Ruth England and Charlie Stayt
Princess Productions for Channel 5, 12 September to 1 October 2000 (30 episodes in 1 series)
We've said it once and we'll say it again. It might be Channel 5, but you've got to give them credit for having a go. If nothing else, Jailbreak is ambitious. Somewhere in the Southern countryside is a new, living, working prison. Inside are ten people who don't want to be there. Given the title, have a quick guess as to what their objective is.
Escape won't be easy, because every minute of every day all ten prisoners have a schedule to keep - all the things that would happen in a normal prison. These range from menial jobs to pass the time, gardening, scrubbing the toilets, keep fit and so on. Each successful week's work earns them six British pounds. Wohooo!
But the real money is for a jailbreak. The first person (or group) to break out wins (or shares) a whopping £100,000. The show is anchored by Craig Charles wearing his trademark permasmirk but no awful rhyming couplets this time - bonus! (Original host Ulrika Jonsson understandably had to pull out after it was discovered her baby had a heart defect.) In addition, we are given daily on the spot reports from Channel 5 news bods Charlie Stayt and Ruth England.
The contestants are representative of the full range of different ages and backgrounds. In this first (and hopefully not last) series, these include a grandmother, a bodyguard, an architect, a car salesman, a working mum, a student and a glamour model (who's been attracting more than her fair share of the attention, not surprisingly).
The production values are excellent - there's not a hint of the "Aha! This looks like a Channel 5 show!" syndrome that's prevalent in some of their previous light entertainment offerings. The graphics are groovy, including some very nice computer fly-throughs that show the viewers the routes through the prison. The music is very distinctive - kind of Erasure meets 1960's Hammond organ - but it needs a stronger "top line" to stick in the memory. And the set of the prison, designed and constructed by real jail architects, looks glamorous, imposing, old-fashioned and high-tech all at once.
Standing in the way between the prisoners and the prize money are a number of hi-tech security features. First of all, they have to get outside their dorm into the courtyard known as the houseblock. In there are a number of laser beams preventing the contestants from walking around freely, so they have to dodge them. Then there's the matter of a very high brick wall, and two further perimeter walls, the only means of entry/exit being a retinal scanner and a thumb-print scanner. Not to mention the 30 prison guards who take shifts in ensuring that the contestants stay put.
We should point out that contestants aren't allowed to do anything that is illegal, such as assaulting a prison officer (boo!), nor are they allowed to put themselves in any danger, such as climbing over a 30-foot high fence (hiss!). Well, it makes sense, we suppose. Nor are mass breakouts allowed - if 4 or more prisoners escape at once, they will be returned to the jail. Given that there are five prisoners in each dormitory, this leads to some interesting interpersonal game play. On the one hand you want to help the dorm as a whole, but on the other you know you're not all going to get out at once.
Escape from the jail is possible, as there are enough chinks in the armour to allow three separate escape routes. Along the way, the prisoners can try to collect useful tools from the garden or workshop - assuming the guards don't spot them. Information from the books in the library is also useful.
Help also comes in the form of the general public, who can send "Jailmails" to prisoners. The producers choose five of these to pass on to each prisoner each day. They could be hints they've unravelled, messages of support or plain red herrings. The prisoners are allowed to access their Jailmails via a 10-minute session with a computer, although this is a privilege and is something The Guv can take away if you've been naughty. Other punishments for those prisoners "on report" for failed jailbreaks include extra manual labour and even solitary confinement.
They also collect written clues found hidden in the prison. Now, this is where our main gripe comes in. Suppose the contestants have to find the combination to a number lock. There are a number of ways in which you could do this. For example:
1) Try all the combinations (slow, but it would work).
2) Try obvious numbers like 11111 or 99999.
3) Look at the number lock to see which digits have been worn out, then go through all the permutations of those digits.
4) Apply a thin layer of grease onto the keys, then come back later on to see which digits have been touched.
5) Try to work out what numbers or words are significant to the guards (wife's name, etc.) and convert them using the alphanumeric keypad code.
