Banged Up : Stars Behind Bars

For the inside scoop on how the series was made, Shine TV's Creative Director Tim Whitwell tells all…

How Did The Series Come About ?
Filming inside Britain’s prisons is not easy. Most requests to the Ministry of Justice Press Office are turned down flat. And when filmmakers do gain entry, their access is strictly controlled and often monitored by Ministry of Justice (MoJ) minders. So, getting at the heart of what is really going in Britain’s prisons isn’t easy, especially if you want to put it on television.

I’ve filmed in UK’s prisons in the past – with a team I made Gordon Ramsay Behind Bars in 2012 – when the chef set up a bakery in HMP Brixton. The motivation was to help inmates leave prison with some skills, in an effort to make them more employable. Although the series was a ratings success - and the project continues under different management today - the MoJ were unhappy that Gordon had challenged the then Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.  It’s quite easy to inadvertently upset the MoJ.

The idea for Banged Up came when I had to get out of shot, during a Celebrity Hunted shoot at HMP Shrewsbury. I hid away in a cell on my own and had a ridiculous thought. It’s hard to gain access to film inside.  So why couldn’t we set up our own prison? With real ex-criminals, ex-guards and an experienced Governor overseeing it.

The cell in which I had been hiding was truly awful – smelly, cramped, soul-rottingly damp  - with yellow peeling paint and a thousand stories in its walls. It freaked me out. Imagine being in here for a week, never mind years. The place felt bloody authentic to me.

So .. could we put VIPs and opinion formers into prison, who had a real reason to experience life behind bars? And perhaps  - once armed with the first-hand experience - they might want to talk about, or try & tackle, the myriad complex issues in UK prisons. They are underfunded and neglected boiling pots of violence, mental abuse & drug addiction. The perfect place to learn how to be a better criminal, according to many experts.

Who should be banged up? Characters such as the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens, who writes searingly about crime & punishment; Sid Owen, the soap actor whose bank robber father and brothers spent their lives in jail; a Tory MP in government with some influence, such as Johnny Mercer, the Veteran’s Minister. (He agreed to be in the series prior to re-joining the cabinet)  And perhaps those whom the public might like to send to prison, like the notorious Tractor Porn MP Neil Parrish, caught looking at sexual content on his phone in the House of Commons.

That lot would have something to say after a short sharp shock.

How We Made It
I had a first class team who worked on the series -  Executive Producer Tom Clarke and Series Editor Emma Young. They did all the hard work, creating the conditions that would allow us to run a prison that would seem as real as possible to those walking in through its gates. And casting ex-criminals to live alongside the VIPs.

Our lofty aim for the series is to explore the prison system and try to show – in the most realistic way possible – what it is really like to be locked up in a UK Prison. To privileged people who know very little about jail. Once banged up, the VIP inmates would be able to interrogate their ex-criminal cellmates on their prison experiences and crimes - as well as examine the impact the system had on them.

Unlike an observational documentary, cameras were fixed within cells, recording 24/7. The set-up is known as ‘the rig’ and is used in many Channel 4 series such as 24 Hours in Police Custody. The Complete Camera Company had never rigged a prison before, and it proved a huge challenge in a listed old Victorian Prison which is now a museum.

HMP Shrewsbury wasn’t fit for purpose – its plumbing, electrics, showers and lights were all really ropey. So they all had to have an expensive upgrade, which line producer Leanne Troop and her team patiently tackled. (Impressively, she didn’t flinch when we took her aside and asked: ‘Can you help us open and run a prison for a week?’)

Working toilets were vital as we wanted to shut the VIPs up overnight so they could experience what living in a brutally confined space really feels like. We also had to find working locks for a lot of the cells, which had long ceased to function. If the VIPS couldn’t be properly banged up, then we would have failed.

It had to look real. The art team led by art director Greg Menzel were meticulous with the little details like gates, beds, rotting cupboards and ancient Playstations. They had to take a disused prison and make it feel real again, with the added challenge of figuring out how fit out authentic cells -  without drilling a single hole in the wall of the grade 2 listed building. 

I also knew from working in prisons that there is a delicious black humour which inmates and officers alike use to get by in really demoralising, heart crushing circumstances. We were all determined to capture some of that.

At times it was poetic. Sid Owen made a failed escape attempt. But refused to wear the regulation green and yellow escape suit (it is compulsory so that POs can spot where potential escapees are.) Veteran Prison Officer George Shipton took Owen to task:  “The dildo of consequences rarely comes fucking lubed in this place,” explained George. “So be a big boy and get that suit on.”  Admonished by the flawless prison philosophy, Sid complied and was marched off to segregation for his punishment. Looking like a clown. You can see why escape suits are so useful.

