Brits love Spain. It’s our top holiday destination, our cities are buzzing with copycat tapas bars and the idea of going to war over Gibraltar is preposterous. Most of us might know of Goya, Picasso and the films of Pedro Almodóvar, but could you name a single Spanish television series? Until recently, Iberian TV never really made it past the Pyrenees.
Walter Presents, Channel 4’s foreign drama streaming service, put paid to all that last year when Locked Up,
a racy, unflinching and often gruesome thriller set in a women’s prison, became
the first Spanish series
ever to be shown on
terrestrial British TV.
The first series received
wide acclaim, and has
been streamed 2.5
million times in the UK.
It has made megastars of
its female cast in its home-
land, where the show is
known as Vis a Vis, and has
ignited an interest elsewhere in
Spanish popular culture. The second,
and final, series premieres on Channel 4 on Thursday, before the rest is streamed online.
If you’ve ever flicked idly through the channels in a Spanish hotel room, you’ll know the bleak, brutal world of Locked Up is quite unlike anything else. It stands out from the usual salacious telenovelas, repetitive game shows and trite melodramas – which explains why it’s been sold to 50 countries.
“Locked Up marked a turning point for Spanish storytelling,” says the series’s breakout star, Maggie Civantos, on a crisp, bright morning in Madrid. The 32-year-old actress from Málaga has won multiple awards for her role as vulnerable, delicate, middle-class Macarena Ferreiro who’s thrown into jail for financial crimes and instantly forced to toughen up – or die. “The series is much darker and more violent than anything we were used to seeing on television before. Something about prison is ripe for conflict. You think you know yourself – your morals, your ethics, your sexuality – but everything changes when you lose your freedom. You start to question yourself. And the viewer starts to ask, ‘What would I do?’”
The first series boasted the most violence and sex ever seen on Spanish television: the second will have “even more violence, a little bit less sex”. Locked Up is revolutionary for having women drive taboo storylines – and begins to address the inequality of women on the Spanish screen.
“I’m so proud of the way Locked Up portrays women,” says Civantos. “It’s a breath of fresh air. For years, every female character was subordinate to men, and dependent on them, too. With Locked Up, the male characters are minimal. Suddenly women of all ages were visible on television, with no distinct ‘look’, which went against everything we used to hear about how you have to be beautiful to be an actress. Each character is self-sufficient, and strong in their different ways. I can’t think of any series that are led by such a large female cast.”
Inevitable comparisons have been made with the Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black, a US series also set in a women’s prison, but Civantos hopes that those will end as the second series gets under way. “It’s true, the opening episodes were vaguely similar, but Locked Up has its own identity – and it’s completely different. Orange is a black comedy, but this is a thriller, and by the second series they’re nothing alike. There’s an abyss that separates them.” It is ridiculous, given the deluge of male-driven crime dramas, that two programmes with women wearing loud jumpsuits can’t exist at the same time.
Locked Up, too, shows a new Spain to Brits more used to beaches and cathedrals. “People think they know the stories we have to tell,” Civantos says. “Locked Up is not bullfighting, it’s not flamenco, and it’s not Almodóvar – with all respect to him, whom I love and dream of working with one day. But drama can change your understanding of another country, and I’m proud and grateful that our show is giving people a view of Spain that they’ve never seen.”
Civantos – who grew up watching Monty Python and is inspired by British actors such as Christian Bale and Emily Watson – now feels a responsibility to tackle projects that change viewers’ ways of thinking. Her next role is another first, as she stars in Netflix’s first-ever exclusively Spanish original, Cable Girls, which premieres worldwide on 28 April. Civantos is already filming the second series.
“It’s feminine, and feminist,” she says. “It’s set in 1920s Madrid, and is about four women working as switchboard operators. Really, it’s about the fight for women’s independence in a patriarchal society – which we’re still fighting for today. It’s a story that needed to be told – and makes you realise that despite how much time has passed, and everything we’ve achieved, there’s so much that still needs to change before men and women are equal.” On screen and off.
Locked Up series 2 premieres at 10pm this Thursday 27th April on C4