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Peterhead prison hits the small screen in new Channel 4 drama

By David Porter

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Screening tonight at 9pm on Channel 4 is new prison drama Screw in which eagle-eyed viewers will recognise many scenes as being shot at the hugely-popular Peterhead Prison Museum.

Channel 4 filmed in the region last summer and Screw, by BAFTA nominated writer Rob Williams, introduces us to the male and female staff of C Wing in a busy men’s prison, a place that’s bursting at the seams with humour, emotional high stakes and danger for prisoners and officers alike.

At the head of a group of embattled prison officers is Leigh (Nina Sosanya – His Dark Materials, Little Birds) a woman who has devoted her entire adult life to this prison and its population.

Leigh keeps her inmates in line and has their backs when they need it.

Into the pressure cooker of Long Marsh Prison enters Rose (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell – Derry Girls), a 21-year-old trainee officer.

It’s a baptism of fire even for this street-smart young woman.

She joins fellow screws Ali (Faraz Ayub - Line of Duty, Bodyguard), Gary (Stephen Wight - I May Destroy You, Manhunt), Don (Ron Donachie - Titanic, Game of Thrones), and Jackie (Laura Checkley- King Gary, Detectorists).

Nina Sosanya stars in Screw which debuts on Channel 4 at 9pm
Nina Sosanya stars in Screw which debuts on Channel 4 at 9pm

In and interview Rob Williams- writer, creator and executive producer explained the background to the show -

It’s rare to see a prison drama told from the perspective of the officers rather than the inmates.

Yes, it’s a world I’ve wanted to write about for a long time but I needed to find a fresh way into it because there are so many prisoner-focused shows and books. That in itself is interesting. I've met lots of officers and found myself not really thinking about them as individuals but as uniforms. One or two naturally challenged that by things they did or said, and then it grew from conversations with Sarah Brown, my co-executive producer on Screw. They’re public servants, yet they’ve never really had their own TV show in the way that paramedics, firefighters and police have. I think a lot of prison officers do feel fairly ignored and even disliked. As soon as that thought occurred, it went from there: why do I feel slightly uncomfortable with it as well?

You’ve done a lot of work in prisons. How did that come about?

I used to teach art and design at local colleges in the West Midlands. When I was doing a teacher's qualification in the late ’90s, one of the women on the course said I'd be really good at teaching in prisons. It was incredibly good money at the time so I started teaching drawing and painting in prisons and I was blown away by the environment. It challenged all my preconceptions. Then after a few years in publishing, I started writing and doing some voluntary work, which I’ve done it ever since. I've had the privilege of spending time on the wings, talking to prisoners and officers. While there's not a single story or character that is a direct translation in Screw, there is a desire to represent that world as I see it: there is laughter, there is humour, there is humanity, there is friendship, there is real life. It's not just violence and drudgery and darkness.

How did you come up with Rose and Leigh?

Rose was the starting point. I remember a day when I saw a young female prison officer who looked like Amy Winehouse, a little bird like figure who had real authority about her. I thought: wow, that's a great character. Rose is apparently doing the job simply because it’s a job. You don't need much training or many qualifications and can get started pretty quickly, with a fair bit of job security. I'm also really drawn to characters who have a mentor character, people at different ends of their careers and people who are incredibly good at their job. Leigh came from the idea of an officer who genuinely does care, who is really frustrated by the constraints that are put on her. I started thinking about what the effect would be of all that, of having a certain amount of control and power, but operating within a system that just doesn’t work for a huge amount of people who experience it. As I dived into that character and asked myself why she's like that, that gave rise to this secret she’s hiding. The conflict between Rose and Leigh is at the heart of the series.

What made Nina and Jamie-Lee right for the roles?

They’re so different, not only as characters but as actors – they have a different energy. Jamie-Lee is all about instinct. She wears her heart on her sleeve, which is perfect for Rose. Nina is very controlled, thoughtful and watchful. You always sense that she's telling you what she wants you to know as an actor. I thought pitting them against each other would be great fun.

What were the pillars of your research?

Every script was read by serving prison officers and our main advisor is a serving prison officer who has been incredibly helpful. John Podmore was great early on when I was working on the big story arcs – he used to be a prison governor in Brixton and Belmarsh, and is still involved in that world. I spoke to Mark Fairhurst of the Prison Officers Association as well, and we've been incredibly careful to talk to some of the groups and charities that have a stake in the various issues we address through the show. We've been careful not to just assume anything. Everyone has been raving about the set. It's incredible. Midway through the shoot, we did some exterior shots in a different part of Scotland and I’m so glad we did because people were feeling very, very oppressed by that set. Even though Kelvin Hall, where we built the set, is a huge space, you could tell people were feeling as though the walls were closing in a bit, so people were very pleased to be stepping outside.

How do you hope the series might change people's perspectives on prison?

First and foremost, I hope it’s a piece of drama that people enjoy and anything else that comes from that is wonderful. The biggest win would be something as simple as people thinking that prison isn’t what they thought it was, because it's far richer than it's given credit for. I’d hope they would ask whether it’s the best way for the inmates to be spending their time. If it’s not helping them, then it's not helping us because they will all come out again. The question we all need to be asking is: what is prison for?

What’s next for you?

Hopefully another series of Screw, but otherwise we’re just finishing on a show that's coming out next year for Apple TV called Suspicion with Uma Thurman. I'm also writing a pilot for an American network at the moment.

You can watch the full series online at https://www.channel4.com/programmes/screw

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