Back in the summer of 2018, writer Rob Williams and I were in the Glasgow production office of The Victim (our mini-series for BBC One starring Kelly Macdonald), chatting about the perennial appeal of prison dramas and whether or not it would be possible to create one that brought a fresh spin to such well-trodden territory; and crucially could succeed in being both highly entertaining and totally authentic in its depiction of prison life.
As a former teacher and volunteer in prisons, Rob wanted to create a drama that depicted the reality he’d seen himself – not the unremittingly bleak and frightening version of prisons we often see on screen, but one which shows the full range of human life that exists behind bars – with violence and fear, but also humanity, fellowship and humour. When looking for the all-important new angle, it occurred to us that most UK emergency service workers – police, firefighters, paramedics – have had their own returning TV series, but never prison officers. And when I discovered that over a third of prison officers in the UK these days are women, the possibilities of a distinctive, modern drama set in this world began to open up. Fortunately, Caroline Hollick and the team at Channel 4 saw the potential, and a greenlight for Screw followed.
But that was when the hard work really began. In blissful ignorance of the pandemic waiting for us around the corner, our biggest initial challenge was finding an unused prison in which to film. As a Scottish-based production company, we were determined to film the show north of the border, but it turned out to be impossible to find an empty prison within easy reach of crews that gave us the flexibility we needed. It quickly became clear that we were going to have to build our own set.
The production designer's brilliantly inventive design for a three-storey prison, built within Glasgow’s iconic Kelvin Hall, provided the ideal flexible space within which lead director Tom Vaughan could create a dynamic, fluid shooting style allowing the cast to move around the set in a totally natural way. Working with Tom and a raft of advisors, our cast learned how to embody the characters Rob had created – becoming experts on everything from how to hold keys, unlock a cell door and even subdue a prison riot. The vast majority of our shoot took place on the set over 14 weeks, so for our cast, it became a kind of ‘home’ - albeit one that they were very ready to escape by the end of the shoot.
Meanwhile, as pre-production got underway, Covid was beginning to take hold and like everyone else in the industry, we were forced to grapple with how to make a drama whilst keeping cast and crew safe. That’s no easy task when trying to convey the reality of an overcrowded British prison. Simply employing social distancing between characters within scenes would have been impossible when filming in the cells, and significantly reducing the number of extras would have undermined the credibility of our world. So our producer Brian Kaczynski set about instituting a complex and elaborate set of Covid protocols, which involved a small army to support and enforce, with a hefty line in the budget to pay for it.
As anyone knows who has made a show during the pandemic, the daily effort of adhering to all the protocols and constantly having to reschedule when a cast or crew member is ‘pinged’, exerts huge pressure on the team. Everyone dealt with the situation with impressive fortitude, though it certainly takes quite a lot of the fun out of making drama.
In the end, when the first series of Screw aired, all the challenges we faced in making the show were invisible to viewers. And I hope that spending six hours in the fictional Long Marsh Prison, seeing life behind bars in all its varied colours, encouraged some of them to see prison a little differently.