Tales from the outsiders

This portrait of the lives that surround Pentonville prison is profound and poetic

The ingenious pace and weird poetry of the documentary Between the Ears: Staring at the Wall (7 June, 9.30pm, Radio 3) ruined my evening meal. There I sat, Coco Pops spoiling on spoon, while presenter Alan Dein wandered the streets around London's Pentonville prison asking local people to share their thoughts about the place which looms above them. Slowly, mesmerically, their comments built a unique portrait of enclosure and freedom.

First up was a man who once spent three days in the prison in the 1950s and whose roundabout rants were dropped in and out of the programme as though delivered by the ancient mariner: ". . . I was there, well I have been in there as they say, and you know what I mean, and there are some very bad people that get out as they say, and you don't know my name but you'd be in agreement with me about this here wall if you'd ever been in prison, and did you know that the judge actually told me to shut up in court?"

Meanwhile, the Italian waiter in a local café - who sees lawyers go into Pentonville every day, and the occasional prisoner come out with his stuff in a plastic bag - confessed that he can't help but view the prison as a museum. "Oscar Wilde served time in there," he breathed. "That is one of our most major poets of all time." "And George Best, too," added the man sitting next to him.

"Oh, but we're a rotten lot around here," said an old lady as she wandered up the Caledonian Road, remembering the days when hangings took place in the prison yard at 8am and were advertised in the local paper. "We'd all be late for work those days, waiting for the bell to go outside, until the hanging was over. There were huge crowds. Oh, but we're a rotten lot."

Another local, a dog handler frequently insulted by prisoners through the windows as he walks home along the street, said in proper Bill Sykesian tones: "I would make their life a lot harder for them in there than what it is now, I would."

Cut to the "ancient mariner", wringing more incident from three days than Leopold Bloom himself could hope for: "I was only in for a domestic thing like, nothing criminal, as I say, there you go, and I did ask about the cemetery in there once because you knew someone was being topped, like, you'd say to yourself, 'he's gone like,' but apart from that everything is hunky dory, well, apart from the drugs, and I'm not giving my name or anything you know." And on it went, ever bravely drawn to the subject of death, the confidence and whimsy of the programme quite stunning.

"You can live over there or you can live over here," one man concluded, amazed, standing in the front room of his flat looking right into the cells. "I just like looking at the windows. Am I in there or not?" I'm telling you, this was as deep as the BBC has got in a long time. This was bloody Whitman! "I am of old and young . . . a prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest . . . The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place . . . This the common air that bathes the globe."

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