Grey is the New Black – ‘Within These Walls’

A huge success for LWT, the series offered an authentic portrayal of day-to-day life for the inmates and staff of a women’s prison

Forty-five years ago, before Prisoner: Cell Block H, long before Bad Girls and even further back than Orange is the New Black British television gave us Within These Walls, Granada’s worthy attempt to portray life inside a women’s prison. Created by writer-actor David Butler, the show would run for five years and was a ratings winner when networked. Butler himself took a semi-recurring role in the show, playing the prison chaplain Reverend Prentice.

The gaol in question was HMP Stone Park, initially presided over by governor Faye Boswell. Faye is a reformer; somebody who is dismissive of the old methods of the penal system and dislikes the antiquated design of establishments like Stone Park. Ably played by the renowned actress Googie Withers, Faye is very forward-thinking for her day and isn’t one to rule the roost with a rod of iron. Other members of her staff aren’t as sympathetic to her enlightened thinking, with Chief Officer Mrs Armitage – and particularly the strict, lonely, sour-faced Assistant Governor Martha Parish – often favouring harsher methods of control. Deputy Governor, Charles Radley barely does anything much of interest and spends a lot of his time sitting on the fence, not really ever getting a meaty story of his own. All of the major social issues are covered in the series alcohol, drugs, abuse, prostitution, the class system, prison violence, racism, child neglect, infanticide, even an outbreak of religious fervour; some rather tough stuff for audiences to view. The series even delved into the – for the time – daring issue of lesbianism and relationships between prisoners and officers. This storyline featured Miss Parish and an inmate but was confined to a single episode and went no further. We learn little else about Martha’s life over the course of the show, but in the third series there’s an episode in which her niece comes to stay with her, and we see the difficulty that she has relating to the younger generation. In many ways Martha is as isolated as the women over which she guards.

The casting of the main officious characters is uniformly impressive: Withers has a striking presence that allows Mrs Boswell to run the prison firmly, yet compassionately. The other real star of the show is undoubtedly Mona Bruce, who is terrific as Mrs Armitage: ostensibly a battle-hardened cynic who has seen it all, we soon discover that this is partly a front for some of the problems that she has at home. Mrs Armitage combines her full-time job with the demands of caring both for a disabled husband and, later, looking after her widowed daughter and granddaughter after the former was injured in a car crash. One of Mrs Armitage’s best episodes comes in the fourth series episode Someone’s Got to Do It, one of three episodes co-written by Bruce herself, alongside her actor husband Robert James. In it, she finds herself coming close to quitting the prison service after years of loyal duty and questions her role within it. The role of other main player in this tale, Radley, is taken by Jerome Willis who despite rarely having any of the major storylines is never less than very good in a somewhat thankless role. The other main member of the show’s ensemble is Denys Hawthorne’s rather smarmy Dr Mayes, who is also a near ever-present. Mayes has an on-off relationship with the welfare officer, Miss Clarke the nature of which perhaps showed that the staff were as institutionalised as the prisoners.

Unlike the aforementioned series that followed, Within These Walls had a more varied cast of inmates. With each episode there came a number of new prisoners, very few long-running ones carried on through the show. Likewise, the staff – there are very few of the ‘screws’ who are present in the show for a sustained run, so a sense of continuity isn’t really there from week to week. We rarely get the opportunity to follow prisoners through the term of their sentence, and due to the rotating roster of inmates there isn’t really a sense of community in Stone Park: unlike Prisoner, there’s no Top Dog like Bea Smith here. The nearest we get to an on-going character amongst the prisoners is Betty Romaine’s Georgie Weeks, an elderly habitual alcoholic who prefers living incarcerated than on the outside; the character is rather similar to Prisoner’s Lizzie Birdsworth. Georgie’s entire life is inside, and when in Getting Out she is informed that she has qualified for an outside trip in preparation for her eventual release, she informs the staff that she has nobody left to go and see. Georgie keeps on finding herself back inside, on one occasion after getting into trouble after drinking hair lacquer. Due to the approach taken with the style of the series, it is very much a one that deals with ‘issues’ on a weekly basis rather than ongoing character arcs.

