Is there anything better than reality TV?
It’s so good. On a (rare) night off I can easily bash through an entire season of Selling Sunset, or Selling the OC, or basically anything involving attractive people of extremely poor character shouting at each other about nothing.
Obviously I feel awful afterwards. I didn’t say it was good for you, just that it is good. It’s like cocaine for introverts.
An equally addictive, if far more grim, offering in the reality genre is Banged Up: Stars Behind Bars, on Channel 4.
As an elevator pitch, it’s hard to beat: “Peter Hitchens goes to prison and tells violent criminals his views on drug addiction.”
And that was indeed how it went down. With the caveat that the prison wasn’t strictly real, but recreated for the show, with security on hand at all times. The cast, however, were genuine ex-cons, and genuinely scary.
I watched the whole series last night. It was tense, grim, yet somewhat rewarding, and in a sense even wholesome. If Selling Sunset is a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, Banged Up was, appropriately, more like porridge.
Ricky from EastEnders was exactly like Ricky from EastEnders. It turned out his whole family had been to prison, so he felt he’d better do a short stint himself, if only the showbiz version.
Tom Rosenthal, who I did some standup gigs with many years ago, was weirder than I remember, but presumably no different to your standard privileged leftie. He seemed quite funny. There was also a guy from Gogglebox, which to me cannot qualify as being a celebrity.
Obviously, I was only watching for the mighty Peter Hitchens. And I was not disappointed. Hitchens displayed the integrity one would expect, but also great kindness. He encouraged a large illiterate man to learn to read. He also bonded with a young man who seemed to have broken as many jaws as Hitchens has broken debating opponents. Hitchens told the boy about his mother’s suicide, and his regret at never having had sisters, due to his mother’s decision to get two abortions. Then he read the Bible to the incredibly violent (but ultimately kind-hearted) young man.
‘Disgraced’ MP Neil Parish, of the ‘tractor porn’ scandal, also came across as a decent chap. He was clearly looking for redemption over what, in the context of rampant violent criminality, seemed a pretty minor transgression.
He also invented the amusing catchphrase “It was just normal heterosexual porn!” which he deployed, quite wisely, to every inmate he met.
Oh, and Johnny Mercer was also in there. Mercer exuded the inscrutable aura of the posh alpha. The relatively tough variety of posho who has survived boarding school, and the army. He smashed a window, helped smuggle in tobacco, and would have probably been running the place within about six weeks.
I can never forgive Mercer for his treatment of the late Sir Roger Scruton, but watching this, it was suddenly not surprising that he failed to grasp the nuances of Scruton’s arguments, or his preciousness within the world of conservative thought.
Despite Mercer’s posh thug vibe, he did have some reasonably deep thoughts about how to tackle the failures of the prison system. This was a theme that troubled several of the celebrities, Hitchens of course being the most serious thinker.
The conclusion seemed to be that punishment is necessary, and it shouldn’t all be fun and games for the prisoners. But also that a dehumanising, violent and bureaucratic environment doesn’t help the prisoner, the victims, or wider society.
Unsurprisingly for a four-part reality series, the problem of human evil, and the necessity of redemption, was not conclusively resolved.
Though one did end up feeling a bit better about occasionally watching ‘normal heterosexual porn’.
This piece first appeared on Nick Dixon’s Substack. You can subscribe here.
Stop Press: You can read Hitchens’s account of his experience in prison here.