Recently, I’ve felt a little nostalgic and I’ve gone back to re-watch the UK ITV1 drama, “Bad Girls” on DVD; a show which started airing in the UK in 1999. Being fortunate to have a PAL/NTSC player, I have all eight series of the show on DVD. I first was introduced to “Bad Girls” when the Canadian Showcase channel was running a marathon of episodes from series 1-4, back in 2003 or 2004, and I was immediately drawn to the tight storytelling that was often times raw, sarcastic, engaging, maddening and occasionally campy.
The controversial programme about a women’s prison set in East London delved into all manners of what it was like for inmates of the fictional Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP Larkhall), including pregnancy & miscarriage, drugs, sexuality, suicide, bullying, power and abuse of said power by prison officers…and that was just in the first episode. The show also explored issues such as women dealing with issues of parenting, or lack thereof, when the children are taken into care of social services because there is no family or friends that can and will take them in, or trying to provide for them if they’re lucky enough to have someone look after them while the mums are incarcerated. But what really drew me to the series was honest portrayals of a long-running (3 series) front-burner, show-driving storyline of a lesbian love story, that was well built over the three seasons.
Nicola (Nikki) Wade was a woman in her early thirties, co-owner of a lesbian bar in London who had come to help her partner (business & personal), Trisha, close up their club for the night. Nikki’s intelligent, and has a strong sense fighting injustice. They routinely were hassled by local police, and one night a Detective Sergeant Gossard took it upon himself to show Trisha what she was missing and attempted to rape her. Nikki walked in and saw what was going on and saw red. She took a bottle from the bar and broke it over the copper`s head to try to get him to stop. When he didn’t, and rather laughed at her, she stuck what was left of the bottle in his neck – leaving him to bleed to death. So, Nikki received a life sentence.
Helen Stewart was a woman, also in early thirties, who was a university graduate and had worked her way into a fast-track in the Prison Services as a Wing Governor at HMP Larkhall. She was ambitious, but at the same time, she actually cared about the welfare of the women inmates and wanted to do some good for them, much to the dismay, disgust and distrust of two of her senior officers, Jim Fenner and Sylvia (Bodybag) Hollamby, two of the laziest officers on the wing, and from the misogynistic attitudes from her boss, the Governing Governor of Larkhall, Simon Stubberfield. She was doing her best to fight The Old Boy’s Club mentality of the Prison Service, but it took a lot out of her doing so.
Nikki and Helen started off in the first episode with a huge confrontation on the wing wherein a fellow inmate (and friend) had had a miscarriage in her cell the previous night and nearly bled to death, while several of the wing’s inmates were preparing for a fashion show Prison PR event. Helen’s investigation (or rather what she was told to conclude) was that it had been a tragic set of circumstances. Nikki (and others) take objection to that conclusion, and delivers a powerful statement, in front of Helen, with guards and inmates around, which got her sent down the block (to the solitary confinement cells):
No, let me say it for her. What she’s telling us, is that none of us are safe in here, isn’t she? Cause even if we’re bleeding to death, we don’t get believed. Well, I’m telling her from us, you lot can’t run this prison unless we help you. And if we don’t get respect from your screws, don’t think we’re gonna make you look good in front of your VIP visitors, cause we’re not. So you can shove your stupid fashion show up your arse.
Later, when Helen learned that Nikki was in strips (stripped of clothing – only had a blanket around her in a draughty old castle prison cell), she was furious. Hollamby (and Fenner) hated Nikki for many reasons, not least because she was a lesbian cop killer, but because she wouldn’t `put up & shut up` whenever they told her. Helen orders Nikki’s clothing returned to her and requests help from Nikki – agreeing that without the help of the inmates, the order of Larkhall would be chaos. Nikki’s not entirely sure what to make of the Wing Governor, but she’s glad to get out of the Block. In a show of support, Nikki returns to G-Wing and informs her fellow inmates that they’re back in the show if they behave themselves.
It would not be the last disagreement or public confrontation between the two women, on either side of the bars and doors, yet they build a mutual trust and start to rely on each other and protect each other when necessary, and begin to fall in love. The change in relationship over the three years is fraught with issues of distrust, jealousy, power imbalance at times, but also with great support and love. Their personal morals and senses of justice are tested as events with prison officers and inmates conflict (such as the suicide of a young girl who had been bullied by other inmates and abused by one of the officers (Fenner), and it’s aftermath, the death of one of the inmates (Monica’s) Downs Syndrome son while she was imprisoned and Monica’s attempted suicide, riots and the like.