The premise of the show is that in each instalment we would get to see a different aspect, wing or area of the prison thus allowing for a variety of new individuals to be featured, however this idea isn’t entirely successfully realised as more or less the same sets are on display each week – and they are pretty much relentlessly grey. Largely studio-bound, the prison interior is a grim-looking place with the decor largely comprised of a colour scheme that would do a Royal Navy battleship proud. Incarceration isn’t intended to be as pleasant as a luxury hotel, but surely the women who live in Stone Park could have somewhere a little more inspiring than this? The only concession to decoration comes when we see the camera pan out from a shot of a solitary vase of flowers that is always situated on a table in the wing. Early in the series Faye takes steps to try and make the best of the Victorian building by embarking on a programme of renovation, aiming to do away with the dangerous and depressing open floors onto which prisoners had routinely flung themselves. Her budget didn’t stretch to some tins of more pleasantly-coloured paint, however.

If its familiar British character actors that you want, then Stone Park is the right place for you: making guest appearances in the series as prisoners are the likes of Pat from EastEnders, Ivy from Last of the Summer Wine, Trace off Birds of a Feather… or rather, the actresses that played these characters. The programme is a rare example of a female-dominated series and showcases many stalwart and upcoming British actresses: Stephanie Cole, Liz Smith, Floella Benjamin, Pamela Stephenson, Angela Thorne and Kathryn Byron are just a few of the names who pass through the doors of Stone Park over the course of the show. One particularly interesting character is Kathleen Marsh, who appears three times in the series; played with relish by Anne Mitchell, Marsh is a deliciously oleaginous woman who will twist and bend other inmates into doing what she wants them to. Marsh really should have been used more often as the character is fascinatingly complex.

There are many very impressive episodes but one of the best in the entire  run comes in the third series in A Free Woman, which guest stars the excellent Margery Mason and Joan Hickson (on the wrong side of the law for once) as a pair of lags who find themselves falling out with each other when the former – a receiver of stolen goods – discovers that her friend is in Stone Park for the attempted murder of her husband. Mason’s character, May Leckwith, finds herself in prison after deliberately getting herself arrested for shoplifting in order to escape the unwanted amorous attentions of her husband. In her mind she thinks that she is merely having a break, but when the reality hits her that she is now a convict, Hickson’s Edna turns on her and May suffers a breakdown. By this point the series had really hit its stride and each week brings the viewer a tale that is more often than not thought-provoking and interesting.

Googie departed after three series, to be replaced first by Katharine Blake’s Helen Forrester for the fourth, and Sarah Lawson’s Sarah Marshall for the fifth and final run, by which time the show had more or less run out of steam. Mrs Forrester doesn’t immediately make a very positive impression: she comes across as starchy, cold and disciplinarian but we soon see another side of her when we learn that she is a lonely widow whose husband had been an alcoholic and spends much of her time alone in the flat that she lives in within the grounds of the prison. The character isn’t as sympathetic as her predecessor, and she occasionally doubts her own ability and her relationships with her staff.

Charles Radley is passed over for the top job for a third time when Helen Forrester leaves her role to study prisons in Europe and is replaced by Mrs Marshall. She comes across as more sympathetic and less frosty than Forrester and quickly makes her mark on the prison. But despite this, neither Mrs Marshall or Mrs Forrester are a patch on Mrs Boswell, and nor are the actresses who play them in comparison to the mighty Googie. Story-wise the series rarely falters however, with some fine tales coming during the latter years.

The series came to an end after five successful years but the final run wasn’t picked up by all of the ITV regions, leaving followers of the show either unable to see or unaware of the presence of it. It finished on something of a low-key note, with the retirement of Mrs Armitage who leaves the service to look after her invalid husband, Ted and also we see the passing of Georgie Weeks whose years of boozing finally catch up with her.

The very last shot of the series features those same grey corridors and the same vase of flowers on the same table that we saw at the very beginning: images that serve to remind the viewer that in the prison and criminal justice system whilst methods of punishment may change, often the surroundings in which the prisoners find themselves don’t.

Chris Orton occasionally writes odds and sods, including co-authoring books on Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who for Miwk Publishing. He can be found on Twitter at @chrisorton2011

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