Prisoners' Wives: Building HMP Highcross

Monday 11 March 2013, 12:34

Chris Roope Chris Roope Production Designer

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The heart of the stories in Prisoners' Wives is in the prison visits hall where the families meet their loved ones who are doing time.

While much of the action in the series centres around the families in the city of Sheffield, all the joy and pain of everyday life is distilled into the hour or so allowed for visiting where there is, of course, no privacy.

I designed sets for both series of Prisoners' Wives. Along with the art department, I researched life in prison - which before the show wasn't something we knew much about.

Prisoners' Wives: Paul and Francesca Miller A family visit for Paul Miller from Franny and the kids

We were given escorted access to parts of a prison and thus got an idea of the tones, textures and details of the cells, corridors, the detention block, the visits hall, together with the visitors' entrance and its security. 

For the first series the producers, director and myself decided we wanted our prison to have a contemporary look, which suited the feel of the show and would be a change from the brick cells and blocks often seen on TV.

Filming in a prison was not possible as the security issues of getting a film crew and their equipment in and out are too great. So we had to find a location to adapt into our fictitious HMP Highcross. Sheffield, by the way, does not have a prison.
Painted concrete block walls and shiny floors proved to be the industry standard and this led us to look at modern schools since we were filming over the summer holidays. 

We found a South Yorkshire school which worked well, with their canteen becoming our visits hall, one classroom corridor our security area and another corridor the wing – which is where the cells are.
We built a cell inside a classroom off our wing, taking off the existing door and putting in a fake cell door.
We found companies that supply real prison door locks and observation hatches, beds, cell furniture and toilets, together with visit hall tables.

With fixed seating and a low central tables, the latter are designed to minimise physical contact between prisoners and their visitors - reducing the possibility of contraband being smuggled in. 

Prisoners' Wives empty set Not quite from scratch: the set before starting construction

The second series presented a new challenge – we were filming in term time, so would not have access to the school - but our prison had to look the same.

We did not have the budget to build the sets from scratch in a studio, so our location department looked for similar buildings.
We settled on an empty office that had a good ceiling height. One corner worked well for the visits hall.

We had to build over the windows to make them as much like the originals as possible and constructed the other walls from plywood flattage. We'd stored the closed visits booths from the previous year, so fitted these in too.

Prisoners' Wives visiting hall The finishing touches: the visits hall dressed and ready for filming

By contrast we decided to build much of the wing out of block, sand and cement. Film and TV sets are usually built with plywood on wooden frames and finished with paper, paint or plaster to suit. 

When needing a brick or block finish, for example, moulded sheets of plaster are fixed on to the plywood, filled and painted to look like the real thing.

Prisoners' Wives prison cells Recreating a modern prison: the wing under construction

This is a labour-intensive process and can work well for bricks, if not the blocks, which have a crisper finish and a very distinctive patina. 

We settled on real blocks (actually cinder instead of the heavier concrete) as they would also allow for actors to knock against the walls without them moving or the plaster getting damaged.

Again, we'd kept all the cell doors, bars and gates, noticeboards and cell furniture from the first series, so with hired pool tables, the wing has much of the look of the original.

Prisoners' Wives pool tables Cue lights: the wing ready for filming

As you can see, there were many other locations in Prisoners' Wives. Designing the families' houses afforded us the chance to show the characters through their home environment, with their choice of furniture, decoration and everyday objects.

By contrast, the interesting thing about designing the prison was that, outside the cells, it was largely devoid of any individual's personal touch. It's an institution after all, with a specific routine.

Despite the efforts of the prison staff to make the environment as humane as possible, I wanted to show the impact its hardness can have on people, both visitors and inmates alike.

Chris Roope is the production designer on Prisoners' Wives.

Series two of Prisoners' Wives begins on Thursday 14 March at 9pm on BBC One. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Very glad this has returned. Excellent drama. I'd like to know where the countryside is filmed.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Was really looking forward to this series but the research team should be fired. It is so un-true to real life! The prison service does not put a sex offender in general population!! let alone an un-convicted one! Everyone knows that because of factual TV, Secondly it is illegal to bug and record a prisoner during visiting hours with his family so that would never happen! I don’t want to rant on and these are only 2 of the multitude of inaccuracies so far in this programme. Continue watching if you must but know it is far from the real world of practise and protocol. Such a shame because BBC are usually very good and mini series but its to far fetched because the public know how these things work apparently better than the BBC in the justice system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I'm sorry but you are seriously misinformed about what goes on inside high security prisons in respect of the monitoring of conversations, having worked in many of them myself. This practice was introduced in Northern Ireland, at many prisons, as a method of counter-intelligence operations to thwart terrorists directing operations from within jails.
    Your other comments, whilst laudable towards accuracy, should really allow for a certain 'dramatic license' as regards the script. To my mind, it adds rather than detracts, from the plot.

