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Feltham Sings (2002)

Courtesy of Channel 4 Television / Century Films / Films of Record

Main image of Feltham Sings (2002)
Century Films/Films of Record for Channel 4, tx. 17/12/2002
60 minutes, colour
DirectorBrian Hill
ProducerRoger Graef
LyricistSimon Armitage

Inmates and staff of Feltham Young Offenders Institute talk and sing about their experiences.

Show full synopsis

Feltham Sings opens on a peacock, one of many freely wandering the grounds of Europe's largest youth detention centre. Their recurring presence suggests the strutting machismo to be found, frustrated, among Feltham's caged human population. Inside, the camera prowls, Shining-style, down its corridors, punctuating observational scenes, interviews... and songs. It's not surprising that Feltham Young Offenders Institution should have become the subject for a documentary, but who'd have guessed it would take the form of a musical?

Feltham Sings was co-produced by Brian Hill's Century Films and Roger Graef's Films of Record, their unlikely collaboration apparently a shotgun marriage. Documentary veteran (and criminologist) Graef had proposed filming at Feltham in the rigorous observational style he had pioneered, shooting inside institutions otherwise closed to public view. Around the same time, Hill, recalling his and Simon Armitage's stylised experiments with verse, song and factual subject-matter in Drinking for England (1998), suggested a 'docu-musical' about the New York singles scene.

Channel 4 commissioner Peter Dale boldly fused their proposals, green lighting a work made in Hill's style on Graef's subject. Graef produced, Hill directed. DJ Dextrous (a.k.a. Errol Francis) contributed (alongside ambient background music) the urban, mainly rap, settings for Armitage's lyrics, which are deceptively simple and studded with sparkling apercus. Inspired by interviews with inmates and staff, reflecting varied attitudes and life situations, they are sung, on-screen, by the same, their performances filmed in the style of low-budget pop videos, using multiple camera set-ups making the most of Feltham's restricted spaces.

Hill's film received rave reviews and several BAFTAs. Hill and Armitage continued their experimental blending of documentary, poetry and song with the controversial Pornography: The Musical (Channel 4, tx. 21/10/2003), about sex workers, and Songbirds (Channel 4, tx. 15/12/2005), a companion piece to Feltham Sings filmed at a women's prison and drawing from a wider musical palette, including country and torch-song as well as rap.

Patrick Russell

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Doing time (3:31)
2. Gym song (2:09)
3. The night watch-man (2:57)
Drinking for England (1998)
Out of Control (2002)
Scum (1977)
Hill, Brian (1955-)