Camping It Up Behind Bars: ‘Bad Girls: The Complete Series Five’

We return to HMP Larkhall for Season Five in the company of Sylvia ‘Bodybag’ Hollamby (Helen Fraser), ‘Crazy’ Di Grayling (Tracey Wilkinson), and ‘evil scumbag’ Jim Fenner (Jack Ellis). And that’s just the prison officers. There’s nobody who does not possess a dirty secret of one form or another. Corruption, drug-taking, abuse, exploitation abound – just another average day behind bars in a fictional women’s prison.

Shell Dockley (Debra Stephenson) is re-discovered in a kinky cabaret bar in Amsterdam’s red light district, by her former prison officers on a stag weekend. She is extradited back to Larkhall only to disclose that she is now pregnant. Fenner must find some way of defeating his nemesis, with his usual cruel and ruthless tactics.

In fact there is no length to which he, firmly established as one of the classic TV villains of recent years, will not go in order to effect his evil plans. The way in which he frames his former fiancée Deputy Governor Karen Betts (Claire King) is staggering and has to be seen to believed, really. Suffice to say it involves the theft of her car, a blonde wig and a pair of latex gloves – and lipstick! The latter is a completely superfluous addition but summarises the totality with which the writers and creators have embraced the Camp in popular culture throughout these series.

If, according to Susan Sontag, ‘the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration’ (Sontag: Notes on Camp, 1964), then Bad Girls utterly and positively embodies that. Taking characters’ experiences into extremes of cruelty, seriousness, and humour are features of the Camp. But, a word of caution, to ‘talk about the Camp is therefore to betray it’ as Sontag goes on to say, so in order not to burst the delicate bubble of Campness, I will move on.

Fabulous in her glamour and deviousness is Stephanie Beacham (The Colbys) as Phyl who, with the gorgeous Amanda Barrie (Carry on Cleo ; Coronation Street) as Bev, makes up the pairing of the ‘Costa Cons’. They are two ladies who appear respectable but spend their time grifting across Spain, France and the UK. They manage to brew up a batch of ‘Chateau Larkhall’ in the greenhouse to get the inmates inebriated. This then gives the girls courage to stage a protest about the impending privatisation of the prison – yes, Bad Girls gets political! – for which they take a hostage, Christopher Biggins ( I, Claudius ; I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! ) playing himself. Biggins is a national treasure of stage and screen and is the perfect Camp component — no one else could possibly have qualified to be the Bad Girls’ bargaining chip! Inevitably, they persuade him around to their point of view.

Liberal doses of sex and violence, glamorous lesbians, smack-addicted prison officers, escape attempts and suicide – and more glamorous lesbians, create the perfect formula for prison drama. There’s also the touching storyline that follows the case of the ‘Two Julies’ — lifelong friends since they were on the game as teenagers – when one of them is diagnosed with breast cancer. Her comment that she wasted the best years of her ‘boobs’ by having to let ‘punters’ grope them is both poignant and bitterly amusing.

We build to a further cliff-hanging crescendo with Yvonne Atkins (Linda Henry) making a bid for freedom but having to get past Fenner in the underground passageway the women have discovered. She is shut in the ‘hanging cell’ and left screaming for her life in what is the equivalent of being walled up alive in a Gothic melodrama. The attitudes of the Camp, comic, the Gothic and exaggeration prevail in a winning combination. Series Five is G-Wing at its finest.

No extras come with this DVD set.

RATING 8 / 10