Television: Women’s prison gets the soft soap treatment

The observational style of ‘Women on the Inside’ is too soft for this hard subject and leaves too many questions

Peep show: Women on the Inside

Peep show: Women on the Inside

 

Filming in a prison has to be a nightmare, what with all the permissions required and the restrictions, but the director of Women on the Inside (RTÉ One, Monday), Traolach Ó Buachalla, has form. Last year he made Life on the Inside, a year-long look at the lives of six male prisoners at Shelton Abbey and Wheatfield prisons, and overall it presented the prison service in a positive light. So the Dóchas Centre, the only women’s prison in the country, on the Mountjoy campus, comes off very well in his new fly-on-the wall documentary.

The prison officers are very caring about the inmates, conscious of all their needs and troubles. “It’s harder for the women to get this much help outside,” says one officer.

The prison has lovely en-suite rooms – one woman in for manslaughter has, as a reward for good behaviour, relocated to a special section of the prison, where she lives in what looks like a smart, well-appointed apartment. When it’s presented this way it’s hard to see the deterrent involved in sentencing. Indeed, some women say they prefer prison to life on the outside, and with half of all women prisoners homeless that’s not such a surprise.

Towards the end of the episode one of the Dóchas women is sent to Limerick Prison as a punishment, and the camera follows her. Limerick is old-school grim, with locked doors and meals eaten in cells, but she says she prefers it because of all the tension at the Dóchas Centre – which comes as news, because none of that is shown. The only problem with Limerick, says the woman, is the food, but at least she has all the channels on the television in her room.

Back at the Dóchas Centre drugs and “hooch” are referred to in passing, their use in the prison goes unexplored, and there’s no sign of the overcrowding widely reported as a persistent, significant problem.

Eleven prisoners are eligible for temporary release – their places are needed for new prisoners – but they are unable to leave, because no accommodation can be sourced for them.

The nice prison officers try tirelessly to sort out accommodation, the mouthy prisoners give them no thanks for it, and the prison comes across like a quadrant of a revolving door in the cycle of criminality, a safe haven against a dysfunctional outside world.

The observational style of Women on the Inside is too soft for this hard subject. It leaves too many questions unanswered, such as how representative are the women interviewed, who picked them for filming and, aside from the clunky blanking-out of some of the faces of some prisoners (and, oddly, a delivery man), what other restrictions and rules were imposed before the cameras were allowed in?

What happens next is always interesting in documentaries that feature real people. In Women on the Inside we follow one woman on the day of her release, but the vulnerable woman, full of bravado and acting up for the camera, is interviewed drinking whiskey on the street not far from the jail.

But that’s not the best type of what-happened-next. What would be really interesting to know is what happens long after the cameras have gone.

One of the most emotional series in the past four years has been Long Lost Family, in which Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell reunite families – often mothers long separated from their children through adoption. It’s a very public airing of a private event, with every episode a three-hanky exploration of longing and resolution.

Long Lost Families: What Happened Next (UTV, Tuesday) follows up on three stories and finds two cases of blissful happiness – including twin sisters given up for adoption separately but who, for nearly 70 years, lived unbeknown to each other just five kilometres apart. They have now become best friends.

It’s not all happy endings, though. The programme helps a mother find the son whom she gave up for adoption 50 years ago under pressure from her family. Her only photograph of him, as a chubby baby, has been by her bed all that time.

Their reunion on TV was blissful, but four years later the relationship has sundered. Polly, the mother, explains the difficulty in reconciling the image of the baby she carried in her head for five decades with the reality of the middle-aged man who arrived into her life. It’s a poignant and honest take on a happy-ever-after TV vision.

There’s a strong sense of school being back, what with the return of Strictly Come Dancing (BBC One, Sunday), its launch programme up against The X Factor (UTV and TV3, Sunday). Strictly, all spangly and good humoured, won the first bout in the ratings war. The X Factor is filled with sob stories and shots of Cheryl Fernandez-Versini’s huge tear-filled eyes, and so many of the wannabes are such no-hopers that it seems nearly cruel to watch this audition phaseof the series.

Over on Strictly Jennifer Gibney, from Mrs Brown’s Boys, is paired with the professional dancer Tristan McManus. Their Dublin accents are already confounding Claudia Winkleman, the show’s new copresenter. Bruce Forsyth’s tap-dancing into retirement has left two women, Winkleman and Tess Daly, presenting the prime-time entertainment show – and the sky hasn’t fallen in.

The Late Late Show (RTÉ One, Friday) is back, too, but for some reason we’ll have to wait until the new year for a new set, so the series opener, instead of being new-season fresh, looks and feels like a going-through-the-motions hangover from last year.

Graham Norton, on the BBC, and Alan Carr, on Channel 4, do just over an hour of their chat shows, and they have a vast choice of talent coming through London to interview. How is the Late Late supposed to fill twice that without padding as dull as soggy kapok?

At least the Late Late opener has the Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh. She’s a standout interviewee, although Ryan Tubridy’s relentless focus on her sexuality must test even her sunny patience.

The host’s interview with Paul McGinley is wall-to-wall golf minutiae – boring for many, I would have thought – while Tubridy’s attempt at a robust political interview with Tánaiste Joan Burton is pointlessly aggressive: it’s a Friday-night chatshow, not Prime Time. And with all his interruptions and impatiently muttered yes-yeses, it quickly turns tedious. She looks unfazed.

The cutaway shots of the audience are fun, though. The monitors in which they can catch a glimpse of themselves – and do a sneaky wave to Mammy at home – must be high up in front of them, because every time the camera turns to the audience they all appear to be rolling their eyes.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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