Time, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Lewis Arnold.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p09fs2x4/time-series-1-episode-1

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p09fs2x6/time-series-1-episode-2

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p09fs2x8/time-series-1-episode-3?seriesId=p09fs2tp

Writer Jimmy McGovern guarantees quality, his production company is a must have drama factory for BBC, and his series gets the full marketing treatment and premium billing on Sunday-night telly. Our viewing habits have, of course, changed. I watched the first episode of Time last Sunday and during the week watched the other two episodes on iPlayer. That’s the new norm. Unless it’s Line of Duty, (none of which I’ve watched) expecting upwards of ten million viewers to tune in on a Sunday night is economic and entertainment madness. As consumers we want to watch when we have time. Or so the theory goes.

The Howard League for Prison Reform tells us there are currently 78 037 people in prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales. David Leslie in Banged Up (published in 2014) tells us there are 120 prisons in England. Scotland has the highest number of people in prison or probation in the UK, and the highest in Europe. Statistics from the Council of Europe, a human rights organisation, show Scotland’s “correctional rate” is 548 people per 100,000 – behind only Russia and Lithuania. The correctional rate for England and Wales was 459, while the Europe-wide median was 318. That’s all the boring stuff nobody much reads. Jimmy McGovern knows this, people want stories they can relate to, and that’s what he’s selling us.

I’m sure I passed an ex-lifer walking down Duntocher Road on Thursday, who had been serving a sentence for two murders. He drunk in my pub, and he’ll be out on license. I talked to another guy whose son is in prison for murder. His date for release was put back because he got involved in a gym brawl. Then there is the ongoing case of a twenty-six-year-old Dalmuir lad, who was said to have been put in a bath of what was described as ‘a corrosive substance’, and later died. The number of murderers on license has doubled in the past five years. The Probation Service was privatised and renationalised because it was in such a colossal failure that couldn’t be ignored even by Tory scum.  But here’s the rub, our prisons are in a permanent state of siege and overcrowding. Yet crime levels are generally falling.  I live in a very quiet bit of Dalmuir with other old folk, nothing much happens, and that’s the way I like it. I don’t want drama.

Jimmy McGovern’s day job (most writers’ task) is not just making something happen, but to make things worse. So here we have the new fish, Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) sent to prison. He’s killed somebody, after drink driving. Is he mad, bad, or sad?

Well, he’s remorseful, but not really bad, after all he’s a middle-class schoolteacher and most prisoner are working class and come from deprived backgrounds (or ex-school teacher, McGovern had Sean Bean dress up at night as a woman and recite The Lady of Shallot [https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45359/the-lady-of-shalott-1832] to his pupils in a previous production, which is a poetry crime in extremis, so they have previous).

The twin strand of the storyline has prison officer Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) on the wing that Mark Cobden is imprisoned. ‘You were hard but fair,’ a former inmate tells him when he’s picking up drugs. But that’s to jump ahead.

Then you have the mad, Bernard (Aneurin Barnard). ‘Top bunk or bottom?’ Mark Cobden asks when he’s introduced to his new cellmate. Bernard’s body is covered in scars. He cuts himself, self-harms and is dragged away to the hospital wing regularly. He’s sick in the head. Prison officer McNally tells his mum, he’s sorry about what happened, but they were doing the best they could. The truth was most of the folk in prison were sick in the head. She doesn’t care. She only cares about her son.

In the preface to David Leslie’s Banged Up, he explains prisoner’s crimes range from the farcical to the terrible, but prisoners have one thing in common. Time. How to beat the boredom of being locked up 23 out of 24 hours, how to do time. Boredom is a killer. Drugs and bootleg booze a welcome relief. Cobden finds himself being stuck in his cell a bit of relief (like many others), because he’s been bullied by Johno (James Nelson Joyce). He steals his grub. Jumps in front of him in the queue for phones. And threatens to set his feet on fire with turpentine. He’s already flung a kettle of boiling water and added sugar so it sticks to a fellow prisoner he calls a grass. Cobden hides in his cell as a coping strategy.

