You know those people who say prison’s like a holiday camp? Well they would have taken grim satisfaction from Accused, the second series of which ground to a shuddering, deathly halt on BBC2 last night, writes Thom Kennedy.
The young offenders institute in Liverpool around which it revolved looked like absolute . . . well . . . murder.
Last week’s gruesome antihero Stephen Cartwright opened the fourth and final episode of the series in the calm of a car, ferrying him to the clink after his conviction for the attempted murder of his step mother at the close of last week’s episode.
But while Steven’s presence looms large over the final episode, this week we’re more interested in the frowning security guard sitting next to him.
The whole of prison officer Tina Dakin’s world looks like it could do with a moment of silence and a gentle rub to the temples.
At home, she’s shivering and wearing dressing gowns over her clothes to seal against the freezing cold of a broken boiler, surrounded by a gaggle of young children and worrying about money.
But at work, it’s chaos. Young criminals are running pitched battles around the pool table, yelling and laughing even as young Stephen lies dying, choking with a ripped up bed sheet wrapped around his neck in his cell. I must admit I’ve never stayed at a holiday camp, but if this is as accurate as people say, they look like bad craic to me.
Like so many of the accused of the series, Tina is a decent person whose life spirals out of control.
She’s serious, studious and hard working, but loving, and grasping at the brief moments of solace she enjoys in the company of her husband.
Instead she’s raped while doing overtime to pay for the new boiler, ostracised by a friend and colleague for trying to tell the truth about Stephen’s death, and finds herself under suspicion over the death of a young prisoner when it was she who did everything right to save him.
Anna Maxwell Martin was outstanding as the suffering, struggling prison guard, forever trying to do right but forever finding things spiralling out of control.
Eventually, with the images of Stephen haunting her as she ferries another young criminal towards the prison gates, she lets him go.
It is for this that she is in court, but the ashes of her ruined career, of the way her world crumbled, are raked over by a theatrical, waspish prosecutor.
Overall, the second series of The Accused stood head and shoulders above any other British drama I have seen on television this year.
Showing a gentle touch and a fine understanding of the complexity of criminality that goes where few dare to tread, it provided four weeks of uncomfortable, difficult, yet utterly essential viewing.
Jimmy McGovern is always a safe pair of hands, but his daring casting – including comedians John Bishop and Sheridan Smith in bleak, dense roles and the swaggering, masculine Sharp himself, Sean Bean, as a lovelorn transvestite – showed an ability to take the programme in unexpected directions.
There can be no doubt that, just as followed the first series, BAFTAs are on their way.