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Local series Lockdown cast ex-convicts as extras

Shot in a real jail, local prison drama Lockdown hired former inmates to bring authenticity to set

The second episode of the third season of crime drama Lockdown dropped just this week. Lockdown is the brainchild of Mandla Ngcongwane – also known as Mandla N – and it follows the theme of women in prison, but with a local flavour and a highly realistic depiction of prison life.

It’s set in the fictional Thabazimbi Women’s Correctional Facility, and Ngcongwane and his team made sure that their research was on point for the production.

“We spent time with women on parole, we spent time with ex-convicts and we engaged them to better understand what goes on in prison,” said executive producer Annelie van Rooyen to TVPlus magazine. “You won’t believe the stories that we heard – some are even too crazy for a TV show. It’s truly eye-opening.”

A lot of what goes down in the show is what could, and does, happen in women’s prisons … and not just in South Africa but also around the world.

What you see is what you get

Research isn’t all that the production team did to make sure their actors behaved like prisoners. They stripped them down to the basics to get the look right, says Lorcia Cooper, who plays troublemaker convict Tyson.

“For the first time in my career, I didn’t have to rely on my looks or hours in the make-up chair to be dolled up. There’s no make-up. There are no fancy outfits. It’s bare. It’s stripped down. And it’s honest. And I think that makes this almost more challenging in a sense – because you can’t hide behind your looks and wardrobe. You’re out there.”

Image: Supplied/Showmax

Shot on set at Constitution Hill

While Lockdown does have a couple of purpose-built sets, its main set is possibly its biggest star. The 30-minute episodes are mostly filmed at the original apartheid-era prison at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. And being on location inspired the actresses, led by Dawn Thandeka King as prisoner “overlord” Ma’Z who is coming to the end of her 25-year sentence.

“Playing Ma’Z is emotionally demanding,” King told TVPlus. “Before shooting scenes, I would sit in the prison cell and get in tune with my emotions. This woman is trapped behind bars. She’s had to fight for her life to stay alive in this prison. It’s been a long time … it’s been a very long time and it’s taken its toll on her. But the light at the end of the tunnel is almost here – she can almost taste her freedom!”

Opening doors for ex-convicts

Like many other shows, Lockdown has its own on-set “consultants”, explains Van Rooyen. “We hired ex-prisoners to work on the show as extras in scenes. They know how to act behind bars because they’ve actually lived it, they’ve been there and know the environment.

"It means that our cast are getting first-hand help from people who can say, ‘No, this would never happen,’ or ‘These people would never be together in a cell,’ and ‘That isn’t the language being used.’ That adds authenticity to the show and it tells real stories.”

Hiring ex-convicts has a two-fold purpose – it also allows them to earn a living that might not have been possible in broader society, and they gain insight into the industry, which could open other doors for them.

Image: Supplied/Showmax

Shocking scenes reflect reality

Sensitive viewers might feel the need to look away from certain scenes that play out in the series, but they’re a reflection of what really happens in prisons … and not just in South Africa but also around the world.

From Ma’Z, who is manipulative but motherly, to heartless boxing champ Tyson, nothing is too far-fetched for the prisoners. There’s the “innocent” and naive drug mule Monde (Zola Nombona), and the “social butterfly” Vix (Lauren Vankeirsbilck) who thought that money could buy her freedom. There are also the shady wardens who use their power to control the prisoners for their benefit ... but keep an eye on corrupt warden Beauty (Slindile Nodangala), who willingly accepts bribes from the prisoners and their families to turn a blind eye to certain goings-on in the correctional facility.

It’s authentic shows like Lockdown that continue to prove South Africans are hungry for quality homegrown content.

Lockdown is dark, hard hitting and features an all-star female cast. If you don’t know what all the hype is about, binge-watch the first two seasons of Lockdown from the beginning on Showmax. Start binge-watching Lockdown now »

If you're already in the know, catch up on the latest episodes of season 3 on DStv Now or start binge-watching season 1 to 2.

Get a 14-day free Showmax trial now »

This article was paid for by Showmax.

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