Why you should be watching Channel 4’s Screw
Ivan Radford | On 06, Jan 2022
What do doctors, firefighters and the police have in common? They’ve all had TV series made about them. Prison guards, on the other hand, have been on our screens countless times before, but have never really been the protagonists of their own drama. Enter Channel 4’s Screw, which takes us behind bars but keeps us on the outside. The result is a thoughtful, funny and gripping watch.
Our way into C Wing in a busy men’s prison is Rose (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), a trainee in her early 20s who’s got street smarts but still isn’t prepared for what being a guard is like. That’s partly the reason for the show’s success – like Rose, most people have never really considered the reality of working (or volunteering) inside a prison, which means that our eyes are opened wider by what we see at the same time as her.
The other reason behind the show’s success is the word “reality”. Rather than go down the salacious drama route or turn things into a light-hearted sitcom, Killing Eve writer Rob Williams expertly balances the light and shade of it all, juggling humour and warmth with darker, sadder and dangerous moments. Based on his experience as a volunteer in a prison, Williams – who consulted with prison officers, a prison governor and the Prison Officers Association – captures the day-to-day reality of being a guard, from the boredom of a long shift in which nothing happens to the challenge of a day when everything goes wrong at once.
It’s a challenge that Rose finds she has to adapt to – again and again – to the point where the other guards take bets on how long she’ll last until she quits. There’s detached veteran Don (Ron Donachie), the amusingly frank Jackie (King Gary’s Laura Checkley), the dubiously inappropriate yet fiercely loyal Gary (Stephen Wight) and the naive Ali (Faraz Ayub). And in charge of them all is Leigh (Nina Sosanya), who somehow manages to be compassionate and ruthless at the same time
Ever since Teachers, Nina Sosanya has been a magnetic screen presence and she once again brings multitudes of depth to the role of the fascinating head guard, who absolutely believes the system is broken and therefore tries to make a difference rather than enforce rules for the sake of it. Her stern and warm leadership makes for a great contrast with Rose, who initially takes the job as a way of just making the rent. But there are motivations and secrets lurking underneath their surfaces, with Leigh having to compromise to secure what she sees as her purpose as well as her livelihood and Rose having to decide what kind of guard she’ll be – while already struggling to leave her personal life at the door, with all its commitments and debts.
Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, who was great as Michelle in Derry Girls, steps comfortably into the serious dramatic waters, but her comic timing is also firmly at home, with Williams’ script finding copious chances for chuckles amid poignant story developments. The purpose-built set instils a lingering claustrophobic while also allowing for cinematic sweeps from one level to the next. The result is someone where between BBC One’s Time and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, with a dash of Spanish thriller Locked Up, but unlike all those shows, Screws doesn’t let us discover the crimes that the prisoners have committed – the dramatic tension is rooted in the fact that each inmate is a separate person, but we’re taught, like the guards, to judge them only on how they behave from the moment we meet them.
It’s a decision that gets right to the heart of what makes Screws such an interesting watch; the series treats guards as individual humans rather than uniforms, but it also understands that locking people up isn’t the point of their work. The prisoners’ loss of liberty is their punishment – everything else that happens behind bars is meant to inspire and encourage change. People aren’t inherently bad, Screws reminds us, they just do bad things. It’s a truth that applies on both sides of the bars, and the ensuing maze of choices and consequences keeps us coming back for each riveting episode.
Screw is available on All 4 until 18th January 2021.