Can you dig it? Prison drama ‘Escape at Dannemora’ inspires deep thoughts

Former tunnel enthusiast Sam Delaney says our love for jail-break films and television stems from an inner desire to leave behind the drudgery of everyday life

When I was a kid I loved to dig holes. Some of my mates went to stamp collecting club after school, or did recorder lessons. Not me. I went straight home and waited for my mate Darren from next door to knock round and deliver the immortal words: ‘Coming out digging?’ Hell yeah I was coming out digging. 

I’d nip into the kitchen and swipe a dessert spoon from the cutlery drawer then head out front to the earthy patch of council-maintained bushes opposite our house. Our house was perched right on the very edge of the A4 in West London. So Darren and I, aged about nine, would do our digging while enveloped in a thick cloud of 1980s, fully leaded car fumes. Looking back, we were probably pretty high. Which might have explained why we were able to sit so happily, digging for hours and hours until the sun set and our mums called us in for our teas. 

What were we digging? We told ourselves it was a tunnel that would eventually reach all the way underneath the Atlantic Ocean and take us to Disney World in Florida. The truth is, our hole never got much deeper than about four feet. The bigger question is: why were we digging? We didn’t realise it at the time but subconsciously we were probably looking for an escape to a different life, one where we didn’t live next to a noisy A-road but in an American theme park with Donald and Mickey for neighbours. 

We didn’t realise it at the time but subconsciously we were probably looking for an escape to a different life

Isn’t that what we are all dreaming of? Not necessarily moving to Disney World, but a dramatic escape into a brighter life of freedom and joy. This is why I reckon films and TV shows about prison escapes are so enduringly popular. They tap into our shared fantasy of a cavalier liberation from the prevailing circumstances of our dreary lives. Also, we like it when prisoners craft toothbrushes into makeshift shivs.

Escape at Dannemora has shivs, digging, tunnels and everything else you’d want from a great prison-break drama. Dark, stark, tense and a bit bleak at times, it is almost implausible that Ben Stiller directed it. But he did. It stars Benicio del Toro as the Mr Big inmate planning an audacious escape from the freezing cold, deeply depressing jail of the title. He seduces Patricia Arquette, who plays (in a piece of improbable but brilliant casting) the frumpy and vulnerable supervisor of the prison’s sewing workshop. Before she knows it, she is the hapless stooge at the centre of the escape plan. 

This show is superb and I can’t recommend it to you enough. The tough guys of Dannemora might not use their mums’ dessert spoons to do it, but they are digging towards the same ludicrous dream as the rest of us.

Escape at Dannemora is on Sky Atlantic