The local Glaswegian kingpin on the block tells him that ‘his life will be hell’ until he hits back. Prison officer McNally’s life is already hell. His son is in a Young Offender’s and he’s told he’ll be assaulted unless McNally brings in stuff to the prison. McNally arranges with his governor for his son to be ghosted to another institution. But he’s sent a reminder that didn’t work. McNally isn’t trying to protect himself, but his son, and family. Hard choices.

Jimmy McGovern knows how to save face. Stevie (Dean Fagan) for example is Cobden’s new cell mate. And as part of retributive justice is allowed to tell his story to the victim’s parents. A lad he stabbed in a brawl. McGovern allows us to look at it in two ways. Stevie admits he was skint and took a drink from the man he murder’s pint, but he didn’t have enough money to buy him another. He’s in the sad category, but to save face he challenged him to fight. Took a hammering and stabbed him. It makes the convoluted sense that anyone living in a working-class district well understands.

Prisoners worst enemies are themselves is the message McGovern pitches again and again. And he’s right. But it’s not a vote winner. Locking so many people up, especially women makes no sense either economically (McGovern gets in the cost by admitting for every prisoner inside there’s an administrator’s wage being paid, and of course, added profit for private companies added as we ape the American model) or morally. Next to wrapping yourself in the flag, floggings and beating of prisoner is a sure way to get yourself elected and stay elected. The Honourable Margaret Thatcher, for example, favoured hanging and corporal punishment. Johnson favours whatever makes him sound less like the dim-witted pantomime horse he really is. Back to the drama. Yeh, worth watching. McGovern, as we expect, hits all the right beats in the right way and asks question of what we mean by atonement, and if such a thing as justice is possible outside The Book of Job?   

David Leslie (2015) Carstairs Hospital for Horrors

carstairs.jpg

Someone gave me this book, perhaps knowing I’m never happier than when unhappy and wallowing in the worst of humanity, and it makes a pleasant change from Nazi death camps. Erving Goffman defined a total institution as a place that is isolated and enclosed as Carstairs Hospital obviously is, but a wider reading also acknowledges the secrecy that such places engender. My first attempt at novel writing, Huts, written around eight years ago takes place in a similar total institution.  Staff are not allowed to talk about their work to outside agencies. More than that maxim, a total institution goals, such as the cure and rehabilitation of the violent and insane, become subverted to protecting its employees: the total institution exists because it exists, and it must always exist, whatever the cost. In this case the cost to taxpayers works in around £14 billion per year, or £285 000 per patient in NHS fees, or the equivalent of Wayne Rooney’s weekly wage, but the figures never seem to add up. Then again most public limited companies also follow this practice. It’s almost a state secret trying to find out, for example, how much Manchester United pay in tax (the answer is negative).  It is no surprise that David Leslie’s attempt to get someone inside the institution of Carstairs to offer an official response to his book was met with a firm ‘no comment’, especially with a title that includes ‘Hospital of Horrors’, worthy of most News of the World type headlines and its journalists who gleefully admitted their mandate was to destroy people’s lives. But the residents of Carstairs really did destroy people’s lives

By far the best writing in the book, the equivalent of Jack Abbot’s In the Belly of the Beast, who in a familiar pattern, went onto kill after being released, come from the mea culpa letters of Robert Mone. The irony that when Robert Mone and Thomas McCulloch escaped from Carstairs in 1976, killing a fellow patient, a nurse and a policeman with weapons made inside the institution, and terrorising a family before being captured is not that they were insane, but that they had not planned beyond getting over the fence and they were later tried and sentenced in a criminal court and sent to prison. Their escape bid was successful as they did not return to Carstairs. Leslie asks the simple question what is Carstairs for? He cites numerous cases of patients moved to other institutions and from there into the community, who then go on to rape and kill. Thomas McCulloch now married and living outside Carstairs fits into that category.

But there are different kinds of murders. None worse than the cliché. David Leslie leaves no stone unturned with his identikit descriptions. I’ll string a few pearls together. ‘He was a nasty, cowardly, killer, made fools of staff and showed security to a joke at the establishment, which had been specifically created to be the most secure in the land.’ Leslie is referring to Noel Ruddie, who killed ‘popular dad of three James McConville…blasted at point blank range. It was only by sheer good luck…’

The case of Noel Ruddie particularly interests me because of a character Archie Denny I wrote about over eight years ago in my first attempt at a novel.

