Sunday, January 25, 2015

Banged Up Abroad

Cullen Thomas
In a recent interview I was asked about my 'guilty pleasure' in TV watching. I told the interviewer I didn't really believe in the concept of guilty pleasures but then I remembered this blogpost from a couple of years ago...
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A long time ago I remember watching Barry Norman on the BBC's old Film programme getting himself worked up about Midnight Express. The prison experiences are indeed very harrowing Norman said, but, he wondered "why should we even care about what happens to a self confessed drug smuggler?" Evidently for Barry Norman drug smugglers were not and could never be a hero of a major feature film. A fortiori then Norman must surely hate the National Geographic Channel's TV series Banged Up Abroad, as the vast majority of its subjects are incompetent or wannabe drug smugglers. I don't share Norman's moral concerns about rooting for a drug dealer as most of the people featured on BUA are generally sympathetic - stupid, yes, but sympathetic.
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If I believed in the concept of the guilty pleasure Banged Up Abroad would probably be my current guiltiest squeeze. Every episode begins the same way: a naive Brit or American is in a hot foreign country and is persuaded by a smooth talking new friend/boy-friend/girl-friend into smuggling drugs from said hot foreign country into Europe or North America. Taped up with cocaine or heroin or hash and sweating bullets the scheme invariably goes wrong and the naive Anglo-Saxon gets caught and is thrown into an overseas prison. Actors play the younger version of the subject and they narrate their own story in a studio usually (especially with the Brits) with self mocking ironic detachment. Some of the prisons are so chaotic and corrupt that the subject's life is in jeopardy and they must literally fight to survive from day to day. Other prisons are a little more humane but none of them resemble the gentle Scandinavian prisons which are more about reform than punishment. (A few of the less successful episodes have the subject getting kidnapped by terrorists etc. but this, I feel, is stretching the purity of the format.) Why is Banged Up Abroad so compelling to me? Well, for a start I can easily imagine myself getting banged up abroad, not necessarily because of drug smuggling, but maybe because of an incident in a bar that gets out of hand or a violation of local laws of which I am unfamiliar. The fantasy of escape from a barbaric foreign prison has been a staple of literature for centuries, perhaps millennia (St Peter, I think, pulled a daring prison escape somewhere in the New Testatment) and while very few of the subjects on Banged Up Abroad actually manage to escape, it's not difficult to put yourself in their shoes, wondering if you could do the time and if not how you would try to get yourself out. This idea is so obviously interesting to me that I even wrote a novel all about it called Dead I Well May Be...
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If you're only going to watch one episode of Banged Up Abroad try to find the one starring Cullen Thomas who gets arrested for trying to smuggle drugs into Korea with his girlfriend Rocket. Cullen's prison experiences are fascinating: after some initial self pity and suffering Cullen transforms himself through a kind of zen process of meditation and self analysis into a mature and thoughtful young man. For Thomas getting arrested for drug smuggling is, in a way, the best thing that ever happened to him, giving his existence meaning and allowing him to live what Plato called the examined life, or what the poet Novalis felt was the greatest journey of all, the journey inwards into the depth of one's own experiences: "nach innen geht der geheimnisvolle Weg." Thomas used the prison time to become a more reflective and interesting person rather than in his phrase "letting the time use him." He has also written a rather good book about his experiences that can be got on Amazon.com, here.  And surely even Barry Norman wouldn't disapprove of that.