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Prisoners turn critics to review TV shows and films during Penned Up Festival

This year's prison literacy festival has had to adapt to Covid, says Penned Up director David Kendall, as he introduces some of the best reviews by inmates at HMP Lewes
One inmate ran the rule over Sir Steve McQueen's Small Axe during Penned Up Festival. Photographer: Will Robson-Scott/BBC

Penned Up is a two-week literature festival organised with and for those in prison. But I’ve not set foot in a prison since March 23 last year. How could we put together something that still contained some of the elements that had made Penned Up so successful over seven festivals?

We needed a way to connect with people in prison. Make them feel part of something. Engaging with and making art is a great leveller. Penned Up would have to adapt. My co-director Mark Hewitt and I talked it through, and decided on a series of weekly art challenges running from December through January. Two months, rather than two weeks.

Our very first Penned Up had been in Lewes prison (our name given to us by that first committee). Back then we were just trying to prove it could be done, that people in prison would be interested, and authors and artists would come.

This time, working from the outside, it felt as if we were the ones that were cut off

Running Penned Up in a prison during a lockdown would present a different set of hurdles. Lewes has some pluses, it has an excellent library – you always want to work with a prison with a good library – and in lockdown the library would again be key.

Much of the usual festival would be missing: the rowdy committee meetings, the exchange of ideas, getting a feel for the mood of the place, the tightrope of whether an event will be a success or would even happen. Prison regimes are subject to sudden changes.  This time, working from the outside, it felt as if we were the ones that were cut off.

We chose a wide range of writers and artists during Penned Up. Each prisoner who responded to a challenge would receive feedback from the issuing artist. But while there are many people in prison who are creative, or will take a risk by putting their work out to be seen, many won’t. Most of us take in art rather than put it out. Our live events had a quarter of the prison coming to see the most popular speakers. 

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The challenges started around the time Small Axe premiered on TV, and we knew there was a real buzz around those films. We contact one of the writers, Courttia Newland, who had run a workshop at a previous festival. We arrange for the prisoners to send questions we can put to him, which can then be sent back in and distributed via the prison newsletter. Then we did the same with two authors we knew were massive in the library, Darren Shan and Kimberley Chambers. As always, the authors we reached out to (chosen by ourselves and prisoners) were hugely supportive.

So this Penned Up wasn’t the same. We didn’t hear the total hush as TV writer Jimmy McGovern said, “Do you want to know the truth about Hillsborough?” We didn’t witness the response to singer/songwriter Scott Lavene’s performance on fatherhood when a guy turned to me, amazement all over his face, and said: “That really got to me. I never thought it would.”

There is no chance of that face-to-face, emotive response this time. Names are removed so we get the work never knowing anything about the person who sent it in. We have to study closely each entry, try to imagine not just what is there on the page but what is behind it.

There were individual acts of kindness and empathy, such as the officer who brought up a poem entry from a guy in the Seg (Segregation), giving an opportunity to connect which we might not have had even if we’d been in the prison. And it was gratifying to have so many responses to the challenges from TV reviews to conceptual art, to nature writing.

Challenges at this year’s Penned Up Festival involved art and poetry, film and TV reviews (judged by The Big Issue’s TV editor Adrian Lobb), and nature writing.

Here is just a taster of the work we received from three people who participated in Penned Up at HMP Lewes:

Small Axe: Alex Wheatle 

Available on iPlayer

Small Axe Prisoner review
small axe prisoner review 1454
The unnamed HMS Lewes prisoner wowed judges with his take on Small Axe. Credit: Penned Up

Dissolute and abandoned, Alex’s story is told by traversing through pivotal moments that culminate in the realisation of a path that may lead to a purposeful life.

The universe appears to conspire to introduce the father figure he had been subconsciously longing for, who unravelled the dystopic, social-economic reality of a world inherited by a post-Windrush generation. Provoking Alex to search within himself, this now synthesised collection of memories quickly establishes itself, with unequivocal continuity, in defiant protest to social ills that reverberate through the generations in present day society

Steve McQueen’s biopic adaptation remains congruent to its inspiration (Wheatle’s Uprising: A True Story), with a dark and gripping rawness that penetrates the emotional fabric of the viewer.

His Dark Materials: The Subtle Knife 

Available on iPlayer

Based on the second book of the Philip Pullman trilogy, this series follows Lyra and Will in their quest for answers across a profusion of parallel worlds.

This is big-budget BBC drama at its best, on a par with Doctor Who.

The characters are masterfully adapted with depth and nuance. Ruth Wilson as Mrs Marisa Coulter is incredible – somehow playing the ruthless Magisterium high flier, but shot through with a raw vulnerability that makes her almost likeable.

The menacing Magisterium – a system of governance rather like a cross between the Catholic Church and the CIA – assumes the role of a character itself, pervading the whole series with an atmosphere of foreboding.

Lyra and Will, two teenagers on the brink of adulthood, are also very well played, their friendship front and centre and completely believable. Indulgent, absorbing and imaginative. Essential viewing!

Get Carter 

Available to stream

Get Carter is both a film of self-reflection, revenge and a triumph of stripped-down cinematography.

Charlie Carter (Michael Caine) is a smoothly dressed London mob heavy who, after learning of his brother’s death, heads back to his northern hometown for the funeral. Carter suspects foul play. So begins a hunt through the interwoven lives of the northern mob, old friends and estranged family and their roles in his brother’s demise.

The use of stark and gritty backdrops populated with equally gritty people produces a setting that the slick Carter cannot help but agitate and stand out from.

This is superbly supported by the masterful and minimal use of sound and music. The drone of pub chatter or snippet of music is often all that is used to identify the people or setting Carter finds himself in.

Michael Caine in Get Carter
Michael Caine in 1971's Get Carter. The classic film "does not conform to the films of the Seventies or indeed now" according to a HMP Lewes inmates' review. Credit: AA Film Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

What sets Get Carter apart from most of its contemporaries is the fact that there is no hero. From the start we know Carter is no saint. But as he ploughs through the story leading to his brother’s murder, the lines blur further. Yes, ultimately he does find the killer – but not before discovering how so many other people, directly or indirectly, contributed to the murder, possibly even down to his own decision to move to London. Maybe the shocking twist at the end is actually the natural end of the hunt for all the guilty.

This is a gripping, disturbing and tense film that does not conform to the films of the Seventies or indeed now – just look at the 2000 remake’s happy ending!

This article is from a special edition of The Big Issue magazine. Get a copy of ‘Locked Up in Lockdown‘ in The Big Issue Shop or purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.