Nikki was, by hierarchy, one of the Top Dogs, though not by choice; she detested the thought of being `head bloody prefect`. However, she was respected by many of the other inmates, partially due to her sentence for killing a police officer, but also because she was seen as a protector of the younger or disadvantaged inmates. Though she wasn’t afraid of physical altercations, most of Nikki’s jabs were of the verbal sarcastic and acerbic variety – to a select few fellow inmates and prison officers, and which often got her into trouble with the officers, including Helen.
Nikki and Helen wouldn’t be the only lesbian relationship explored in the series, as there are other characters in later seasons (Denny & Shaz, S2-4; Roisin & Cassie, S4; Kris & Selena, S5; Pat & Sheena, S7), but they would be the most prominent (and longest consecutive lesbian storyline) during most watched seasons (1-3) of the show. Despite the controversial storyline, having a lesbian relationship with a prison & inmate, it worked and it still remains a favourite and one of the strongest lesbian-themed stories on television period.
Issues of drug use and abuse, domestic violence, the depressive effects of prison on inmates, language barriers, illiteracy, rape, suicide, murder, cancer, births and deaths, abuse of power by prison officers, and mental illness are yet some of the issues explored through the storytelling of Bad Girls. That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom; there are plenty of light-hearted moments of humour, laughing, and fun (like the Julies making wine – Chateau Larkhall, or smuggling in a cat onto the wing) to be had on G-Wing.
The Official Bad Girls website, has some staggering information on real life statistics about women in UK prisons are like, the sentences, the effects on inmates and their families, lack of education and rates of recidivism, mandatory drug testing, prison health care, in Women in Prison – the Real Story, and addresses some of the issues brought forth in Series 4 Factsheets, and Series 5 Factsheets.
As an aside note, I was planning a trip to the UK in 2006, and I knew that the former HMP Oxford – the old castle prison that the Bad Girls` set for the fictional HMP Larkhall was designed after (and exterior shots were done at the old prison in Oxford until 2002) – had been excavated around and the building was renovated into a hotel – Malmaison Oxford. I had researched much of the history of the old castle / prison out of interest in advance and I budgeted for a stay for one night there at the Mal. What I got was an amazing experience. The hotel was opened on 5th May, 2006. I stayed there on 21st May. The advertising for the place keeps with the `prison` theme:
This time we’re taking no prisoners.
You’ve been bad. We know. It’s time to pay for all those second-rate hotel rooms, the third rate room service, oh, the travel inn express lodge travesty of it all. This time you’re going down. Guilty as charged.
Imagine a prison that’s a hotel. (I’m sure you’ve stayed in a few). Now imagine a prison that’s suddenly a luxury boutique hotel in Oxford, destination brasserie and hang-out for high-life hoodlums. Pinch yourself. You’re doing time at the Mal.
I must say, when I first walked onto the A-Wing (upon which BG`s G-Wing was modelled after), I got both a chill and a thrill at the view. While it`s completely renovated inside, the floors now fully finished and carpeted (instead of the bare metal corridors), there are glass partitions along the ledges of the three levels, looking down at the atrium, and the stairs are blocked off, there are floor pot lights marking actual working room doors (not every door is an actual functioning door now); it certainly invoked an odd sense of deja vu and amusement. After I got settled in my cell – room – I went and did some exploring of the building. There was still one of the old prison gate doors to the area leading to the exercise yard. Outside in the yard, the building remains very familiar for Bad Girls fans…but there is no potting shed in the yard. 🙂 There are additions to the complex including another wing for more suites and plenty of shops in another courtyard area. It’s just so impressive. Inside again, there is a beautiful dining room – not at all like Larkhall`s cafeteria, and yet, since the hotel had recently opened, there were a few cells down on the lowest level, near the back, that were unfinished. Now that was kind of eery to see. You can see my pictures from this trip here
To get back to the beginning, I`ve seen plenty of lesbian storylines on different shows and films over the past 13 or so years, and the Helen & Nikki storyline and Bad Girls in general still stand among the strongest out there. It`s always worth coming back to – as a solo venture, sharing it with fellow fans or introducing other people, still, to the show. The show had a strong impact on many people’s lives because of the issues it touched on. There have even been academic papers written about the show, for example, Didi Herman’s “Bad Girls Changed My Life”: Homonormativity in a Women’s Prison Drama”.