Review: Songbirds

Songbirds (Channel 4, 15th December 2005) is a musical drama in which a group of women prison inmates (at Downview prison, near Sutton in Surrey) sing songs composed by former probation officer and poet Simon Armitage and musician Simon Boswell about their lives and their crimes. It’s not an entirely original concept, given that the same team (Armitage, Boswell and film-maker Brian Hill) had made an earlier documentary with the same format, Feltham Sings, at the Feltham young offenders’ institution in Middlesex. The programme got more or less entirely good reviews, and I’m about to add to that, but there are some criticisms the newspaper reviewers don’t seem to have noticed.

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Songbirds refers to women (colloquially, “birds”) “doing bird”. Don’t know where that term comes from. There were a range of different women including foreign drug “mules”, a couple of serial offenders, one of whom had committed a burglary just to get sent back to jail (for American readers: jail and prison are the same thing here), and a middle-class woman who had stabbed a neighbour who had kept her family up night after night with loud music. (This wasn’t the “Botley Mum” who was the subject of a running feature in the women’s weekly magazine Take A Break, although it was the same jail.) The Independent’s review said that the title was a bit too convenient, with which I’d agree.

The programme was a very powerful piece of drama, although I’d have appreciated some talk about prison life in general rather than too much information about prison lesbianism and what another woman can do for you that you can’t do yourself. The songs were performed in bits, between which the women talked about their stories and what got them into jail. Reviewers compared the first song to Dido (without Dido’s voice, according to one of them) and another, about how her life of crime started with nicking a Reebok top for her brother, to The Streets (which had a hit this year with an excruciatingly awful rap-song called Dry Your Eyes). The song featuring “Scary Mary”, who had a history of sexual abuse, drugs and prostitution going back to her early teens, reminded me more of early Ani DiFranco in both attitude and subject matter.

A lot of the inmates at Downview are petty drug smugglers or “mules”, many of them foreign, and they got a number called “Muling It” (some of the lyrics here and here). Among them were a Belgian and two French women, the latter of whom were smuggling what they thought was contraband jewellery but turned out to be ecstacy. There must have been an awful lot of it, because they got “only” 18 years each, which in my opinion is a staggeringly high sentence for an attempted crime in which nobody has so far been harmed (unlike, say, attempted murder or rape, which attract much shorter sentences). Another was a Jamaican who had been coerced into smuggling by some criminals who abducted her in Jamaica when she was visiting her sick mother, sexually assaulted her and then demanded that she smuggle drugs into the UK. Another of the inmates said that all the drug mules do it for men, even if they think they are “gangsters”. It’s even known for women to be given, say, 2kg of drugs by people who inform on them, so that someone else, with a bigger quantity, gets through!

My biggest criticism of this programme is the victim mentality displayed at times. There’s a real sense of the “Phil Ochs outlook” (a young man/woman with many reasons why, there but for fortune …). There’s often some man behind the scenes and the woman somehow isn’t entirely to blame for her own actions. The women portrayed are often the most sympathetic and victim-like of offenders; there are no serial killers (or any murderers), sexual abusers or terrorists in this programme. While a lot of mules do it because they are desperate or coerced, some do it just to make a bit of easy money. Others end up as unwitting “mules” thinking they are carrying something entirely lawful - there are truck drivers in jail in various countries for precisely this reason.

This programme appears to have been set in a model prison; Downview only recently became a women’s prison, and was described (in the Times) by the middle-class woman who killed her neighbour as “a very safe environment, and very stress free” with “all the anti-bullying policies”. This is certainly not the case everywhere; some jails are notorious for self-harm, bullying and the gratuitously officious and punitive behaviour of prison staff towards inmates and their visiting families; it’s been known for women to be assaulted by sanctimonious fellow prisoners who clearly think them a lower class of scumbag than themselves. So, it’s a very hard-hitting bit of TV with good quality writing, but in the image it gives of female crime and the prison experience, it’s hardly the whole picture.

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