TV reviews: Prisoners' Wives & Inside Men

New dramas from the BBC tell compelling tales of offenders and their motivations, says Matt Hills

February 2, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

BBC One's double dip into new drama with Prisoners' Wives (Tuesday 31 January, 9pm) and Inside Men (Thursday 2 February, 9pm) ponders a familiar question: does crime pay? Each offers a recessionary social realism - everyday life happening amid economic hardship - and each wonders where we can draw the line between criminality and innocence.

The six-part Prisoners' Wives boasts a great opening, as what looks like a soapy relationship series lurches into action-thriller territory. Akin to 24's Jack Bauer suddenly bursting into Coronation Street, this TV mission statement forces the viewer to sit up and take notice. The programme's name is odd, mind you: not all its female leads are actually prisoners' wives, and the preview's title sequence compounds things by referring to itself as Prisoners Wives. Following Waterstones' lead and dropping the possessive apostrophe might be about graphic design tidiness, I suppose. Or perhaps it's meant to stress how much these wives don't "belong" to their imprisoned menfolk.

Indebted to the likes of The Street, Prisoners' Wives is an ensemble drama where each episode focuses on one woman's story, though we still follow subplots relating to other characters. Gemma (Emma Rigby) is our focus for episode one, introducing the disorienting, pent-up world of prison visits when her partner Steve, ex-Robin Hood Jonas Armstrong, is accused of murder. Francesca (Polly Walker) finds her glamorous lifestyle under threat in episode two, as her career-criminal hubby is forced to pay back millions under the Proceeds of Crime Act. And prim, middle-class Harriet - a role Pippa Haywood imbues with great dramatic and comic timing - is pushed into drastic measures to help her son, come episode three. Curiously, this leaves Lou (Natalie Gavin) rather sidelined, although her character, a dealer living on a rough estate, should provide the archetypal focus for some gritty realism. Instead, Prisoners' Wives casts a wider net over the lives, loves and losses of its characters. Something it does very effectively is to cut between inmates and their outmates: Gemma climbs the stairs to bed; her other half clambers the ladder to his bunk. And despite the emphasis on gender, class identity also remains central throughout: Gemma's middle-class existence is shattered by Steve's alleged crime; Harriet's world is alien to Lou's; Francesca doesn't belong in her mansion-house milieu.

Shifting from Prisoners' Wives to workers' lives, Inside Men plays out class differences too. A manager, a security guard and a "grunt" at a cash counting house are surrounded by millions of pounds. While some struggle to make ends meet, cash surrounds these men every nine-to-five. Chris the security guard (Ashley Walters) realises that he's at the top of his pay scale and will never earn any more than he does now. Meanwhile working-class lad Marcus (Warren Brown) stands to lose out, thanks to falling property and rental prices, and is skewered by unpaid debts. Even middle-class John (Steven Mackintosh), the counting house's fastidious manager, finds himself contemplating extreme fiscal imprudence.

Writer Tony Basgallop has minted a clever metaphor for the UK economy with his creation of Larson House. Cash pours in from banks and supermarkets, ready to be counted, tallied and sent on its way, but despite all these readies ticking through the system, Larson's workers are poorly paid and often on the breadline. Its name hinting at systematic larceny, Larson House is a striking televisual image of economic inequality. Cash mountains sit there, but always imprisoned in security boxes, vaults and cages; locked outside the grasp of labourers and managers.

As a heist drama, Inside Men streaks back and forth between events leading up to its major crime and the messy aftermath. Moral purity is hard to find in either time frame. John, the stammering boss whose leadership skills are called into question, is prepared to fiddle the finer detail of his financial figures. Marcus is fine with fencing stolen goods. And Chris' approach to security extends to shacking up with a thief. "My husband's not a hero", Kirsty (Nicola Walker) says of John, posing the question that resonates through Mackintosh's performance: just what, exactly, is this man capable of? Although the programme's title is pluralised, this four-part serial should really be called Inside Man, singular. It's John's voice-over that leads us into events, John who frames what's going on. Mackintosh is perfectly cast, flickering between emasculated nice guy and suddenly steely player. As the line between corporate yes-man and criminal starts to blur, the skills for doing well in business seem suspiciously "transferable" - making this a thriller for our times. Crime might not pay, but it pays dividends for BBC One in storytelling terms with these two new dramas.

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