Saturday, 10 January 2015

TV Review: BRING BACK BORSTAL and COUNT ARTHUR STRONG

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 10th January 2015.


Bring Back Borstal: Thursday, STV

Count Arthur Strong: Tuesday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Prison these days is like a holiday camp. It's a cheer-sodden fantasy land full of widescreen televisions and games consoles, where inmates enter clicking their heels and exit teary-eyed having enjoyed the time of their lives.

I'm joking, of course. Consider it satire. But “prison's too good for 'em” is basically the straight-faced position one must take in order to accept Bring Back Borstal as a valuable social experiment. The premise is simple: 13 young offenders volunteer to be banged up for a month in a castle-based facsimile of a 1930s borstal. Will they benefit from the experience and become responsible members of society? Or is this gruelling system outdated for a reason?

Actually, that last question isn't addressed at all. The programme more or less accepts that a strict compulsory diet of chopping, scrubbing, gardening and rugger is a guaranteed method of reforming a recidivist. In that sense it's an unquestioning assault of aggressive right wing nostalgia. On the other hand, I must admit that my hand-wringing scepticism was challenged by its sympathetic portrayal of the voluntary inmates.

Despite the Daily Mail-esque trappings, it doesn't portray these fresh-faced crims as a mindless mass of hopeless cases. Instead they're shown for what they are: troubled kids who, for various reasons, have problems with authority and anger management. They're cocky, sure, but that's clearly a desperate fa├žade.

In their more introspective moments, most of them betrayed a kind of earnest, unaffected sincerity. Casey was a prominent example. A sensitive soul with a pregnant girlfriend, his determination to improve his life was sadly undermined by deep-rooted insecurities. The scene in which he broke down in the arms of matron – a reformed offender herself - was particularly poignant.

But such moments jarred abruptly with images of an ex-military stafffer turfing boys out of their beds, and the essentially well-meaning governor insisting that an archaic borstal system is absolutely fool-proof.

Given that prison reform is hardly a black and white issue, I suppose you could argue that Bring Back Borstal's fusion of stern conservative values and broadly liberal sympathies isn't contradictory at all. And yet still it feels like an awkwardly compromised attempt to please all viewers at once. Why, it's almost as if a provocatively titled, gimmicky ITV reality show isn't the ideal vehicle for such a nuanced, complex debate.

Without a hint of exaggeration, it was basically Brass Eye's satirical borstal sketch played absolutely straight. I half expected a “You're reformed!” catchphrase from the governor. Perplexing stuff.

A broad, bright, multi-camera sitcom, Count Arthur Strong is an occasionally sparkling curate's egg. Having peddled this character for years on radio and on stage, Steve Delaney – who co-writes with Graham Linehan (Father Ted; The IT Crowd)delivers a wonderfully assured performance as the muttering, twitching, malapropism-prone Arthur.

But the latest episode was typical in that, a few chuckles aside, it failed to deliver on its promise. I want it to succeed as it's fundamentally likeable and I enjoy the dynamic between Delaney and co-star Rory Kinnear. Yet despite their solid work, the show as a whole is frustratingly uneven.