Amazingly enough, the writers of this series actually allow some social issues to intrude upon the action in this overblown and lurid drama. It’s television melodrama, but only uses melodramatic tropes as cliché and post-modern joke. It does, however, take itself very seriously at certain times.
Much of the popularity of ITV1’s long-running Bad Girls (1999-2006) is down to the echoes of prison exploitation films and the ironic, cultish enthusiasm for Australian television’s Prisoner: Cell Block H. This series ran on Network 10 from 1979 until 1986, but it was the frequent reruns on late-night British television in the ‘80s and ‘90s that saw it attain cult status, resulting in a West End musical version in 1995.
Women’s prison drama has a well-established and sometimes controversial history. There’s always a strong element of sexualisation and sexual exploitation within the plotting. That’s part of the sub-genre and Bad Girls is no exception. Shell Dockley (Debra Stephenson) is the bi-sexual, blonde, baby-faced sociopath torture-killer. Yvonne Atkins (Linda Henry) is the leather-clad, glamazon wife of a London crime boss doing time for her man.
There’s no shortage of twitching addicts, tarts with hearts of gold, bigamous husband-poisoners, and earnest religious converts who have mended their ways. Not to mention the prison officers. Foremost amongst this clique is Fenner (Jack Ellis) who has got to be one of the great villains of recent popular TV. There is no depth to which Fenner will not stoop and he counts amongst his conquests/victims both co-governors of the prison, one he has seduced: Karen Betts (Claire King); and one he assaults and undermines: Helen Stewart (Simone Lahbib). Dockley is also his long-term lover, and the series opener is all about how she goes about exacting revenge when she finds out about Fenner and Betts.
The dramatic tempo of the programme is quite easy and directs the viewer, with clamorous refrains and lingering, cliff-hanging scenarios. This is trash TV at its finest.
However, every so often some issues break through. One such storyline surrounds the vulnerable Buki Lester (Kim Oliver) a 16-year-old prostitute and crack addict. She is permitted her moment during which she expresses her pain and anguish as to how she was abused from childhood and forced into prostitution. She shows the authentic status of the woman inhabiting a criminal world but for whom abuse from the age of five means she had all choices removed before she knew they existed.
But the campness overwhelms any authentic undertone. Flickers of naturalism are drowned out by the clamour of lesbian voyeurism, exploitation and hackneyed storylines. Larkhall Prison has only a passing acquaintance with reality, but what is successful in its depiction is the sense of the grinding boredom of incarceration and the pettiness of factions and cliques on the inside.
Whilst the lack of racism is a pleasant if unrealistic surprise, the existence of a homo-normative culture amongst inmates shown on screen makes for a significant contribution. This was primetime viewing that enabled some diversity of representation. Which makes a refreshing change for British television.