TV blog: Inside Prison: Britain Behind Bars

Benjie Goodhart / 20 September 2019

TV reviewer Benjie Goodhart looks at the latest prison documentary, plus the best of the rest of this week's TV.

Inside Prison: Britain Behind Bars 1/4, Thursday 26th September, 9pm, ITV

Prisons are very ‘in’ just now. Not residing in them, you understand – I think that’s still largely frowned upon, socially – but in terms of TV documentaries. Last year we had Paddy Wivell’s stunning series Prison on Channel 4, and in recent weeks we’ve had The Best Little Prison in Britain? On ITV, Crime and Punishment on Channel 4, and now this series, looking at everyday life in prisons up and down the country. It’s no wonder there’s an overcrowding problem in Britain’s prisons – it seems that every single cell has a film crew in it. In the past, if you wanted to have a media profile, you had to join a band or become a footballer. Nowadays, in order to become famous, all you need to do is get caught robbing a post office and you’ll be given an hour of Prime Time.

Of course, the downside to this method of self-promotion is that you do have to spend quite a lot of time in prison. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it really doesn’t look like much fun. It’s a bit like boarding school, but with added tattoos and violence, and fewer games of cricket with future cabinet ministers.

There are currently 92,500 prisoners held in 136 prisons up and down the UK, under the supervision of 26,300 prison officers. Downview, in Surrey, sounds like the name of a charming Bed and Breakfast, but if it is a B&B, it’s going to get some pretty negative reviews on TripAdvisor, I’d warrant. It’s home to Gemma, a serial offender who’s doing five years for burglary. She makes a bit of extra money advertising (using fake photos) on a sugar daddy website, and befriending the lonely men who get in touch. She needs it to pay for drugs (specifically an evil prison narcotic called Spice). She’s helped in her search for money by the fact that she’s just nicked a load of vapes from the prison canteen. Honestly, turns out you can’t trust anyone these days. I mean, who could ever have foreseen that leaving valuable contraband lying around in prison might result in it getting nicked?

Meanwhile, John Aldridge has started work at Bullingdon. Lest this cause any confusion, it’s not THAT John Aldridge, or THAT Bullingdon. I have to say, I don’t think a student-toffs-white-tie dining club would be the natural milieu for a former professional footballer anyway. No, this John Aldridge has just trained to be a prison officer, and is being placed on a wing at Bullingdon Prison in Oxfordshire.

As jobs go, it’s moderately more taxing than TV reviewing, although I imagine I am more at risk of DVT than he is, so we’re each dicing with death in our own way. There were 100 assaults on staff in Bullingdon last year alone. Aldridge does not seem entirely at ease – indeed, he couldn’t seem less at ease if he was slowly having his toes chewed off by green ants. One of the inmates, Sam, who is more tattoo than actual human being, reckons he’s too soft for the job.

Meanwhile, back at Downview, 22-year-old prison officer Ellie Roberts is meeting with Gemma, to praise her behaviour. Gemma has been doing well, behaving calmly and with self-control. Gemma says her growing faith in Islam is helping her. Everyone is pleased with her, However, the interview is cut short when Gemma tries to assault someone with an iron, which slightly mitigates her good behaviour points. Later in the programme, Gemma is in trouble for trying to climb the prison fence, and for breaking her window. Trouble seems to follow her around, but so does a fair amount of goodwill, thanks to her peculiar charm. At one point, in a meeting with staff, she ends it by saying “Thank you for having me,” like she’s been round for tea after school, as opposed to being locked up for a five stretch for breaking and entering.

That’s not to say that this is an easy or laugh-a-minute watch. As this first episode goes on, it turns increasingly dark, as the brutal reality of prison life begins to emerge. A toxic mix of the vulnerable and the violent means that danger is never far away in prison. This laudable documentary puts paid to the old cliché of prison being a holiday camp. Or at least, if it is a holiday camp, it really, really needs to work on its image.

Inside Air Force One: Secrets of the Presidential Plane, Friday 27th September, 9:15pm, Channel 5

This is an absolutely riveting documentary about Air Force One, and I will get to it in a minute. But first, we need to address the elephant in the room. There isn’t literally an elephant in the room at home where I’m working. That would be ridiculous. Apart from anything else, it wouldn’t get on with the cheetah.

