New TV prison drama does time in Sheffield

Prisoners' Wives'Episode:No. 1 'Channels:BBC One'Oliver Hannam (Mason), Natalie Gavin (Lou), Emma Rigby (Gemma), Polly Walker (Francesca), Pippa Haywood (Harriet)
Prisoners' Wives'Episode:No. 1 'Channels:BBC One'Oliver Hannam (Mason), Natalie Gavin (Lou), Emma Rigby (Gemma), Polly Walker (Francesca), Pippa Haywood (Harriet)

SCENES inside a jail in a new television drama series starting on BBC1 next week will seem very familiar to hundreds of Sheffield youngsters.

The reason is innocent enough, however. It’s simply that their school, King Ecgbert’s at Dore, doubles for the inside of HMP Highcross in Prisoners’ Wives, a six-parter set and filmed in Sheffield about four very different women struggling to cope with their other half serving time.

The relationship-based ensemble drama stars Emma Rigby from Hollyoaks, Polly Walker (Rome), Green Wing’s Pippa Haywood, previously in Sheffield in Alice at the Crucible, and Natalie Gavin (The Arbour).

There were a number of reasons why production company Tiger Aspect decided to film here, explains co-producer Abi Bach.

“We definitely wanted it to be outside London and we felt Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds had been explored,” she says, adding that there were a personal aspect as well. “The script editor, Iona Vrolyk, had been to university in Sheffield and executive producer Roanna Benn had family there. In fact a lot of the executives had good memories of Sheffield.

“I myself knew the guys at Warp and coming from a documentary background had been to Doc Fest and in fact at one time organised some of their parties.

“And then when we made a preliminary trip up here we just felt straight away it would be right.”

With a working title of Bound, the series began shooting last summer at locations around the city including the Town Hall, Hallamshire Hospital and then the houses in different districts of each of the four characters.

“I think, apart from Robin Hood Airport and a theme park near Scunthorpe, we found pretty much what we needed around Sheffield,” says Bach. “One of the things which was absolutely great for us was the fact that we were never further than 15 minutes away from our base at the Workstation to the location.”

Central to the story is a prison which Sheffield doesn’t have but then they would hardly have been able to use a real one anyway.

“The interiors were King Ecgbert’s who were very helpful and it was perfect because we were filming during the summer break,” says Bach.

“For the outside we used Concord Sports Centre which was bit more difficult because there is a lot of coming and going all the time. Then we added CGI to make the building look a bit more foreboding.

Crucial to all this, she says, was having a good location manager in Richard Knight who lives in Sheffield and has worked on This Is England and Four Lions.

“There was a scene written involving a chase through a shopping centre and we naturally thought of Meadowhall but Richard said the Castle Market would look a lot more interesting. He’s got local knowledge and a great idea of visual possibilities which is the perfect combination.

“Sheffield is a visually interesting city with different architecture and high vantage points. And we loved Supertram. We had our own tram for one day for a chase scene but we weren’t allowed to hold up the service so it all had to be done with precision. But I think people will be pleased, it’s a really exciting scene.”

Abi Bach, who has worked on many productions from That Peter Kay Thing to Small Island, considers: “It was a great experience and everyone in Sheffield was very welcoming, perhaps because it is something new for them.

“There are scenes with schoolchildren which involves getting licences for them all but the welfare services were very helpful. Our lead child, Oliver Hannam, is from Barnsley and his headteacher was really supportive.”

Prisoners’ Wives is a rare drama featuring four strong female characters with an entertaining storyline and an emotional pull, she reckons.

“For her research, the writer, Julie Gearey, interviewed a lot of real-life prisoners’ wives and some of them were invited to the set at King Ecgbert’s and they found some of the scenes really moving. It’s very real and resonates with a lot of people – and even some of the men on the crew had tears in their eyes.

“Obviously it will depend on how well this first series of six does but the hope is that it will be a returning series,” Bach concludes.

Prisoners’ Wives begins on BBC One on Tuesday at 9pm.