If you want to know what prisons are really like, watch The Choir…..

‘Have you seen that TV programme about a prison? What did you think?’ I’ve lost count how often people have asked me about the unexpected TV hit of January 2020. Not just media types (BBC presenters raving on 5 Live’s Breakfast programme) or colleagues in the justice world but also friends who don’t think about prisons from one day to the next, even my mum.

I’m talking about The Choir on BBC Two which, in case you haven’t caught it yet, went to prison last week. The TV musician Gareth Malone worked with young men inside Aylesbury Young Offenders Institution to create a performance for families, officers and dignitaries.
Different golden moments struck different people. For some the standout moment comes as Lewis explains how having bi-polar affects him (the Daily Mail headlined, ‘He needs help not isolation’), for others when Usher visibly sheds his tough-man mantle to sing with a nervous prison administrator. The Guardian was moved by Dwayne’s musical breakthrough. Pretty much everyone from friends to the Express newspaper united in empathy at the moment when parents watch proudly as their boys took to the stage in the final performance.

Nine weeks of BBC filming for the two parter are punctuated by outbreaks of violence and disrupted rehearsals; hairs- on- the- back-of- the-neck songwriting and segregation, lockdown and magic moments of harmony as prison staff and inmates sing together. Remarkable. As the young men sang their parents wept, borne perhaps of relief at expressing an emotion of pride which keeps every parent going, officers wiped away tears and TV audiences sniffed on their sofas. I was one of them.

For years my life has involved prisons and the justice system. An ex-prison visitor, I have spent hundreds of hours talking to women in the now empty Holloway prison. I’m also an ex-journalist who’s covered many prison stories for the BBC. Now a media consultant, often working with justice organisations and in the Longford Trust team (supporting men and women in/after prison to study a university degree), I can think of no other programme which reveals the reality of prison and the people inside as honestly as The Choir. Not ‘Orange is the New Black’, not ‘Prison’ (though Director Paddy Wivell is a compassionate, insightful interviewer), and certainly not ‘Porridge’.

These are dark times for the belief in rehabilitation. Prisons and the justice system are creaking to the point of near-collapse. With ‘tough justice’ today’s political mantra, bang more of ‘em up for longer is the dispiriting gist of the prevailing narrative. Punishment and revenge is the name of the game, punitive sentences to appeal to populist instincts.

Gareth Malone’s The Choir offers an unexpected gem, bringing hope and restoring faith in humanity in testing times. Hope in rehabilitation, an opportunity to restore public and establishment faith in giving people the means and chance to change. In these programmes music is a language. A language for self-expression – as when Lewis wowed the TV musician by writing his song in 20 minutes. Or in creating a language for better understanding between two groups on different sides of locked doors, officers and young men sang together in a rare moment of unity.

So why did Gareth Malone and the Choir crew strike the right note where so many others miss it? Again, music is the answer. Every programme needs a device to give the programme structure but too often it feels laboured. The music and the need to have performers and material at that all-important end performance (at one point Gareth Malone is forced to sit keyboard in lap as he waits for two emergency violent incidents to be dealt with) offered real glimpses into the daily lives of everyone behind bars.

On a more nuanced level we saw the subtle – and not so subtle- ways fights became a theme. The young men calibrated every move and reaction according to those around them. We witnessed Gareth Malone chatting quietly with Lewis about being bi-polar and with Usher about his lyrics which were just on the cusp of acceptability in their portrayal of violence. Malone talks with humour about this language. There’s so much in the words, the glance, the slight shift in stance.  We watched staff, most of whom were encouraging, some wary of their charges as they were cajoled into singing with the handful of remaining inmates in order to pull off a choir against the odds. This wasn’t how it was meant to be. The original idea had been for it to be an inmate-only choir. However, for my money, ‘artistic weakness’ became a strength as we saw officers and young men break down barriers to each other.

Previous governments have been reluctant to let journalists and programme makers go behind bars. Too afraid to let the public see what really goes on, to observe that punishment doesn’t work how it was meant to. This couldn’t be the unvarnished ‘warts and all’ truth. But it is a flavour.

Hats off to the prison governor for opening her doors to Aylesbury prison three months after it had been put into special measures. I can only imagine how hard she will have worked to persuade the MoJ press office. My heart went out to her when Gareth had a brainwave about the best place in the prison for the final performance, not in the newly refurbished visitors’ centre but on a landing in the main prison. Anyone who understands the grinding wheels of prisons, their budgets and procedures knows that the makeover of the visitors’ centre was a Big Deal, clearly timed in order to host The Choir’s show. When Gareth shared his creative idea with the governor the blood drained from her face. The proposed venue was a security and staffing nightmare. Yet to her credit, the governor went with the plan. The show must go on.

I for one will long remember the two stand-out final performances of Usher and Lewis. Lewis ending his self -composed song in Sam Smith style on the word ‘free’. Gulp.

So why does a couple of hours of TV entertainment at the start of 2020 matter? We saw young men locked away from society for years after making terrible mistakes (drugs, robbery, murder) showing they are sorry for their victims and what they’ve done. That any rehabilitation was possible in this strained prison is remarkable. Music is a language to communicate, offering a way to create change. It’s hard to know if one programme can change opinion and shift the dial away from an obsession with punishment and revenge, towards meaningful rehabilitation but if nothing else it has lifted the spirits of those of us who know it matters. The Aylesbury prison governor hopes that the powers-that-be will now invest in a permanent music therapist, not just a temporary TV choirmaster. I hope she is rewarded for her efforts!