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Screw, Channel 4, review: This prison drama has all the excitement of an episode of Teletubbies

Jul 27, 2023Jul 27, 2023

From Porridge to the Shawshank Redemption, prisons are naturally gripping settings for comedy, drama and everything in between. But series one of Channel 4’s Screw never quite lived up to its potential.

It boasted a fantastic cast, headed by Nina Sosanya and Derry Girls’ Jamie-Lee O’Donnell as stressed, over-worked wardens – “screws” in the lingo of the genre. Yet the story was slow to get out of first gear. Even a bloody finale in which a gun was smuggled onto C-Wing at the fictional Long Marsh men’s prison failed to ignite.

Sosanya and O’Donnell were again impressive as the drama returned for a second time and the story picked up several weeks after the shooting at the end of series one, with both the prison staff and the inmates readjusting to the eerie calm that followed the violence – particularly O’Donnell’s Rose, who was coming back after a period of compassionate leave.

The pacing was dreary. The best prison shows – and this even includes hokum such as Prison Break – thrive on knife-edge tension. Screw, by contrast, struggled for a consistent tone. It had all the razor-wire excitement of a Teletubbies double-bill on Cbeebies.

Did it secretly want to be a sitcom? There were times when the quickfire banter between the prison officers was played for laughs. “We’ll have to keep our eyes out for anyone hanging around the cells looking suspicious,” said one officer. “It’s a prison. They all look suspicious,” quipped another.

Then there were moments when Screw leaned towards soap opera. One subplot concerned the enigmatic paramour of Sosanya’s Leigh. Another had to do with the stop-start romance between prison officers Gary (Stephen Wright) and Jackie (Laura Checkley).

Attempts to inject mystery via a storyline about an undercover police officer misfired, too. It seemed glaringly obvious which of the new inmates was the copper in disguise -⁠ the only real surprise was the other inmates failed to recognise the spy in their midst.

A plot line involving a thief on the wing felt particularly undercooked. The inhabitants of C-wing were up in arms about the robber, but only the new inmate Patrick noticed another prisoner mooching about in a dubious fashion.

Clichés piled up quickly. “This place is full of sharks, they smell blood,” Gary told a strangely naïve new inmate, Patrick (Line of Duty’s Lee Ingleby). Patrick claimed to be an innocent man banged up for chasing a burglar. But for someone with nothing to hide, the newcomer was behaving suspiciously – and displayed a surprising capacity for violence in a confrontation with another inmate just before the final credits.

In Derry Girls, O’Donnell excelled as a potty-mouthed bad girl, Michelle, and as prison officer Rose, she continues to be the highlight of Screw. Rose committed a terrible mistake in series one by smuggling a firearm into C-Wing after being blackmailed by prisoner Costa (Ben Tavassoli).

With that subterfuge having resulted in the death of another inmate, Toby, she was now plagued with remorse (and also understandably worried about her involvement becoming public knowledge).

O’Donnell delivered a gripping portrayal of slow-burning guilt mingled with paranoia. But it sat uneasily against the cartoonish depiction of the prisoners as overgrown, angry children.

With O’Donnell and Sosanya putting in commanding turns, Screw was certainly watchable, but it needs to work out what sort of prison drama it wants to be. At the moment, it’s an unsatisfying blend of thriller and soap with occasional laughs. This clunker in the clinker is trying to be too many things at once.