Jail Birds

16“The Choir of Better Luck next Time.” “The Choir of Good Intentions.” “The Choir of Long Detention.”

The women at Tarrangower Prison desperately need a name for their new venture with choirmaster Jonathan Welch, and there are lots of ideas being tossed around in the early scenes of this ABC documentary.

“The Choir of “We’re So Sorry.” “The Choir of Better Luck Next Time.” “The Choir of Get Me Out of Here.”

Yes, these women have more spirit than skill, and presumably, more than self-esteem and confidence which is the point of this new television project by Welch.

Welch’s previous success with The Choir of Hard Knocks is well documented. The FremantleMedia series went on to become a national favourite winning Logie and Aria Awards. This time, under Renegade Films, he will take a group of women from inside a prison and ask them to sing in unison, and preferably harmony.

Originally titled Prison Sings, this four part series is not dissimilar to the Norwegian series The Prison Choir in its premise.

Set in the low-risk Tarrangower Prison farm in northern Victoria, the women here are considered likely candidates for rehabilitation. None are made to join Welch’s project but there are plenty who turn up.

Accompanied by pianist Stephen Blackburn (of Fast Forward,  Tim & Debbie fame), the women attempt their first musical notes together via simple singalong songs. They’re not very good, but they sure have a good time not being very good together -which is half the point of a class with Welch. Then he tells them their first public performance is just days away, singing Christmas Carols to a local senior citizens club (hmm, this sure was filmed some time ago). Gulp.

The most fascinating part of this factual series is actually the insight into prison life for the women. They share units together, cooking and cleaning for themselves, working either inside or outside prison grounds with minimal supervision. More than a few are pixellated, some at their request, others by order of Corrections Victoria. The women are strong characters, many middle-aged without make-up. They don’t hold back with their opinions and it enriches the storytelling all the more.

One Vietnamese woman is asked to sing in her own language. It’s a poignant moment.

Bringing music, prison and television together is certainly a savvy idea -did Glenn Wheatley miss an opportunity?

It’s also hard to believe we would we be so engaged by the tale if these women were hardened crims. There is a sympathetic line reminding us these are mothers separated from families. Their crimes include culpable driving, fraud, obtaining property by deception and similar. We’re along way from Bea Smith and the Prisoner laundry press here.

But it’s an engaging tale of a worthy cause. Welch’s dream is for every prison in the country to have its own choir. Jail Birds is a diverting piece of entertainment that probably won’t top The Choir of Hard Knocks, but works perfectly well on day release.

35_starsJail Birds premieres 8pm Tuesday November 17th on ABC1


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