Wow, this is surprising: a reality TV show that actually feels authentic. It’s been a while since I’ve seen something that felt genuine (even in the realm of reality TV), but Banged Up goes against the norm. I assume the producers would prefer their series, in which celebrities spend a week in the now-closed HMP Shrewsbury with former inmates and are expected to act as if they were serving a real sentence, to be called a social experiment. However, it is still a reality show, just one without the excessive use of fake tans, expensive plastic surgery, and a real sense of violence looming over it all.
The first episode introduces three of the seven famous individuals who have voluntarily signed up for this unusual experience. The first celebrity is Sid Owen, known for his role as Bianca’s “Rickaaaaay!” in EastEnders. He believes that acting has saved him from following in the footsteps of his family members, most of whom have been to prison. His father was convicted of armed robbery, one brother for theft, and another for drug trafficking. Even his mother was involved in petty theft. Despite their financial struggles, they would often resort to stealing. Sid joins the show to better understand his father and brothers, to make up for not visiting them enough when he was younger and afraid of the prison environment, and perhaps as a form of penance for his own success. He is paired with fellow inmate Reece McCoy, a money launderer who tries to entertain him with stories of prisoners being scalded with hot water and sugar. According to Reece, “his face was bubbling!”
Next up is Johnny Mercer, a Member of Parliament from the Conservative Party who graduated from Sandhurst and previously served in the commandos. He claims to be seeking understanding of the system. He is partnered with Kevin Lane, a contract killer who regrets a past incident where he mistakenly kidnapped, beat, gassed, and almost drowned an innocent man. Thankfully, a bystander rescued the victim from the Thames and he survived. Lane admits, “I am a good person, but I lacked guidance from a father figure.” It would be comical if there wasn’t a constant sense of danger surrounding him. The beginning of the program assures viewers that all the former convicts involved have served their time and turned their lives around. However, when looking at Lane, one can only hope that this statement is backed up by solid evidence. It is intriguing to see Mercer challenge Lane on the morality of his actions. Is it true courage or simply the protection of privilege that allows the MP to feel invincible?
In this episode, we meet Marcus Luther, a former Gogglebox star, who believes that individuals choose to pursue a criminal career. Despite growing up in the hood, Luther consciously made the decision to do what is right and avoid criminal activities. He is participating in the program to gain valuable experience that he can use to guide young men at his boxing club and steer them away from making potentially harmful choices. However, his presence at the prison immediately puts him at risk as a gang targets him to prove his toughness and gang affiliation. They want to “G-check” him by pressuring him to participate in the thousands of prisoner-on-prisoner attacks that occur annually. Luther stands his ground and refuses to give in, determined to be a positive influence in a negative environment. As the second day comes to an end, he looks weary, and it’s evident that prison can strip away the goodness in a person and turn it into something negative.
Banged Up’s main advantage is its ability to deceive viewers when compared to other documentaries set in prison. What is considered the most raw and truthful depiction of prison life is actually a watered-down version. The constant threat of violence in Shrewsbury is ever-present and can be felt. Despite being told that there is 24/7 security, this fact is easily forgotten as one witnesses the intense pressure of being confined with a hundred unpredictable men. The incessant verbal threats of rape and violence, as well as the physical strength displayed as they throw chairs and behave aggressively, are overwhelming and suffocating. It is difficult to comprehend how any of the inmates or the wardens can survive in such conditions. It seems almost impossible for anyone to leave that environment without being significantly worse off in every aspect – for themselves, for society, and for the future. As the series progresses, even Johnny Mercer may come to realize this truth, despite his strong belief that anyone can rehabilitate themselves if they truly want to.