TV review: Her Majesty's Prison – Aylesbury, ITV
Black Mirror, Channel 4
Through some glitch in the system, Paul McGann's commentary was missing from the version of Her Majesty's Prison – Aylesbury that I watched and it says something about the construction of the film that I barely noticed.
"Welcome to hell" – a cheery greeting caught in passing from one inmate – provided most of the information you needed to know and it was easy enough to work out what was going on once you were 10 minutes in. We were in for a short stretch at one of Britain's tougher jails and we were getting our induction alongside Caspean, who had four years ahead of him. It didn't look as if Caspean was planning to get his head down and do his time quietly either: "When something kicks off, I love it... just makes your day more exciting, innit?"
Apparently, new arrivals at Aylesbury tend to be a little jittery, as it has a reputation as a repository for particularly hard cases. That reputation won't have been diminished by the opening montage of CCTV footage, recording several of the fights that have broken out on the prison landings, or by the scuffling rucks captured by the camera crew here, as warders attempted to prevent their charges from adding fresh crimes to the ones they've already been convicted of. They're used to sudden outbreaks of violence. "Saying hello to each other," grinned one breathless female warder, after helping to separate two men apparently intent on removing each other's eyeballs.
Caspean got bored very quickly, it seems, because not long after we'd seen him having his induction interview he was filmed happily smashing the window out of one of the cells. Along with two other Northern prisoners – disgruntled at being sent to what they clearly considered to be a foreign jail – he'd taken a prisoner hostage and was demanding relocation. "If you don't get the governor, I'll rape him. I'll rape him, you know" was the opening bid in the negotiations, and a fair indication of what passes for constructive dialogue in Aylesbury, at least from the prisoners' side. "I needed summat to do," Caspean explained, after he and his associates had been winkled out and sent to the segregation wing.
What we should do with Caspean remained something of a mystery. He blithely admitted himself that he was a danger to society ("I've always wanted to kill people") but simultaneously expressed an ambition to be good father to his son (who arrived when Caspean was just 14). A faintly rueful prison psychologist seemed to hint that for the moment containment was probably the best option on offer, and Aylesbury looked as if it had worked out reasonably efficient ways to do that. Whether it could change Caspean for the better, rather than simply restrict the danger he poses only to his fellow criminals, is a matter for a different kind of unheard commentary.
I also only saw a working cut of "White Bear", the second of Charlie Booker's Black Mirror series, so it's possible that some problems of timing have been fixed for transmission. It's not easy to see how though, because this had the feel of a taut and unsettling half hour that had been obliged, by scheduling consistency, to fill out an hour, so that several sequences dragged conspicuously. It proved an intriguing companion piece to Her Majesty's Prison – Aylesbury, though, offering a dystopian take on crime and retribution that questioned our instinctive need to hurt and punish, and possibly also the way that the distress of other human beings can be packaged as a kind of entertainment. I won't give too much away, since so many people now catch up later, but the twist in our perception of the leading character, a young woman who wakes to find herself in a nightmare, was a good and provocative one. It's just a pity that the drama hung around so long after we'd got the point.
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