The fact that needs to be addressed is this: You know how it is whenever conversation turns to Big Ben? Which, presumably, is daily, right? Or is that just in our house? Anyway, there’s always some fact-fan, usually with colour-coded biros sticking out of their shirt pocket, who is just itching to point out that Big Ben is the bell, not the tower (which is called The Elizabeth Tower) or the clock (which is called, um, Clocky McClockface). Well, so it is with Air Force One. Air Force One isn’t the great big jumbo that is the official plane of the President of the USA. No, Air Force One is a call sign, and applies to any aircraft upon which the President is travelling. Next time you are travelling to Magaluf on a Ryan Air Flight from Stansted, if you look over and see President Trump sitting next to you, well done, you’re on Air Force One. Although I appreciate this is unlikely to happen. There isn’t an airport in Magaluf, for one thing.

Anyway, this documentary is about the socking great Jumbo that serves as Air Force One. Although actually there are two of them. Imagine if you left your passport on the wrong one! It looks at the history of the plane, and how it has played a role in some of the most pivotal moments in history, as well as taking us behind the scenes and revealing a few of the plane’s hidden secrets.

It’s not your bog standard 747, as you can probably imagine. It can refuel in mid-air, has an armoured bottom, and a shield to protect it from an electromagnetic pulse in case of a nuclear explosion. You don’t get that on your bog-standard Virgin flight. The US Air Force gets a 747 from Boeing – yours for only $370m – and then spends four times that amount customising it. I’m not going to fuss too much next time my wife asks for heated seats in the car.

It is said that all Presidents love their first ride in Air Force One. All, that is, except… oh, for goodness sake, you know who I’m going to say. He already had his own huge, customised passenger plane, Trump 1, complete with the all-too-predictable 24-carat-gold seatbelts. Presumably he got on Air Force One and immediately lamented the lack of glitz and the absence of a hot tub. Still, his distaste for the plane hasn’t stopped him taking it down to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida a couple of times in his first two-and-a-half years in the job. And by a couple of times, I mean 25. God bless the American taxpayer.

The film is filled with fascinating snippets from the history of the presidential plane. It was a far more modest affair until 1959, when Khrushchev arrived at an international summit in a massive presidential Tupolev, prompting the Americans to commission a special Boeing 707 of their own. The blue-and-white livery came about thanks to Jackie Kennedy, who didn’t like the plane’s orange nose. She and her husband flew in the plane on the historic trip to Berlin in 1963, and also on a rather more fateful trip to Dallas later that year. Hours later, new president Lyndon Johnson was being sworn in to office on board the plane, Kennedy’s body lying metres away in his coffin.

The film includes testimony from a former Chief of Staff who served under three Presidents, a former pilot of Air Force One, and a man who served on board as a steward for five presidents. Somewhat bizarrely, there are also contributions from Piers Morgan and Iron Maiden front-man Bruce Dickinson. There’s even a story about Ronald Reagan, the Queen, and a farting horse so, you know, what’s not to like?

The two Jumbo Jets (there are actually three, one is called the Domesday Plane, and if that’s being used, we’re all in trouble) are being replaced. President Trump has commissioned two new planes, at a cost of $4 billion. Presumably, they’ll come with a McDonalds franchise, a mini golf course, and solid gold toilets.

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The best… and the rest

Saturday 21st September

Strictly Come Dancing, 7pm, BBC One: The first of the live shows sees the 15 couples dancing for the first time. You know the score.

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, 9:45pm, BBC Two: Film-maker Werner Herzog goes on a journey inspired by his friend, the travel writer and adventurer Chatwin, taking in South America, Australia and Wales.

Sunday 22nd September

Tories at War, 10pm, Channel 4: Documentary charting the last nine months in the Conservative Party, an extraordinary period that has seen the party lurch to the right and dismiss huge swathes of the party’s centrist MPs.

Monday 23rd September

Arena, 9pm, BBC Two: Feature-length documentary looking at the case of the charlatan art dealer who scammed $50m from the art establishment.

Coca Cola v Pepsi: Cola Wars, 9pm, Channel 5: Looking at the battle of the brands as they strive to be Top of the Pops. Pops! Geddit? Oh, please yourselves!

Wednesday 25th September

The Highland Midwife, 8pm, Channel 5: Return of the series following the work of various midwives. In the Highlands. You probably could have worked that out for yourselves.

Doc Martin 1/8, 9pm, ITV: Martin Clunes returns as the curmudgeonly surgeon-turned-GP in a sleepy Cornish village.

Secrets of the Royals, 9pm, Channel 5: Judging by how many documentaries they have about the royals every week on Channel 5, I very much doubt there are any secrets left.

Thursday 26th September

Conspiracy Files: Vaccine Wars, 9pm, BBC Two: So bad has the bonkers anti-vax movement become that the WHO now labels vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. This documentary attempts to distinguish between the science and the groundless mumbo jumbo.

Secrets of the Royal Dressmaker, 8pm, Channel 5: One for my mum.

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