Jurby

09/09/19

A STORM IN PRISON CELL

It’s hard to remember a TV programme about the Isle of Man that has stirred up as much controversy as ITV’s ‘Best Little Prison in Britain’ docusoap about life in Jurby Jail.

The response from the public has ranged from abject fury to tacit approval. Paradoxically many of the concerns were for the image it portrayed to the outside world rather than the rights and wrongs of the prison regime.

Whether it has any long-term effect on how the Island is perceived is difficult to answer. Not too long ago Victoria Road jail in Douglas was notorious throughout the British Isles for its strict regime and appalling, insanitary conditions. Ironically its replacement at Jurby is now giving the impression of a Butlins style holiday camp set in a rural idyll.

As in a these so called TV reality shows the truth hovers uncomfortably in no-man’s land between the portrayal of a real life situation and the TV company’s desire to provide uncomplicated, titillating entertainment to its audience. The tone and content of what is portrayed is what the editors choose to include. In the case of this particular series any collateral damage to the greater reputation of the Isle of Man itself is secondary.

How the programme has been received by UK TV critics hints at a general sense of bewilderment. In the Telegraph Jasper Rees says: “The title jauntily evokes a fictional Texan whorehouse, which feels a tad inappropriate before we’ve even started.” He adds: “At 22 minutes an episode it doesn’t ask or answer any searching questions about how this weird island jail has anything to teach us on the mainland.”

Carol Midgley of The Times was equally nonplussed: “There was an oddly light-hearted, upbeat tone to this documentary, which opened with Andrew arriving at prison as cheerily as if he was checking into a spa. It was quite entertaining.” Despite being entertained her take on the Isle of Man per se was less enthusiastic: “They lock people up for weird reasons here. Former inmates had been guilty of failing to display a tax disc and a man throwing a glass of water in his wife’s face during a row.”

Christopher Stevens of the Daily Mail stated:“This was all amiable and jaunty, and Stephen Fry’s voiceover very carefully neglected to mention that Jurby prison was criticised by the chief inspector of prisons in 2011: its ‘lack of bureaucracy’ and ‘too casual approach’ led to violent bullying and a rampant drugs problem. The closest we got to a glimpse of Jurby’s reality came after inmate Goldie, a man with ‘thug life’ tattooed across his beer belly, tried to conduct his own courtroom defence. Charged with actual bodily harm, he talked himself into a five-year sentence.”

Whichever side of the fence you sit in respect of this programme the chances are it will – in fairly short time – become the TV equivalent of yesterday’s newspaper; yet another bit of quirkiness about the Isle of Man. The only disappointment is we won’t be able to use it to wrap our chips. 

Meanwhile political attempts in Tynwald to have the final episodes removed are laughable. Far from rescuing the Island from any further embarrassment, they inevitably draw parallels with countries like North Korea and Iran.

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