Television: Addictive prison drama that offers no escape

I’ve always imagined I’d flourish in prison. Think Noël Coward in The Italian Job: a natural leader. I’d soon find myself planning bank robberies from the inside, and plastering my cell with pictures of the Queen.

But after watching a few episodes of Wentworth (Channel 5, Mondays, 10pm), I’m having second thoughts. Not just about jail. I’m tempted to stay as far away from Australia as possible – the prison drama from Down Under is now in its fourth season, and has witnessed so many ridiculous twists and turns that the former governor, Joan Ferguson, is now doing time.

Ferguson is one of the most compelling villains in TV history – an unfriendly giant with a face that looks like it’s been chiselled out of stone – and she’s winkled her way back into Wentworth to exact revenge on Bea Smith for something that happened a long time ago. I suspect neither character can remember exactly what it was.

Wentworth isn’t about plot. It’s about ambiance. The women prisoners fall into two categories: crack addicts and violent lesbians. The line between those is frequently blurred – as is the distinction between warden and prisoner. The wardens seem to be criminals in uniform, happy to ignore misdemeanours in exchange for cash or a quick grope. A lot of them are lesbians. The only person who isn’t is Joan Ferguson, who stands above it all. Quite literally. It would require a step ladder to kiss her on the lips.

In an odd way, Wentworth is a compassionate drama. One character gets out of
jail and misses the routine so much that she goes back every afternoon and stares at the prison walls from her car. Wentworth is a little world full of strange riches for those who have nothing outside.

It’s addictive for both its characters and for the viewers, which accounts for its enormous global success. Perhaps we should show it to wayward youngsters considering a life of crime. This drama would scare anyone straight.