TELEVISION / Survival of the fittest

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The Independent Culture
HAVEN'T we seen all this somewhere recently - iron bars, truculent keepers, a management intent on unpopular change? With Molly Dineen's The Ark fresh in the mind's eye it was difficult to avoid some unhelpful echoes while watching Roger Graef's Turning the Screws (C 4), an over- the-shoulder look at the running of Wandsworth prison. True, the inmates were marginally less hairy and the warders considerably less affectionate towards them, but this was the same drama in essence - of ideals cramped between dwindling income and a fearful resistance to change. The similarities aren't entirely surprising - Graef was the pioneer of saturation filming followed by marathon sessions in the editing suite, a high-ratio method which serves well to capture the wild life of committee room and office and which has recently been refreshed by Dineen's cunning nosiness.

Graef's eye is a touch colder and less quirky - but none the less acute for that. His film's first image was of slopping out, an indignity of the prison system now familiar to most viewers, but used here to support the revelation that when Wandsworth was built it had running water and toilets in every cell and half its current complement of prisoners. As they enter 1993 the prison governors' task is to bring their institution up to date with Victorian standards.

To do this, and to comply with recent reports by Lord Justice Woolf and Judge Tumim on the need for 'association' (time for prisoners to meet out of their cells) they are having to persuade the warders to change their shift system, a task which reminded you of the long sequence in The Ark in which keepers attempted to load a reluctant elephant aboard a transport lorry. The keepers at least had the advantage of several large chains and a powerful winch, while the management in Wandsworth have to rely on brute obstinacy. Faced with an alternative proposal by the prison officers (which, for all the partially informed viewer knew, might have been totally unworkable) one governor finally conceded, 'It may be better but it's not what I want'. Graef's single camera flicks around during these face-offs with a slightly disorientated air, like a child's eyes during a grown-up row, looking for clues as to what's going on. The result is both embroiling and dull, in the manner of grim, intransigent arguments - but decidedly instructive for anyone who thought that you had to be charged with or convicted of a crime before being locked in one of Her Majesty's Prisons.

French and Saunders (BBC 2) returned for a new series with a gleaming parody of Stephen King's Misery, in which Jennifer was bed-bound by Dawn, who giggled crazily, manipulated her patient's legs into pretzels and insisted she be written back into the series. The sketches that followed were good, too, but the best laugh was the final spoof on cliffhanger resurrections - a lavishly gory scene in which a bazooka was required before Dawn would lie down and die.

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