The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

I’ll Be Missing You

The prison officers are not monsters and the visitors are being punished just as much as the people they are visiting.

In a long room with barred doors at either end, prison officers, young offenders and visitors meet for one hour. Anything could happen but probably the least expected thing would be that, at the end, most of the characters will understand themselves better than when the visit started. In Through The Wire Catherine Johnson has blended songs and dialogue to create realistic characters who tell stories that we listen to with compassion.

In Through The Wire I wanted to tell a story about what it is like when a member of your family or a loved one is in prison. I had this opening image of prison officers dancing to Madness - I took it from there and I was able to write the lyrics to fit the story. For me the songs have to drive the story as much as when the characters are speaking. The dramatic thrust should always be in the songs. They have to have a purpose: either the characters are telling the audience their innermost thoughts or they are revealing something to another member of the cast.

Embedded in the songs and raw, realistic dialogue there are the stories about each of the young offenders and their visitors. There is the battle between PO Green and Philip’s mother for Philip’s soul. There is the story of the lonely 16-year-old Ant waiting once again for a visit from his mother. There is the story of the unrequited love of Max and Becki whose eyes meet in the visiting room. There is a story of drugs entrapment when Dan corresponds with Rashid to take a vicious revenge on his girlfriend who is leaving him for his half-brother Chris. And there is a story of Scott and Shelley who, we are led to believe, are reconsidering what their future might be when Shelley has her baby. Catherine Johnson is non-judgmental about the way society deals with young people who are seen by many people as a menace. The prison officers are not monsters and the visitors are being punished just as much as the people they are visiting.

I really wanted to show the visitors’ side of things. I hope we see the difficulties of being in a relationship with a young offender, whether you're a mother or father or girlfriend or a close friend. The offenders have a life that is regimented but those on the outside are dealing with great difficulties, just getting by or catching three buses to make a visit. Their loneliness is just as acute as it is for the offenders. I suppose the bottom line is that the offenders will leave the prison but the prison officers are stuck with the job, and the visitors have to go back and cope.

Catherine Johnson does not flinch from the realities of life for young offenders. She understands that their hard front is often bravado, covering up hurt and bewilderment, sometimes leading to suicide, and that they are not good communicators. She has a keen ear for the speech they use and inevitably the characters swear. She is aware that this could lead to problems with schools and she has prepared a version that will be more acceptable to headteachers and governing bodies.

It annoys me when I'm asked to change things for television but I totally understand that schools might have difficulty doing this piece, even though I know that, when swearing is cut from lines, it breaks up the rhythm of the piece. The play is, after all, about young offenders and swearing is very much part of the way they speak. However, I honour the fact that schools have chosen my play and I have done what I can to make it acceptable.

Despite the bleak context, Through The Wire is a hopeful play in the sense that, in the final song, the characters say what they really feel and come to a greater understanding of their relationships. Rashid can't wait for the day when he sees Jo's face again; for the first time in his life Max sees a future with the woman he loves; Becki responds with her love; Dom feels the absence of his friend like a slap in the face. But most poignant, because Philip’s offence is the one of the hardest to understand and forgive, is the confession of his father, Andrew, that he still loves his son and has put his photograph back on the TV so that he won't forget him. It was an inspired choice of song that allows the play to end with everyone singing ‘Every step I take, every move I make, every single day, every time I pray, I'll be missing you.’ The power of this affirmation is strong enough to help us accept the tragedy of Shelley, who can sing: ‘When this life is over, I know I'll see your face.’

A lot of the relationships come out of this visiting hour a little stronger. A new relationship has started and, despite the tragedy of the suicide, I think the tone of the song would leave the audience with a sense of hopefulness rather than despair. I didn't set out to write a warning about the horrors of a young offenders’ institution. But I wanted to make it authentic. The experience of relating to something dramatically gives a greater understanding than, for example, a visit to a prison. In a drama you step into an imaginary world. As a member of the audience you are invited into a world and can live in it for an hour. If you're in the production, you are caring about your characters and you will come away from it thinking about them. You will have an insight into what it is like for them and for their families. You should be able to say, ‘Those young people could be me or could be my children. Those visitors could be me or my girlfriend or my mother.’