Screw review: Nina Sosanya and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell make Channel 4 prison drama just about worth watching

The best part of Screw is its lead performances from Nina Sosanya and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell

Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Nina Sosanya in Screw (Credit: Mark Mainz/Channel 4)

Part of the point of Screw is to tell a prison drama from a different perspective. After a number of television series focused on the lives of prisoners – from Orange is the New Black to Wentworth to Oz – Screw is an effort to flip the script and place prison officers at the centre of a drama.

Creator and executive producer Rob Williams, who also serves as lead writer on Screw, spent a number of years working as an art teacher in prison, and has continued volunteering in prisons since becoming a writer. Screw is, obviously, drawn from that experience; Williams has suggested that prison officers are “public servants, yet they’ve never really had their own TV show in the way that paramedics, firefighters and police have”, with Screw an attempt to redress that balance.

At times, that proves something of an uncomfortable framing. It’s hard not to feel like, in the opening episodes at least, the prisoners blend into the background a little, an abstract mass of people who are somewhere between irritants, obstacles, and oddities only. That’s one thing dealing with patients in a hospital drama, for example, but it feels like quite another to turn the lens away from the prisoners in a prison drama, the carceral state reduced almost to a background detail. Screw comes at an interesting point, actually, because now is probably quite a good time for a new prisoner focused drama – given that audiences are likely to be more intuitively sympathetic to the experience of being locked away, and given how prisoners were consistently neglected through the pandemic. There’s a sense maybe that Screw might’ve just missed its moment.

Equally, it’s difficult to get a full sense of the series from just its opening two episodes. It begins with the standard refrain that “prisons aren’t full of bad people, they’re just full of people who have done bad things”, which is a fairly uncomplicated starting point, though across its second episode begins to broach the idea that prison is a fundamentally punitive rather than rehabilitative system. There, Screw starts to feel interesting, and you start to get the sense that pushing the prisoners offstage might be a structural choice that can pay dividends – all the better to point out how dehumanising that system can be – though it’s difficult to tell if they’re going to be able to stick the landing.

Jamie-Lee O’Donnel as Rose in Screw (Credit: Anne Binckebanck/Channel 4)

Is it worth watching otherwise? Up to a point. At times Screw feels broad and a little underwritten – for all that it’s meant to focus on the prison officers, there’s a sense that several of these characters are written with a very particular narrative function in mind that they never quite move beyond. That’s the comic relief officer, that’s the officer that says horrible things to the prisoners so the others can disapprove, so on and so forth – most of Screw’s ensemble feels lightly-sketched at best.

Where it really works, though, is in its two lead performances. Nina Sosanya has long-been one of the most reliable character actors on television, prolific in that “oh, it’s her, from that thing, she’s in everything, she’s so good, what’s her name again” kind of way, and Screw puts her centre-stage. As supervising prison officer Leigh Henry, Sosanya gives a very careful, very controlled performance; there’s an interesting ambiguity to her character, most obviously frustrated by her environment, and most obviously willing to blur the lines as well. By some margin, Leigh is the most interesting aspect of Screw – in part because she gets the most interesting material, but also because Nina Sosanya is so good in the role.

Meanwhile, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell also impresses as probationary officer Rose Gill, a barely-trained twenty-something who arrives at Long Marsh Prison in Screw’s first episode. O’Donnell projects an uncertain bravado as Gill, flitting from frustration to self-doubt to moments of confidence nicely. A lot of the interest in Screw has come from curiosity about how the Derry Girls star will fare in one of her first mainstream dramatic roles; it doesn’t take long to see that O’Donnell is very good in this role.

Beyond that, Screw often is quite funny (even if there’s maybe one too many jokes at the prisoners’ expense) – probably closer to a drama-with-jokes than the comedy-drama its been described as, but still, it has an appreciable sense of levity that makes it a more enjoyable watch. There’s also a lot of intrigue around Sosanya and O’Donnell’s characters, gesturing at wider plots for both; the third episode in particular promises a turning point for the six-part drama (its length itself a vote of confidence, given Channel 4 has largely moved towards four-part miniseries only).

On that basis, at least, it seems worth checking out the first episode – if Screw can stick the landing, it might well turn out to be something great.

Screw begins on Channel 4 on January 6 at 9pm, and will also be available as a box set on All4. I’ve seen the first two episodes before writing this review.

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