    @Chris Roope
    You may find it of help to your script writers if they recruited some serving prisoners, much as the did for the TV series, Porridge, in the mid 70's, for both anecdotal and factual occurrences within those walls. These could add some greater realism, which would suit those whom desire it. Few know of the hidden talents that are kept hidden from the rest of society that have made real contributions to literature, even gaining an award from the Arthur Koestler Trust, for works written by prisoners. The Cauldron by Zeno springs to mind, a book I read almost 30 years ago and has left a lasting impression on me, for it's gritty realism and style of writing and this by a serving prisoner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    @Chris Roope has the right idea; only those who have been there know what it is really like inside. Perhaps even talking to family or friends who have visited REAL prisoners could help a bit from that side. I like the reference to the Arthur Koestler Trust; they are a great incentive to prisoners improving on their lot. Fine Cell Work is another charity that gives time and thought to helping those inside. A look at their web site will give stories by prisoners about how, having something constructive to do, helps them to see there is another life they could be leading.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Hi Chris, i have walked the shoes of the wives and i have to say you have it spot on with how we first feel going inside the prison and how much support we give. But never forget how much we hurt and how hard we work to keep it together for our familys. xx love the show

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    well I'd like to say I think it's great. I don't know prisons or prisoners but it's cool from my point of view, it's entertaining and the story lines are addictive. I live in Sheffield and I think the filming you've done both on location and fake build is brilliant. I'm genuinely looking forwards to tonight's episode and love the characters in prisoners wives. I love it!! Have you guessed that yet?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    No TV series, whichever company makes it, is perfectly accurate and true to life, but many are still extremely enjoyable.

    But what I would like to know is why this highly enjoyable series appears to have been cut short. Series one was at least six or seven (maybe more), but this one has ended after only four episodes. Is there any specific reason for this, and more importantly, will there be any more?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    having unfortunate times at H.M.P pleasure I can say that the reality of the set and how things work inside its pretty close to the truth great program and shows how easy and hard it is to get out of the system, it still hornets me some 20yrs on. prison as the programme shows kills life it still does mine to this day. great show of facts if you look past the drama.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Just a general question to everyone out there. Does anyone know what the name/artist of the soundtrack that was played towards the end of last night's episode was please? It was beautiful and I would love to buy it. Thanks all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @ Dawn.... The song played towards the end of episode 4 is called Home by Gabrielle Aplin. I agree, it's a beautiful song, sung by a very young, talented girl. Hope that helps!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    My first comment. The design is really very impressive. We want to see this production on Turkish tv channels. The turks, very likes this types tv series.

    Respects, From Turkey.
    Emin Kopollo - TV Blogger[Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Hello, I'm an actual prisoners wife, my husband currently serving a 3 year sentence. He's not a violent man, he's was charged with laundering money before people start ranting he's in the best place.
    I was hoping the series would show the turmoil families outside the wall go through, I understand not wanting to depict the standard concrete cubes and high brick walls. But I think you lost the absolute sheer fear you feel when you have to stand outside them large wooden doors for the first time, then also the other 5 locked doors and gates you have to enter though. Also the issues surrounding booking visits, vo's and pvo's, these all very from prison to prison. With each having there own rules and regulation. There is so much to learn, items of clothing have to be sent in within the first 28 days, there only allowed a certain number and can't have certain colours. They must also only be sent by the Royal Mail, (if the prison doesn't have e-ray machines).
    Plus coping outside there legal jargon to understand, solicitors and barristers all treating you like your loved one is just a number.
    Not being able to contact your husband and if they can't get to a phone then you won't receive a call for days. The prison system holding letters for 3 to 4 weeks to and from the person inside. Not being able to book a visit because there full that day.
    Generally you have to sign in at the visitors centre which is a separate pre fab building from the prison, you have to get there early so as to get your full two hour visit. Then sit for an hour waiting to be told you can go down to the prison gate, it's terrifying the first time.
    The struggles you go through getting your bills and bank statements moved over.
    I think more research is needed, there are hundreds of women going through this everyday and it's dramatic enough in real life without having to add gangster scenes.


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