A Flymo appears on the slope, hovering like an orange spaceship, cutting blade set spacer by spacer high, but not as high as Archie Denny, white as a ghost, in dark winter wear, who dwarves the machine, making it look like a children’s toy. He’s extremely quick over the ground, moving his strong wrists in a sinuous and easy manner, with his head cocked, as if he is listening to the beat of the two-stroke engine and the promise of tender spring in the smell of freshly-cut grass. Archie seems to have a feel for the weight of a mechanical part and an eye for how things work. The Flymo glides, spraying green, bumping up on the tarmac path.

I jerk a hand up in greeting, much like I’d do to stop a double-decker bus. Side-shed swept across his forehead with enough greyish hair to hide behind his cloudy grey eyes, he can’t fail to see me, but doesn’t really make eye contact.   I’m used to one or the other with most patients, but not both. The machine slides away from my feet.  He is always in a hurry, always has fags because he works outside and has wee jobs fixing things. Archie is maybe a bit younger than Wullie the Pole, but not by much. It’s as if Archie’s shy or sly, he turns the machine and rattles the Flymo away from me without looking in my direction.

Archie Denny was employed as a gardener in fictional Glenboig hospital, as Noel Ruddie was in a Lennox Castle hospital before he killed again, but I thought my portrait of Archie Denny might have been  overstated, the equivalent of a pink flamingo standing in a bucket of water, but I now know that’s not the case. I’m grateful to David Leslie for that insight, but there are some horrors in his book I can’t overlook.

In the movement between fact and fiction is a waste land and in lives lived backwards: ‘There [sic] claims of innocence fell on deaf ears’ (p237). ‘Elaine was flattered by his attention, flaunting her body before him’ (234). ‘Marriage is a relationship in which trust is all important’ (233). ‘Had the devils been banned from his head?’ (233). ‘She was left heart broken and distraught’ (229). ‘By a strange quirk of fate, at almost the same moment’ (219). ‘The same doctors who fought to save her, now battled to preserve the life of a killer’ (216). ‘He would fight his greatest battle to regain his sanity surrounded by strangers’ (216). ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah, never knew what hit her’ (216). ‘Blessed unconsciousness took her from the nightmare of pain, terror and bewilderment’ (216). ‘There were no clouds on the horizon’ (214)’.

I’ll take two consecutive sentences and rewrite it to show how bewildered I became ‘by no clouds on the horizon’, patients living in the lap of luxury, and no killer cliché left unturned. ‘Night after night, he lay awake, unable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’

Night after night, he lay awake, uUnable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’

Leslie has problems other than grammar and semantics such as ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah,’ a jumble of mismatched words and chapter titles that start out with one topic and end on a different island. He refers to a Clydebank hotel and later a Clydebank motel, the Clydebank Hotel, the Erskine hotel, which is a bit confusing as Clydebank has three hotels and none of them are, or were called, the Clydebank Hotel. Someone goes to Lourdes for the ‘air’ and not the waters which are said to hold miraculous healing properties. My favourite was a Carstair’s patient, Wilkinson, who raped and killed a little girl, but ‘good was possible even in those capable of great evil’ (71). Wilkinson’s greater good was to offer his kidney for a transplant to a stranger. But Wilkinson suffered from ‘epilepsy associated with a personality disorder’. If a person has epilepsy it does not follow they have a personality disorder, although some might have, in the same way that some individuals who suffer from epilepsy might like cheese cake. Having epilepsy, a medical condition associated with the electrical activity on neurons in the brain, has little of nothing to do with the behavioural patterns of a perceived reaction to social stimuli, nor do either have much or anything to do with the kidneys (see cheesecake example). Like Leslie I’m over embellishing the egg. Carstairs Hospital for Horrors. The horrors of the prose stand out, although Robert Mone is a stand-alone hit and I’d certainly like to read more of his work.