A star rating of 3 out of 5.

By Jon O'Brien

“This is life in prison as never seen before on British television,” boasts the press release about Screw, Channel 4’s first new drama of 2022. That’s a pretty bold claim to make less than a year after the BBC’s brilliantly unflinching Time delivered a more effective crime deterrent than any form of punishment.

Creator Rob Williams isn’t particularly interested, though, in delivering such a damning indictment of the entire jail system. Drawing upon his own experiences as a civilian worker, the BAFTA-nominated screenwriter (The Victim) is instead determined to show that there’s more to life behind bars than unremitting misery and shocking mindless violence: the first and only episode available pre-air dedicates almost as much time to the adventures of a stinky amphibian as it does the hardships of incarceration.

Not that Screw shies entirely away from all the constant threats and how they can often be exacerbated by the most innocuous of things. One poor convict nearly gets his throat slit over a missing lunch menu item, for example, while another fight, and one that quickly involves nudity, escalates from an unenthusiastic response to lemon drizzle cake.

However, the six-part series, filmed in Glasgow but set in the fictional Long Marsh Prison, has more in common with the darkly comic stylings of Paul Abbott’s Channel 4 work than Jimmy McGovern’s state-of-the-nations. It’s not hard to imagine half of the C Wing’s feckless, foul-mouthed inhabitants hailing from Shameless's practically lawless Chatsworth estate. And there are shades of the gone-before-its-time No Offence with its motley crew of officers trying to uphold the right side of the law – although the closing scene suggests there’s at least one defector in the ranks – led by a no-nonsense female boss with an unhealthy work/life balance.

Screw, Channel 4
Anne Binckebanck / Channel 4

Played by Nina Sosanya (Teachers), chief screw Leigh, however, is a much more brittle and humourless presence than Joanna Scanlon’s tour-de-force Viv. “You’re the best masochist for the job,” her bubblier colleague Jackie (King Gary’s Laura Checkley) offers as encouragement in relation to an impending custodial manager position. And this is no doubt taken as a compliment.

The fact that Leigh is sleeping in the prison she helps to govern – the opening scene initially implies she’s an inmate – and is visibly unsettled by a request for her birth certificate suggests there are underlying reasons for her battle axe demeanour. Still, for now, and like much of her team, she’s a difficult character to warm to.

Most obnoxious is Gary (I May Destroy You’s Stephen Wight), a proud male chauvinist, who is also prone to spitting out racist remarks. He believes the appointment of Jamie-Lee O’Donnell’s new recruit Rose – essentially our entryway into the pure chaos of the 1,000-strong wing – is yet another sign of political correctness gone mad. More pre-occupied with making unprovable bets about the Kray twins than keeping the peace, Ali (Faraz Ayub) isn’t exactly a glowing advertisement for the profession either.

Dropping her native Northern Irish accent, O’Donnell gets several zingers that her Derry Girls favourite Michelle would be proud of. “Why would you want to become a prison officer?” asks the ever-dismissive Gary. “Because I’m really good at shutting up d**kheads,” comes the reply.

But she also gets to show a more vulnerable side as a young woman thrown into the lion’s den that is an all-male prison without any semblance of training. A running gag, and one of the few times Screw appears to be commenting on the inefficiency of British prisons, is Rose constantly pleading for an induction, only to be either entirely ignored or pretty much laughed at. Long Marsh appears to be an HR accident waiting to happen.

Screw, Channel 4
Mark Mainz / Channel 4

Yet while the focus is largely on the guards, the most compelling aspect of the pilot involves Stephen (Jake Davies), a prisoner three months shy of his release and the new transfer Dolby (Christopher Fulford) that prompts him to fashion a weapon out of a broken TV. A tense shower scene, in which their shared horrific past is confronted head on, proves that Williams isn’t afraid to go to some difficult places too.

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Admittedly, it’s not yet clear exactly why Screw has been presented as such a radical watch. The first British prison series to prominently feature an African bullfrog, yes. But there are more laughs in Porridge, more madness in Bad Girls and more grittiness in almost every other drama set in a slammer. For now, though, Long Marsh is still a prison we’re happy to spend time in.

Screw airs Thursdays at 9pm on Channel 4, and the full series is now available to watch on All 4 – check out our Drama hub for all the latest news.

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