "Women in prison don't look glamorous," says Marie (ex-HMP Bullwood Hall). A lot have poor skin and teeth and lank hair. Bad Girls is just playing up to people's fantasies - that women's prisons are full of evil temptresses. Of course there are a few lecherous male officers but they're not `in your face' like they showed it."

My book exposed the brutal bullying that accompanies prison drug misuse, and Clare (Risley and HMP Drake Hall) and Liz (HMP New Hall) both said this was accurately depicted in Bad Girls. "But then they spoiled it with that melodramatic scene with the scary music, when the drugs squad march in and strip that woman naked!" says Liz. "It just doesn't happen that way. And that scene when they delouse a woman in a bath - ridiculous! That's going back to Victorian times."

Chadwick and McManus are disappointed at this reaction from prisons. "To be honest, I felt a twinge of unhappiness because I think we've written it from the women's point of view," said McManus. "All our sympathies are with them."

Brian Park was encouraged in his plans for a women's jail drama by the public response when, as Coronation Street producer, he sent Deirdre Rachid to jail. Park's mission for Shed Productions, the new company he set up with McManus, Chadwick and Eileen Gallagher, former Managing Director of LWT, is "to make strong drama that is unashamedly populistic". Can this be reconciled with the quest for gritty realism with a social conscience?

"Of course ITV is a commercial organisation which is ratings-driven," agrees McManus. "There is obviously a contradiction between mass viewing and reality - so it has to be heightened reality. We want to hook an audience and we want them to sympathise with our characters. I think we have and they will."

Last week I was in Holloway talking to prisoners about what would help them on release. "Take that Bad Girls rubbish off the box!" said one. "It's giving us a bad name!"

Angela Devlin's books are published by Waterside Press. `Bad Girls' is on ITV tonight at 9pm

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