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Gareth Malone’s The Choir at Aylesbury – how far we have come

Gareth Malone’s The Choir at Aylesbury – how far we have come

Gareth Malone’s The Choir at Aylesbury – how far we have come

Jessica Plant, Director of the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance, reflects on the impact of Gareth Malone’s work at HMYOI Aylesbury and pays tribute to the hard work of pioneering arts organisations that have quietly driven change behind the scenes for over 30 years.

I have had the pleasure and privilege of managing the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) within Clinks for over eight years, advocating for all types of creative practice to support desistance and wellbeing. So, when I switched on episode two of Gareth Malone’s latest documentary, The Choir at Aylesbury Prison, I did so with a degree of trepidation.

We have all seen the way the media can manipulate depictions of prison and reinforce harmful stereotypes, both about people serving sentences and those working to support them. We have also sometimes seen ‘community arts’ ridiculed, leaving arts and culture in criminal justice settings with little scope for positive publicity. The arts in criminal justice sector still has deep scars from Jack Straw’s extraordinary clamp down on arts activities in prison in 2009 and we have been healing ever since.

My scepticism was fuelled by the fact that despite pioneering arts organisations doing this work for over 30 years (surviving constant political and operational changes and consistent cuts), high-profile projects such as these often claim their work as the first of its kind.

However, as François Matarasso reminded us at our 2019 Anne Peaker lecture at the Young Vic, the beautiful and encapsulating 2012 Olympic opening ceremony is one example of shifting public opinion about what is possible in relation to participatory arts. More recently, we have heard George the Poet’s ground-breaking podcast make inroads to the mainstream with discussion of the inequalities in our criminal justice system. Clean Break Theatre Company’s work with the Donmar Warehouse and the annual Koestler Arts exhibition at the Southbank Centre are just two more examples of how high-profile arts and criminal justice partnerships are driving change around who culture is made by and made for. So, does Gareth Malone help or hinder our fragile world? And does he bring anything new to the table?

I think he helps. It was refreshing to watch a prime-time documentary focus on some of the real challenges of prisons and running arts projects in them, exploring the barriers people come across and the tenacious attitude it takes to actually pull something like this off. Gareth Malone harnessed individual talent and brought together prisoners with staff – naively on occasion – but with determination and absolutely the right motivation. Most importantly for me, however, was that the programme makers sought to go further beyond the prison walls, to show the impact our criminal justice system has on not only on the victims of crime but on prisoners’ families and those left with their lives split in two from tragic events.

I recognise that there were problems with its production. We know that the prison suffers serious staffing problems but will have dedicated significantly more resource and made special allowances to make this happen. We know too that the presence of cameras will inevitably have all sorts of consequences. However, the programme’s success, for me, was that it highlighted the crucial role the arts can play in enabling families to feel hope and pride for their loved ones in prison, something they may not have believed would ever be possible again.

I think that, on balance, the project demonstrated the joy and hope that music can bring to individuals in challenging circumstances. In making the documentary Gareth Malone showed how working with people on an individual level and tapping into their skills and assets can generate empathy and enable positive, reflective change.

It is worth bearing in mind that this documentary never could have happened without the excellent work of organisations in our network such as the Irene Taylor Trust, Finding Rhythms and HDMT Music, who have met the challenge of delivering music projects in our criminal justice system for more than 30 years. Their hard work has laid the foundations for this kind of mainstream activity to enter the public realm and be met with open arms. While the arts and criminal justice sector might not be in the credits, its efforts have certainly paid off.

Creative projects that develop skills and build human connections and optimism behind our prison walls have been operating under the radar for years and years, and while it is frustrating that high-profile organisations may claim theirs as the ‘first’, I think we should take these moments to celebrate how far we have come as a sector. This is especially true this week, when we have real cause to celebrate. Following two years of consultation and many more years of advocacy by us and our network, Arts Council England published its strategy for 2020-30 on Monday. It commits to work in the criminal justice system and with the voluntary sector to support communities and to deliver its ambitions to enable a truly creative society.

Some family and friends – who for years have looked blankly at me when I try to describe what I spend my time advocating for – watched Gareth Malone’s documentary and said “this is brilliant, very impressive, why isn’t there more of this?”

Let’s reflect: there was a positive, well-received, mainstream documentary on the BBC watched by over 1.5 million people, which said that arts and culture in prison are important, valuable and potentially crucial. We can use this positive feedback as an advocacy tool for our work with commissioners and policymakers to continue to make the case for arts in criminal justice settings.

And I will be writing to Gareth Malone and sending him a copy of our good practice guide, for next time!

Image courtesy of Changing Tunes