Television: A cruise on the good ship Ford Open Prison

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The Independent Culture
"We like it here," said the governor of Ford Open Prison, welcoming his newest batch of guests. "We like it the way it is and we don't propose to go back to rolling around on the floor with blood and snot all over the landings." No complaints about that, you would have thought, but you would have reckoned without the ingenious self-pity of some convicts. "It's much easier to do time in a bang-up nick," complained one inmate, just in case viewers of Modern Times (BBC2) were getting tetchy about the geniality of the regime. Since a bang-up nick is readily accessible (just break the right rules and you'll be shipped across the water to Parkhurst), you had to take this with a pinch of salt; nobody seemed particularly eager to exchange Ford's regime for anything but the train home.

A frequent metaphor for prison life is that of boarding school. It was trotted out again here, by a prisoner who seemed mildly to resent the fact that many white-collar convicts had already served an apprenticeship in institutional survival. I can't give an absolutely authoritative judgement on the accuracy of the image, having only endured the educational half of the equation. But there was undoubtedly something familiar here - the sense of liberty hemmed in by permissions, the modest privileges of prefects (trusted prisoners get to go out on exeats), the mechanics of admonition. Watching a middle-aged, middle-class man sit like a chastened schoolboy as his contraband television set was confiscated I thought, "Yes. I've certainly been there."

But Ford needs another metaphor too, one that will do justice to its odd form of social segregation. The inmates of A wing (private rooms and bridge parties) are for the most part older and posher than the inmates of B wing (wooden barracks and slasher videos). The tabloid papers like to describe Ford as a holiday camp, but in truth it is more like one of the old ocean-liners, strictly demarcated between first-class and steerage; there are even notices on the doors separating these two realms, to remind the humbler passengers not to stray outside their station.

The recreations at Ford, though, are a little more imaginative than shuffleboard. "The place is awash with cannabis," the governor confessed equably, before going on to explain to new arrivals that getting caught was a serious matter. The warning doesn't seem to have worked; later a warder showed off an ingenious cruciform pipe, constructed so that four prisoners could all take a hit at the same time. In Colditz the prisoners busied themselves making German identity cards out of potatoes and bits of string; here clandestine industry is directed to the little luxuries of life. You began to wonder whether the prisoner sentenced to an extra seven days inside was not in fact struggling to keep a smirk off his face. Most A wing prisoners, though, have a stronger incentive to get out. They count the days until they can once again be reunited with their loved ones - the offshore bank accounts in which they managed to stash the loot. While B wing prisoners plan futures in drug rehabilitation (virtually the only legal job for which they can offer past experience), A wing inmates contemplate celebration parties in New York or world travel. Prison is not exactly a deterrence, it seems, simply a short delay.

ITV's current drama policy is to test out potential series by sending out a pilot and seeing whether it crashes. The casualty rate hasn't been worse since the dark days of the Battle of Britain but Nick Sharman, the dodgy private eye in The Turnaround might have a longer life expectancy than most. He's played by Clive Owen, for one thing, though whether his sexy bad-boy image will survive the revelation that he sleeps in A-Z bed linen is less clear.