Get Your Jailhead On
After speaking to Channel 4’s head of docs Alisa Pomeroy, and commissioners Madonna Benjamin & Rita Daniels, we agreed on a specific approach for the ex-cons returning to prison. One of our contributors had spoken about ‘putting his Jailhead on’ when he went back inside, in order to survive the horrific conditions.  What he meant was, he adapted his behaviour when he went back into prison. In order to have some semblance of a life inside.

Putting Your Jailhead on means standing up to bullies; undermining authority and the prison system; laughing at the existential horror of your situation when possible; smuggling in little luxuries like tobacco – and dangerous ones like phones - which can be used to organise further law breaking.

So we would ask our ex criminals to ‘get their Jailheads on’ when they went back into HMP Shrewsbury. If they could do that, then the experience for the VIPs going in would be pretty real.

The most surreally difficult task facing our team was how to create an authentic prison atmosphere. The prison was run by a respected former prison governor Clare Pearson with experienced prison guards. Clare also acted as our consultant, so that we got all the little details right.

There were 23 inmates banged up alongside the celebrities; all were former criminals who have spent time in prison for a spectrum of serious crimes including contract killing, theft, drug dealing and murder. We couldn’t pay any of the criminals to do the shoot, as it is against the OFCOM code. Many of them did it because they thought it a worthwhile social experiment to undertake. At the time of writing the ex-criminals lead reformed lives, and are active and positive members of society.

We wanted, as much as possible, for the VIPs and prisoners to live under conditions that reflect real life prisons, as managed by Ministry Of Justice. We had a schedule which literally copied a prison daily routine . A working gym was available, as well as some workshops such as Narcotics Anonymous and anger management.  There was a prison canteen to buy groceries and personal items. Typical prison food was provided. And there were religious services – Christian and Muslim. We even got the right pool table for the wing.

How Did We Keep Everyone Safe ?
It had to be as safe an environment as possible in which to place contributors. All the ex-criminals were told no drugs and no violence against others would be tolerated. No sex offenders were involved in the series. All the ex-criminals had stringent background checks; DBS criminal record checks;  and an individual psychological assessment by psychologist Dr Howie Fine to ensure they would be able to cope with going back in to prison.  We referenced their employers where possible and explored any charity & community work they were involved in.

Howie was involved from the start. He was on set during filming to look after all contributors involved. We chose those ex-criminals we believed represented the lowest risk of reoffending. Usually, a TV programme would reject one contributor with a criminal record as long as your arm. We had a whole prison full of them.  Those ex-criminals Howie considered  to be in danger of being retraumatised by going back to prison were not included in the project.  

The production team worked with specialist health and safety teams from Remote Trauma,  to ensure the filming location was safe for everyone there. There was a 24 /7 security team at the prison. Throughout filming we reinforced the zero-tolerance policy towards physical violence and illegal drugs. 

Psych and production support was and still is available to all contributors.  There is no way to completely eradicate risk on a project like this – nothing is full proof. We tried our utmost to bring the level of danger down to an acceptable level for a broadcaster. There was a long term vision of what we wanted to achieve, and we tried to pick off the dangers throughout the process.

Does The Series Glamourise Prison?
We wanted to examine the prison system in a critical way. And show how grim prison life can be.  The aim was to allow the VIPs an authentic experience-  while also giving them the opportunity to interrogate the former criminals on the impact of a life behind bars, and question them about why they were sent to prison.

Channel 4 is well-known for exploring challenging subject matters in innovative ways. Without a doubt, they are the only UK Broadcaster brave enough to make this series. Shine TV’s legal team and Channel 4’s worked very closely together to create solutions to some really unusual production problems.

What About The  Impact On The Victims Of Crimes Discussed?
We’ve thought long and hard about this – the last thing we want to do is to exacerbate the hurt caused by some of the horrendous crimes which some of our contributors have perpetrated. All reasonable steps have been taken to avoid identifying victims of crime. In some cases, this has been difficult as some of the events happened more than 20 years ago.

And we have tried to contact victims, if possible and appropriate, so they could avoid watching if they chose.

Some of the victims have responded positively to the series. But we understand that others will not think it’s appropriate. And we want to talk to anyone who feels that they have been adversely affected by any discussions seen in the series. But it’s important to say that we only included ex-criminals who have shown in some way that they are reformed, and have changed their lives.

The poet AE Housman knew HMP Shrewsbury well. He wrote about the waste of young lives taking place in the prison at the turn of the century:

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.

And after spending a number of weeks living and sleeping there, we all think Housman got the place fairly spot on. We hope that the series does justice to all of those who took part in the project. And gets Britain talking about what really goes on in the cells during the horrific long nights and days that 90,000 people currently spend Banged Up.