Why Spanish thriller Locked Up could be the new Orange is the New Black

Need a break from Scandi noir? Channel 4's new thriller could be the next great Euro drama

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There is one country conspicuous by its absence from the list of subtitled treats on our television screens. While Spain has a world-renowned film industry, it has yet to produce an internationally successful TV drama. But that could be about to change.

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Set in a fictional, high security women’s prison on the outskirts of Madrid, Locked Up (Vis a Vis in Spanish, which is slang for “conjugal visits”) focuses on the misfortune of Macarena Ferreiro, a timid former accountant who is sentenced to seven years behind bars for tax fraud, which she naively committed at the request of her millionaire former boss and lover. Pretty, middle-class and from a close-knit family, Macarena is an all-too-easy target for the murderers, drug addicts and career fraudsters who populate Cruz del Sur prison.

To make matters worse, on Macarena’s first night a cellmate is murdered in the bathroom over a stash of €9 million hidden somewhere in Madrid. All of the prisoners are desperate to get their hands on the money, triggering a dangerous face-off between the most powerful inmates that extends beyond the prison walls.

“The series has the most violence and sex we’ve ever seen on TV in Spain,” says creator and executive producer Alex Pina.

“Spanish viewers are watching more drama – more international drama – and they’re becoming experts. They’ve got a sharper eye for what’s good and we have to keep up with that. Initially I wasn’t that excited by the prospect of a women’s prison but when we sat down to write, we realised that there was huge scope for creating drama.

“Having a group of people locked up allows you to explore love, conflict and fear on a much greater scale because the characters have no means of escaping their situation – or each other.”

The reception to the series in Spain (where it first aired in March 2015) proves that Pina has a point. An immediate hit with audiences, attracting over four million viewers per episode, it was commissioned for a second series before the first had reached its mid-point. Critics were equally enraptured, comparing it with The Wire. “Locked Up is a towering series,” wrote one national newspaper. “Spanish drama will never be the same again,” declared another.

But what makes the show such a gamechanger? “This time there was a conscious decision to make the look and rhythm of the series very international,” says Pina. “The main plot is broken up by the characters talking to camera for a documentary that is being made on prison life, which gives it a really modern feel. And it’s shot more like a film than TV. The music is different, it’s darker.”

Walter Iuzzolino is the man in charge of selecting the content for Walter Presents, Channel 4’s free, online streaming service for foreign drama. On average, he watches eight hours of subtitled drama per day, picking the best to upload as box sets. Only series that he considers to be exceptional make the jump from online to a slot on the main channel. Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 was the first. Locked Up is the second.

“I was really struggling to find a brilliant Spanish piece,” says Iuzzolino. “A lot of the shows I’d seen were too gentle and slow and dealt with obvious themes. But when I saw the first episode of Locked Up, I instantly loved it. It’s very shiny and feels American – you could imagine it being made by HBO – but at the same time it’s got the darkness of a Scandi noir. And it really cracked the stereotype by having this action-movie quality and putting women at the centre of it.”

Did the creators ever consider setting the series in a male prison? “It wouldn’t have been as interesting,” is Pina’s response. “In Spain about 60 per cent of women watch TV drama compared with 40 per cent of men, but the stories are rarely told from a female perspective. Locked Up appeals to both genders. Women are interested in the assorted characters and how they develop, while for the men, the fascination is, ‘How do a group of women behave when we’re taken out of the picture?’ It’s also allowed us to bring new ideas to Spanish drama – the lesbian love triangle, for instance.”

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You could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Locked Up is simply a raunchier, European remake of the hit Netflix prison drama Orange Is the New Black. However, by the end of its first episode, Locked Up establishes itself as a very different beast from its American sister.

Both take as their starting point the bleak, volatile reality of incarceration and star a diverse female cast, but whereas Orange is a comedy of manners based around daily prison life, Locked Up is a complex, fast-paced thriller grappling with questions of morality and betrayal.

“I was initially scared to watch Orange Is the New Black,” says Maggie Civantos, who plays Macarena. “But once I started, I thought, wow, this is great, but it’s completely different to what we’re doing. Our tone is much darker and there’s more violence.”

Civantos was relatively unknown before being cast as Macarena. Luckily for her, however, the creators of Locked Up were determined not to hire big names. “What really stands out about the series is how none of the cast are well known,” says Iván Escobar, who co-wrote the show with Pina and two others. “We wanted viewers to believe they were watching goings-on in a prison and not be distracted by the fact they’d seen the actresses in six series before.”

Neither the creators nor the cast can quite believe that Locked Up is going to be shown on British television. “I see English actors as the best,” enthuses Civantos, “so I’m so excited by this.”

“For us, the UK makes some of the best drama in the world,” adds Escobar. “I watch everything you make – Black Mirror, Catastrophe – but the best is Happy Valley. I’m amazed that our series is going to be broadcast in Britain. But so proud.”

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Locked Up’s first episode airs on Channel 4 tonight (Tuesday 17th May) at 10.00pm, after which point the entire series will be available exclusively on All4