My favourite part of Banged Up (Channel 4, Monday) — the new reality show in which juvenile delinquents get to spend ten days in fake prison so they’re never tempted to end up in a real one — was the bit where the other inmates discovered Barry was a nonce.
‘Oi, Bazza. Just dropped me soap. Pick it up for me, would you, mate?’ someone said in the showers. And you should have seen Barry’s face as, glancing between his legs, he suddenly noticed the queue of eager lads building up behind him, led by the official prison Daddy, John ‘Baseball Bat’ Holmes. Priceless!
No, not really. The scene didn’t happen because it would never have been allowed to happen. And I’m not saying that homosexual gang rape is what I’m yearning to see on television of a Monday evening. But if this was supposed to be an important social experiment, it was badly flawed from the start.
Take Biffa. I can’t remember what his real name was, but he reminded me of Biffa Bacon from Viz. (Sample phone conversation: ‘How’re yee finding prison, son?’ ‘S***e.’) Fatha had done time for manslaughter (as an angry young man he’d knocked some poor bloke over and he’d never got up) and Biffa was clearly a chip off the old block, forever getting drunk and involved in serious fights.
So, see if you can guess what happened when, on his first night in pretend nick, he decided that being locked in a narrow, Victorian 17ft cell with cream-painted walls and high, barred windows wasn’t to his tastes.
Did he a) tough it out, because after all it was only a playful exercise to which he’d freely signed up, there might be some useful lessons to be learnt, and, anyway, what kind of a milksop would you have to be to call it quits after just one night?
Or b) smash his fists against the wall so that his knuckles bled; demand attention from the prison psychiatrist; and then be sent home on compassionate grounds, there to be greeted by his parents with almost as much teary sympathy as if he’d just been chained up by the Taleban for three months.
‘You’ve loorned your lesson, now, haven’t you son?’ said Biffa’s Fatha. ‘Howay man, Fatha, I’ll never go to prison after that,’ said Biffa, all meek and repentant. Cut to scene five minutes later where Biffa downs in one a six-pack of Tennants Super. Cut to scene ten minutes later where Biffa beats to a pulp someone he thinks has been looking at him all funny like.
All right, they didn’t actually show those last two scenes either, but you can bet they’re going to happen sooner or later. How can I be so sure? Because Biffa — in common with most of, if not all, the 16- and 17-year-old participants in the experiment, and indeed in Britain generally — had absolutely no grasp of the relationship between cause and effect. Biffa likes hitting people. He doesn’t like prison. But he doesn’t understand the incompatibility between the two intellectual positions, because that would involve accepting a moral responsibility for his actions, which is something very few people are capable of doing these days.
Though the authoritative (and frankly very dreary) presence of ex-Home-Secretary David Blunkett on its fake prison board got it talked about on Radio Four as if it were an important thing, all Banged Up really is more ‘louts in jeopardy’ entertainment in the manner of Bad Lads Army and Brat Camp. Only not as good, or satisfying.
With Bad Lads Army and Brat Camp, you got to see truly repellent kids being transformed over several weeks by tough regimes which it was almost impossible to escape, in the one case because the sergeants in charge just weren’t having it, in the other because the kids were stranded in remote camps run by Nazi-cowboys. I can quite believe that most of them went back to their evil old ways after a few weeks back home with their biddable parents. But for the duration of those programmes, at least, you felt that genuinely useful work was being done. Here were kids who’d been brought up to consider themselves God’s gift, suddenly, brutally being forced to recognise that they were part of a wider community with social responsibilities to fulfil — and actually changing before our eyes.
Banged Up, just like prison itself really, offers no such happy resolutions. Next week, we’ll see the kids being forced to share cells with burly, experienced old lags who will fill them with horror stories of what prison’s really like and attempt to mentor them into lives of righteousness. Unfortunately, you could tell from the kids’ reaction on the preview footage the more likely effect it’s going to have: ‘Wow! Those guys are well hard! If we go on behaving badly enough, maybe we can end up as big and tough and deadpan as them!’