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Last Updated: Friday, 6 August, 2004, 09:17 GMT 10:17 UK
Art from behind prison bars
By Tom Bishop
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Lord Archer
Lord Archer was reprimanded for identifying prisoners in his book
Disgraced Tory peer Jeffrey Archer, whose prison diary has been turned into an Edinburgh Fringe Festival play, is not the first creative criminal to be inspired by time in prison.

Already a hit novel, Jeffrey Archer's Prison Diary - Hell tells of his three weeks in top security London jail Belmarsh.

Written as he served four years for perjury and perverting the course of justice, the book breached prison rules by identifying prisoners.

Nevertheless the resulting furore did its sales no harm and has ensured plenty of publicity for its stage adaptation, directed by James Rayment with Lord Archer's blessing.

Affair exposed

Books, plays, films and music written in prison have a particular fascination as they can reveal a world we hope never to experience first-hand.

Playwright Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour in prison for gross indecency, after his affair with Alfred Douglas was exposed in 1895.

While incarcerated he wrote the autobiographical De Profundis and the elegy The Ballad of Reading Gaol under the pseudonym C33 - the number of Wilde's prison cell.

"I think Wilde was someone who always saw the other side," said Dr Ronan McDonald, Modern English Literature lecturer at the University of Reading.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde only lived a further two years after leaving Reading prison
"He spent his life coming up with lots of paradoxes and witty phrases which turned values on his head. I think he saw his time in Reading, for all his suffering, as a completion of the tragedy in his life."

The witty playwright and author left prison a broken man, humiliated and bankrupt, and would only live for a further two years.

Among the slew of prison autobiographies, few are as hard-hitting as the story of American Billy Hayes, sentenced to life in a Turkish jail after trying to smuggle 4lbs of hashish out of Istanbul in 1970.

After five harrowing years in squalid conditions he made a daring escape, subsequently writing his autobiography Midnight Express with William Hoffer.

Director Alan Parker's movie of the book was criticised for deviating from the original story, nevertheless it won two Academy Awards on its 1979 release.

Respected rapper

The US-based gangsta rap scene values machismo above all else, and no rapper is more highly respected than one who has spent time in prison.

50 Cent was introduced as someone who had spent time behind bars for dealing crack cocaine of the streets of Queens, New York, a fact he referred to in his lyrics.

"His life story sold me," admitted Eminem, who signed 50 Cent to his Shady Records label and watched him dominate Billboard's year-end US sales and airplay charts.

50 Cent
50 Cent's tales of life behind bars impressed fellow rapper Eminem
"To have a story behind the music is so important. He's just got the total package."

It came as little surprise when fellow rapper Shyne signed a record deal worth a reported $3m (1.65m) in April, despite residing in New York's Dannemora Prison.

Convicted of gun possession and assault after using a firearm in a crowded club, the fact that the rapper is not due to be released until 2009 has not cut his career short.

In the 1960s New York comedian Lenny Bruce incorporated his own prison experiences into his stand-up routine.

Jailed numerous times for using bad language onstage, the challenging comedian's final performances revealed an increasing preoccupation with the right to free speech. Bruce was found dead from a drug overdose at the age of 40.

But not all jail experience has provoked artistic anger, bitterness and lucrative notoriety.

Nelson Mandela sketch
Mandela sketched Robben Island prison during his 26-year sentence
Former South African President Nelson Mandela's story had already been related many times when he was released from Robben Island prison, off Cape Town, in 1990.

Serving 26 years of hard labour for plotting to overthrow the state, the statesman had also sketched a number of charcoal and crayon pictures of the prison.

He subsequently sold these to raise money for his Children's Fund, to help orphaned children and those with the HIV virus in South Africa.

Jail can be a productive place for writers and artists, who are left with much time to reflect and often encouraged to express themselves through the written word or art.

Above all, the prisoner's rise and fall can make a damn fine story.

Archer prison play set for debut
05 Aug 04  |  Entertainment
Wilde at heart
30 Nov 00  |  Entertainment
Scuffle at rapper 50 Cent's show
11 May 04  |  Entertainment
Rapper may sign new deal in jail
21 Apr 04  |  Entertainment
Mandela lights the gloom
26 Sep 02  |  Entertainment

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