6) Try to find a viewpoint from which you can observe the guard opening the lock.
and then of course, there's:
7) Write a bloody huge crossword clue in 2-foot high orange spray paint inside a storm drain under your dormitory.
EH?!? The whole premise of Jailbreak is that this is a game show version of The Great Escape. In any real-life jailbreak, the prisoners go to extraordinary lengths of deviousness and ingenuity to crack the puzzle of how to escape from the prison. That is enough of a puzzle in itself - why they've felt the need to plaster on these extremely artificial cryptic clues is beyond us. It's hardly subtle.
We've known that the idea for Jailbreak has been kicking around for a little while, and it was interesting how the timing of Big Brother seemingly jumpstarted Channel 5 into action. They aren't hiding the fact that they've pinched quite a lot of the style from BB, and a lot of the elements are familiar: the "coming up next" trailers, the 30 web cameras installed on site (including - surprisingly for Channel 5 - no shower or toilet cams), daily news reports on the web, and so on.
The web site implementation is actually excellent. It's not going for the "no privacy" vibe of Big Brother, and as such this perhaps doesn't actually need 24/7 Internet coverage. Still, they've done it anyway but there are only certain times of the day when it's worth watching (i.e after lights out, when our competitors make progress in the cloak of darkness). In fact, this is one of the real strengths of this format - here, the contestants always have something to do, so there's usually something interesting happening. And watching an attempted live jailbreak on the live webcams is genuinely exciting. We can't say the same about Anna strumming her guitar, or Craig making interesting shapes with modelling clay.
There are lots of other nice things about the web site. It's a lot jazzier than BB's, there's a good chat forum (although - bizarrely - only 25 people can use it at once), there are on-line games with new games every week, nicely presented news stories, the webcams have a good frame rate, making on-line viewing possible, and lots of good freebies including the theme music in MP3 format. Oh, and it hasn't crashed our computers either.
A couple of minor things jar in the throat of the web site. The first is that we can often see the camera men following the contestants around inside the houseblock. Surely this gives away their position to the jail wardens watching the CCTV? They've already got 36 camera views in the prison - isn't this enough?!? Also, watching the Internet feed is great but the news on the web site comes a day later and the actual TV show another day after that. Keeping track of the same information three times over can be very confusing.
For those of us that don't want crippling Internet phone bills, they've even got a live and unedited show every weekday at 7am for those who want to eavesdrop or (if you're desperately in need of company) get ready for work at the same time as the prisoners. Having seen this once, we can't say we're too bothered, as live shots tend to be dull except at night.
It's a shame that they've gone to such extraordinary lengths to make the experience real - with an experienced prison Governor, staff who used to be 'screws' (guards), and even real prison furniture - they've gone and spoilt it by a number of different aspects that are too removed from reality. Note to potential criminals - there are likely to be NO written clues in red spray paint hidden in HMP Wormwood Scrubs, you're not likely to win £100,000 by breaking out of said prison, neither are you likely to be interviewed by reporters. Nor will you receive emails telling you how to escape, find flimsy air vents that allow you get out into the open, or share a dormitory with four other same-sex prisoners. Instead you're likely to be recaptured and put in a spell in solitary. Remember, kids - in real life crime doesn't pay. Unless you get away with it.
What we have then seems to be a live, edgier version of Now Get Out of That, and let's be honest there isn't really a more apt show to copy than that, is there? They have made it clear that it's only a game show, but it's gone in a strange direction for our money.
It won't be as big a hit as Big Brother - frankly because there's little sign of the (quote) "forbidden liaisons" the producers were lecherously hoping for. But good on Channel 5 for continuing to support action game shows - they make our job much more fun.
The successful eponymous jailbreaks.
When the remaining prisoners tried to get out by breaking down the outer fence. This was discounted as an "illegal breakout" and they were sent straight back.
The leader of the many medics, psychiatrists, cooks and 35 prison staff was former prison governor Jim Heyes.