Submitted by on 9 February, 2003 - 12:00

Clive Bradley reviews Buried, Channel 4

Tony Garnett has an extraordinary track record, going back to his early work as producer with Ken Loach — Cathy Come Home, Days of Hope. More recently, he was responsible for some of the most innovative television series — This Life and The Cops (we can perhaps avert our eyes from the mess of Attachments).

The Cops, for example, took the most popular current television genre and turned it inside out, showing you the real police. It started with a young woman in a club taking drugs, then cut to the same young woman putting on her police uniform… And so it went on. The cop show meets gritty realism.

Buried is by the same team that made The Cops, turning their attention to prison drama. For the most part, prisons on TV have been a source of camp melodrama or comedy, from Cell Block H and Bad Girls to Porridge; the biggest exception was hard-hitting American show Oz, which was so violent and disturbing it tended to go out in the early hours of the morning. Buried has much in common with Oz; perhaps that was its original pitch (the British Oz…). There is even a certain similarity in the set.

In any case, Bad Girls this isn’t. The aim, clearly, is to show prison life as it really is — not titillating and jokey, but harsh and brutalising. Lee (Lenny James), respectable and straight, though his brother is a well-known psycho, is imprisoned for a murder, with no chance of appeal. He has to find his way around a strange world, seizing his chance in the first episode to establish his credentials as a hard man not to be messed with, as this is the best way to survive. Around him is a gallery of characters that includes inmates, staff, hard-nosed psychologist.

The uncertainty, incipient danger, unspoken threats, all these are well done. There is a moment where Lee has to choose whether to accept the offer of a phone card (a precious prison commodity) from one of the tough guys on his landing. Accept it and you’re beholden to the bastard, and God knows what he’ll want from you; reject it, and you might make an enemy. Lee chooses to reject. But he comes out on top.

In the second episode, a man due for release retreats into his cell; we learn that part of his crisis is because his cellmate-lover has abandoned him for someone new (and younger). What could have been little more than a prison cliché, or a feeble attempt to be Channel Four and right on, was sensitive, unusual and moving.
I worked in a prison for five years, and I would say Buried is pretty accurate. It may get a few minor details wrong, but it’s strong on atmosphere and character (it’s good to see a prison psychologist portrayed, accurately, as other than an idiotic do-gooder).

But I wonder how many people would choose to watch it. I have a number of reasons to be interested, not least my personal experience. It seems it is failing to draw in audiences, though. This is a pity. There is little enough serious drama on our televisions without what there is flopping badly (and convincing executives they shouldn’t have bothered).

Or is Buried itself partly to blame? For all its positive qualities, it remains little more than an effort to show prison life. One of the impressive things about Oz is that it feels like a commentary on contemporary America, its prison setting metaphorical for something bigger.

I’m not sure Buried doesn’t simply state the obvious about prisons in particular, and say little new or thought-provoking about society in general. Perhaps it breaks less ground than it could have done.

Score: 7/10
Reviewer: Clive Bradley

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