Interview with Rob Williams (Writer, Creator & Executive Producer)

Category: Press Pack Article

How did you come up with the idea for the second series?

As series one grew into itself during the writing, I started thinking about why and how that gun might have come in – it’s far more common than you might think. The statistics for how many guns have been found in prisons in the last five, ten years are eyewatering. But for an audience who aren't going to look at statistics, you've got to ground that idea because it does feel very heightened, so that led me down the road of what could make a gun high stakes. It wasn't torn from the headlines, although as I was writing the second series, things happened to make it seem prescient.

What is the fallout from Toby Phillips's (Jack Bardoe) killing in Long Marsh?

We all respond to events in different ways, so we showed that with our characters. For Leigh (Nina Sosanya) and Rose (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), it was about what they could take on of Toby that was tangible, a legacy on the wing: an atmosphere of responsibility. It has affected Gary (Stephen Wight), in a very different way, sending him into a dark place – that journey continues right until the last episode. For Don (Ron Donachie), it won't be the first time he's seen awful things happen on a prison wing. For Jackie (Laura Checkley) and Ali (Faraz Ayub), it's an awful thing which they're dealing with in their own ways. I wanted to begin it six weeks afterwards to try and show that things had settled a little bit, although there have been consequences: a new governor has been installed, albeit temporarily. We'll also discover later that the consequences are tougher than perhaps we appreciate in the first episode – the governor is not telling everybody the full truth.


The idea of a policeman going undercover in a prison sounds very far-fetched, but presumably there are precedents.

There are, although we don't hear about most of them. We had John Podmore, who was the governor of Belmarsh and Brixton among others, advising us again and I ran every storyline by him. He's been an advisor to the home office on various things, so I’ll say to him: is this crazy? He will say yes or no, then send me a huge amount of material. In this case, the more usual thing is that an inmate is tasked with going undercover to get jail confessions, although there are precedents for undercover policemen. It’s just about the most dangerous assignment you can possibly take on.

Have you ever been tempted to explore people's lives beyond the prison walls?

I haven’t been tempted to take the viewer outside Long Marsh. In fact, I’ve deliberately tried to only go outside the walls when it’s absolutely necessary because I want the audience to feel the claustrophobia of the world and the working lives of our gang. I want to let the air out of that as little as possible. It’s a world entire.

Did you hear anything from prison officers or inmates about season one?

Anecdotally, I heard that it was very well received. Certain characters really cut through and people went: yeah, I know them, I've worked with them. The term “screw” is quite loaded for prison officers – it's not a term of endearment – so there was some reaction to that and to the idea that Leigh was sleeping in the prison. But mostly, it was received as doing something different to most prison dramas. When I talk to prison officers, there is a frustration that they're seen as these two-dimensional turnkeys when there is so much more to the job than that. There was some great press around the debates about prison, so that was very gratifying as well.

Is the crisis in the prison service even more acute than it was at the time of the first series?

Yeah, the points I wanted to make with season one have become more urgent, day by day. The number of people we’re imprisoning continues to rise. The number of officers who quit having only been in the service for a very short time continues to go up. The rates of suicide, of self-harm, of violence, of recidivism, those aren’t coming down. Good things are happening in prison, but a lot of them are happening in spite of the system, and they are often third sector. If people took away one thing from season one, I hope that it is how difficult it is for a prison officer to do a job when the parameters of that job aren't set. Am I here to rehabilitate people? Am I here to punish people? We still haven't made that decision as a society or governmentally, so how would these people know whether they’ve been successful, if they don't know what their targets are?

What new themes did you want to explore this time?

The serial element grows where, with series one, the story of the week was bigger, although we've absolutely tried to explore different aspects of prison life in each episode as well – things like the well-trodden care-to-prison pathway and romantic relationships in prison. The tone has shifted as a result. There is still humour there, but it's probably lower in the mix.

Why did you want to bring Lee Ingleby (playing Patrick Morgan) into the show?

Because he's brilliant. With any new series, you've got to look at how to refresh things. What we learned in series one was, while the officers are absolutely at the heart of the show, people are really interested in those prisoners’ stories as well. I wanted to tell the story of a fish out of water, the effect of prison on somebody most people would identify with. With Lee, you just feel like you know him somehow, like you'd have a drink with him. He has the quality of the man next door, but he can give you that edge of unpleasantness as well. In the first episode, he has to do something where Morgan is completely out of his comfort zone, but he does it – that shift is incredible.

How did you want to lean into the strengths of your existing cast, while pushing them on?

Even we were surprised by the extent to which those six characters just worked, that chemistry. We approached season two wanting to serve each one of them, to get under their skin. By the time you reach the end of season two, you'll feel like you've really got to know them.