Channel 4’s gritty new drama Screw premieres tonight and follows the highs and lows of being a UK prison officer, all while encouraging viewers to contemplate this important detail in its first episode. Warning: this article contains spoilers.
While there are some dramas I may not have initially liked, but persevered with and warmed up to, I’m still an avid believer in the fact that a show’s first scene (much like a book’s first page) should be enough to grab you hook, line and sinker.
We’re initially introduced to a woman as she wakes up, turns to the side of her bed and gazes at an old picture on her bedside table.
You’d be forgiven for thinking she’s waking up in a hostel until you note the bars over the window and the heavy-duty blue mattress underneath the bed sheet she strips away. You start to wonder if she’s a prisoner but, no sooner as the thought crosses your mind, an eye-opening montage unfolds.
She quickly ties up her boots, fixes her shirt and, as she takes a look in the mirror, you realise that the nameless woman you have watched get out of bed is actually Leigh (His Dark Materials’ Nina Sosanya), a supervising officer sleeping in a prison cell marked as ‘Out Of Action’.
Before you have time to contemplate Leigh’s evidently non-existent work-life balance, she’s rushing downstairs – a quiet prison in her wake – and clocking in for her shift while grabbing her stuff ready for the work day ahead. The initial confusion and mind scramble of that first scene is a whirlwind but definitely sets the tone for what’s to come in this series.
It’s fast-paced but not in the way we’ve come to expect dramas to unfold. Much of the cleverness of Screw comes from the fact that it relies on the general mundanity of prison life – the small squabbles, the (sadly) expected lack of funding and even, general down-time with the prisoners – rather than the high-octane nature of many of our beloved crime dramas.
We’re introduced to the group of ‘screws’ (prison officers) who staff the C Wing at Long Marsh. Derry Girls’ Jamie-Lee O’Donnell is plucky new prison officer Rose, who expects a first day full of inductions and walk-throughs. Instead, she’s met with hostility and sarcasm from pretty much her first interaction.
It’s a chummy affair between the existing group and we soon understand the dynamics: Jackie (King Gary’s Laura Checkley), Leigh’s right-hand woman with smart quips always on the tip of her tongue; Gary (I May Destroy You’s Stephen Wight), a ‘Jack the lad’ type of character who makes his feelings about young female officers very clear; Ali (Line Of Duty’s Faraz Ayub), a well-meaning officer who seems to get along with everyone; and Don (Game Of Thrones’ Ron Donachie), the seasoned, long-term prison worker and father of the group.
While many dramas rely on hard-hitting monologues for dramatic effect and poignancy, Screw’s pivotal moments often come sandwiched between other, arguably more important, moments.
For instance, after an inmate fight breaks out, Leigh explains to newbie Rose: “Prisons aren’t full of bad people, they’re full of people who have done bad things.”
It’s something that Leigh clearly believes in and has likely said many times before, judging by the way Gary mimics her. But there’s no time for that line to settle – there’s work to do and inmates to look after, as they rush to unlock cell doors a level at a time.
This overarching message of humanity is at the heart of Screw’s first episode and weaves its way throughout its hour-long episode. While Leigh has been in the job for 20 years and now has to answer to a governor who “was eight when [she] started here”, it’s glaringly obvious that she not only cares deeply about her role, but also wants to make meaningful changes within the prison system.
“I’ve probably spent more of my life in prison than outside,” Leigh admits – a statement you would expect of an inmate maybe, rather than an officer.
On her wing – C Wing – the men can serve anything from three weeks to five years but, as she explains to new inmates, everyone on C Wing starts with a fresh slate: “I don’t care what you did out there, only what you do in here.”
Even when a confrontation between an inmate and Rose goes awry, leading to Rose shouting and swearing, Leigh reminds her: “We talk to the men on this wing with respect.”
“Why? Because we’re outnumbered?” Gill snaps. Leigh replies simply: “Because they’ve already been judged – that’s not your job.”
At a time when topics like prison reform and the role of the police are increasingly discussed and scrutinised, Screw is a prison drama centred around character and human nature – rather than tired tropes.
Leigh may be no-nonsense and enigmatic – it’s obvious that she has some secrets of her own – but what’s clear is her commitment to her job and ensuring the men under her care don’t get caught in an underfunded and broken system.
“What’s needed are new ideas, rather than new people,” she says when talking about being considered for a promotion to custodial manager. It’s a role that’ll mean she can make decisions, rather than just “getting through the day,” she explains.
It may not be clear what Leigh’s personal motivations for her job are – and perhaps there aren’t any but that ominous photograph and current living situation says otherwise – but she’s a person who believes in second chances and new beginnings: an important detail for us all to remember when watching this new drama.
Screw premieres on Channel 4 and All 4 tonight at 9pm.
Image: Channel 4