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Tube Talk Gold: 'Bad Girls'

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Few shows have ever segued from quality drama to absolute detritus with quite such startling rapidity as ITV's estrogen-fuelled prison drama Bad Girls. The first four (or three, or five, or two, depending on who you ask) series were straight-up great television, combining a striking ensemble of strong female characters with heart, humour and an edge of real grit.

Yes, we said grit. Here's the thing with Bad Girls - it's not the show you remember it being.

Because the later series descended so completely into pantomime camp, with characters coming back as ghosts, running people over in drag and merrily carting corpses around the prison, it's hard to imagine a time when it had anything close to credibility. So here's a quick refresher course in the early, golden days of HMP Larkhall.

Bad Girls

© Shed Productions



The first series started out with a miscarrying prisoner being left to bleed all night in her cell, and didn't get much cheerier from there. The second episode featured a memorable sequence in which new prisoner Zandra (Lara Cazalet) is forcibly de-crutched by bullying top dogs Shell (Debra Stephenson) and Denny (Alicia Eyo). We're not going to explain the concept of "de-crutching" here, but suffice it to say you will never see a family-sized tub of margarine in quite the same way again.

And then there was the quasi-rapey, psychologically manipulative relationship between predatory prison officer Jim Fenner (Jack Ellis) and fragile young inmate Rachel (Joanne Froggatt, now of Downton fame), whose eventual suicide was handled with blunt realism. Bad Girls was never Oz, but in its early days it wasn't so far off.

But it wasn't all doom and gloom, and for most viewers the heart and soul of the first three seasons was the frisson between wing governor Helen (Simone Lahbib) and principled inmate Nikki (Mandana Jones). Imprisoned for stabbing a police officer who tried to rape her girlfriend, Nikki was one of the easiest characters to warm to, and Jones's spiky performance kept her journey compelling.

Bad Girls - Nikki Wade

© Shed Productions

Bad Girls - Helen Stewart

© Shed Productions



The Helen/Nikki relationship chimed so well with fans because of how flawed both characters were allowed to be. You were frequently furious with one or both of them, frustrated as the previously-straight Helen struggled to accept her feelings, and Nikki bullishly misjudged every other conversation. But all that gave the moments of payoff more impact; case in point, when Nikki escaped at the climax of season two and spent a night of passion with Helen at her flat. Good times.

The couple were so popular that the writers came up with a series of increasingly pale imitations once they departed - first series four's Roisin and Cassie, then series five's Selena and Kris, and the list goes on.

But the show's best character by some way was Yvonne Atkins (Linda Henry), whose untimely end by suffocation (honestly, we're still struggling to come to terms with it) was the true death knell for the show. Arriving at the very end of the first series, Yvonne took over the top dog mantle from slutty sociopath Shell, and ruled over the inmates of G Wing with a much gentler combination of common sense, maternal kindness and stone-cold badassery (it's a word). She was, basically, flawless.

Bad Girls - Yvonne Atkins

© Shed Productions

Bad Girls - Jim Fenner

© Shed Productions



Even in its good days, Bad Girls never shied away from extreme storytelling - who could forget the 'Babes Behind Bars' phone sex operation, or overthrown bully Maxi gradually choking herself to death on toilet roll, or Shell and Denny breaking out of prison just to torture Sylvia 'Bodybag' Hollamby and her husband for an entire episode? But its characters were so loveable and human that they anchored even the most outlandish storylines, and nobody was ever beyond change.

Take Shell, who started life as a ruthless, violent psychopath and largely stayed that way, but went a long way towards redeeming herself when she stabbed Fenner in the stomach with a broken bottle, and had a final four-episode arc that ended up being surprisingly poignant.

And though it did become truly dire once it lost too many of its core players, Bad Girls deserves credit for being one of the few shows in TV history to succeed with such a predominantly female ensemble. We challenge you to name another long-running drama with the same range of memorable, unique women in its cast. Admittedly, the flip-side of that was a kind of inverted sexism where more or less every man on the show was terrible, falling squarely into the category of either creep or drip.

Between evil overlord Fenner, slimy governor Neil Grayling (turns out the 'predatory gay' archetype isn't dead), instantly forgettable nice-guy Dominic, instantly forgettable nice-guy Josh and smack-addicted coward Colin, the Y chromosome didn't come off well at all. Colin at least had the good taste to fall in love with Yvonne and became slightly less pathetic for it, but he's the best of a sorry, sorry bunch.

Bad Girls has a lot to offer, but if you want at least some semblance of credibility in your drama or care at all about characterisation, we recommend you take our approach and stop watching around the middle of series five. There really isn't anything for you after that, save for a grisly and genuinely cruel ending for the show's best character by a country mile. Sniff. RIP Yvonne.

But if you've got a reasonably strong stomach and an even stronger suspension of disbelief, and all you're looking for is ludicrous camp, then by all means barrel on. The crossover appearance of Footballers' Wives glamourpuss Tanya Turner is a cracky highlight, if you like that sort of thing.

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