Gaol Fever

David Saunders-Wilson

  • Prisons and the Process of Justice by Andrew Rutherford
    Oxford, 217 pp, £5.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 19 281932 1
  • Growing out of Crime: Society and Young People in Trouble by Andrew Rutherford
    Penguin, 189 pp, £3.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 14 022383 5

Crime is entertainment, and criminals are as much entertainers as villains. The star of London Weekend Television’s new Once a thief? is 22-year-old Michael Baillie, who began his criminal career as a burglar at the age of eight, and served his first borstal sentence at the age of 15. According to the Sunday Times, he originally wanted to play football for Aston Villa, but now he’s thinking of taking acting lessons. Perhaps he had been inspired by the careers of Jimmy Boyle, John McVicar, ‘Dirty Den’ of EastEnders, and Paul Barber, one of the ‘Brothers McGregor’ who also spent some time inside, and who recently claimed in the Sun: ‘Jailed turned me into a star.’ Burglary, theft, blackmail, arson, extortion, violence – including rape – have become socially acceptable, at least within the confines of our television sets, and as a result perhaps beyond. Arthur Daley and his ‘Minder’, for example, are commonly regarded as harmless, comic, lovable folk heroes, who can be forgiven even if they do sometimes wander onto the wrong side of the law, and get in trouble with ‘the Bill’. Indeed, both George Cole and Dennis Waterman in their Minder roles are now thought suitable characters to help encourage young people to stay off drugs in a series of commercials sponsored by the DHSS. The thought of dear old Arthur ending up inside for some of his misdeeds would be almost unthinkable, had it not been for Ronnie Barker and his alter ego Norman Stanley Fletcher. Porridge made even prison appear as warm and cosy as the front sitting-room.

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