Jailhouse rock

Billy Bragg's charity takes an unusual approach to prisoner rehabilitation

Prisoner rehabilitation is not the most fashionable of causes for pop stars to espouse. Which is why you have to admire singer Billy Bragg's efforts to recruit his colleagues on to a project offering hope to those locked up in Britain's jails.

Bragg has persuaded the likes of the Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, the Clash co-founder Mick Jones and Dirty Pretty Things to stage a number of low-key concerts for inmates, a world away from the backslapping of most charity events. These have now been captured in Breaking Rocks, a new documentary about the charity Jail Guitar Doors, set up by Bragg to supply prisoners with guitars and the skills to use them, in order to help them on the outside.

In the film/ Jones and Bragg perform a version of the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" at Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons in London. After one visit Jones says: "The guys were telling us how much this scheme had helped them move on from their previous lives before prison. It was really touching to think we've helped, even if it's in a small way."

The initiative is attracting a growing number of performers. Shiflett has led a guitar class at Brixton, while the indie band Hard-Fi hope to perform inside Feltham Young Offender Institution in west London -- the setting of "Feltham Is Singing Out", their song about the suicide of a petty thief on remand. Dirty Pretty Things held a workshop inside Brixton, and the Lincoln band Eastroad played at HMP Stocken, in Rutland.

But the principal aim of Bragg's charity is not to stage star-studded concerts, but to raise money for instruments. Guitars have already been donated to HMP Styal -- Britain's largest women's prison -- as well as Guys Marsh in Dorset, Pentonville, Wandsworth, the Verne on the Isle of Portland, Wormwood Scrubs and Reading Young Offender Institution.

Bragg believes that mastering a guitar can offer a way out of the reoffending cycle into which so many prisoners fall. "I support punishment," he says, "but I also believe in rehabilitation. Prison has to be about much more than just locking people up. We want people to move on from their situation and reconnect with the outside world. Learning to play and write gives them self-confidence, which is very important in cutting reoffending. We're preparing them to deal with what life throws at them in a non-confrontational way."

Bragg and the film's director, Alan Miles, plan to screen the documentary -- whose title is taken from the opening words of the Bobby Fuller Four's classic "outlaw" song "I Fought the Law" -- at a number of jails next year. In one of the film's most moving scenes, Bragg introduces a former prisoner on to the stage at the Glastonbury Festival. The man, recently paroled from nearby HMP Shepton Mallet, soon has the crowd cheering as he performs a song he composed behind bars.

"The lifers at Shepton Mallet Prison over the hill hear the festival at night," Bragg tells them. "There are guys there who play guitar, and as musicians they know, as I know, that a guitar will help you transcend your surroundings and find a release."

"Breaking Rocks" is being screened at the Shortwave Cinema in Bermondsey, south-east London, on Sunday 22 November, then at venues nationwide in February.

 

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.