Ben Pickering - Taking the Wrap: How I ended up behind bars

Ben Pickering

Film director Ben Pickering made his name making crime thrillers, featuring familiar faces from the likes of Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

In 2014, however, fiction crossed over into reality when Ben was sentenced to six years in jail for his part in a £5million mortgage fraud scam.

Having previously mingled with actors such as Matt di'Angelo, Anna Passey and Richard Blackwood, he now found himself rubbing shoulders with murderers and rapists. 

Having served his time, Ben has since returned to filmmaking and is about to publish his first novel, Freiheit. His experiences have also prompted Ben to become a prison reform campaigner and an ambassador for prison charity Storybook Dads.

Writing exclusively for Reader’s Digest, Ben explains what led him to turn to a life of crime…

Film director Ben Pickering. Copyright Ben Pickering. Photo Credit: Jarek Duk.

What would you do if someone owed you fifteen grand?

Sure, it’s not the end of the world. But it’s still a lot of money. Especially when you’re 18, it’s your hard-working single mother’s life savings and you’ve been duped by a conman into handing it over.

When I was a teenager, I dreamt of being a filmmaker (well, I wanted to be an astronaut but for a working-class kid from Swansea, that wasn’t going to happen!). By the time I’d turned 18, I’d already produced two feature films. Thankfully, you can’t buy them on Amazon because they weren’t so good, but they were a massive learning curve and they gave me the confidence to direct myself.

So just a few months into my first year at university (studying politics in case I didn’t make it in the film industry, because in those days a media degree was only good for making wedding videos), I got introduced to a 30 year-old “businessman” called Mark. He was an aspiring actor and in exchange for casting him in one of the lead roles in a film, he would arrange the finance for it.

Today, you could probably make a film for £15,000. Many of the low budget films on the shelves of Asda right now have cost less. But in 1998, films cost real money—no less than £1 million. And I felt I needed the credibility of an older, successful businessperson to pull it off and make my dream happen.

I thought that person was Mark.

But he was none of those things. He was just a conman.

I was the first member of my family to go to university, with two degrees from Swansea University and half a PhD under my belt, so I’m not stupid.

But I was dumb, stubborn, full of pride and overtaken by a strong sense of injustice.

Taking Mark to the County Court, sending around the bailiffs, calling the police even; all of that would have been pointless, throwing good money after bad.

Shortly after the release of his debut film, gritty thriller Two Days In The Smoke, Ben Pickering faced his own real-life crime drama. Copyright Ben Pickering. Photo Credit: Darren Brade.

For it turned out Mark owed money left, right, centre and some. He’d been knocking the banks since he was 14.

I had no chance of getting my family’s life savings back by using stick instead of carrot.

Instead of cutting Mark loose, writing the money off and chalking it all up to experience, I went into business with the man as my only way of getting back my mum’s money. For a time things went well. But he was greedy and lazy and regarded himself as “tax exempt”. Before I knew it, we’d racked up tax bills I could never pay and that he never wanted to pay. That £15,000 had ballooned into £150,000, Mark was bankrupt and he was going to bring everyone down with him. My grandparents’ home, which they’d owned since 1974, was on the line.

My pride was going to ruin everyone’s lives. I’d become a real-life Captain Ahab in unrelenting pursuit of my very own Moby Dick.

And with a similar outcome.

To try and make it “right”, I did some really stupid things—not everything I would later be accused of but enough to deserve a prison cell four doors down from Mark’s almost a decade later.

Actors Matt di'Angelo and Anna Passey share a bed with director Ben Pickering on the set of 2014 film Two Days In The Smoke. Copyright Ben Pickering. Photo Credit Lorenzo Guerrieri.

In December 2014, more than sixteen years after this sorry tale began, I was sentenced to six years for mortgage fraud, of which I would serve half behind the door. I would go on to spend eighteen months in proper prisons like Dartmoor (notorious for housing the Krays back in the day but now full of ex-school teachers) and the same in open prison in the Welsh countryside.

By the time my youthful crimes had been uncovered and investigated (South Wales Police spent nearly six years investigating our case, at a cost of God knows how much, but certainly more than the £125,000 I’d ever gained from our bad behaviour), I’d turned over a new leaf. I’d married a successful London barrister, started a family and was finally about to direct my first feature film (Two Days In The Smoke, starring EastEnders’ Matt di’Angelo, Hollyoaks’ Anna Passey and the infamous Brick Top from Snatch,Alan Ford). And I was paying my taxes!  

But it was too late. The die was long cast and it was time to pay the price for my catastrophic errors of judgment. While I’d already learned my lesson, the state has to make an example of people like me to stop others doing the same thing. Otherwise there’d be no money for schools and hospitals and we quickly turn into Greece.

Everyone makes mistakes.

Not everyone has to share those mistakes with the readership of the Daily Mail.

Many months into my sentence, I finally read what others had written about me, making me out to be the test-tube lovechild of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Gordon Gecko.

As great a “story” as that may be, it wasn’t my truth as anyone who’s ever met me or known me will say.

Ben Pickering directs Matt di’Angelo during the making of British crime thriller Two Days In The Smoke. Copyright Ben Pickering. Photo credit: Angus Young.

While the coverage and the public humiliation hurt, I was cocooned from it inside. It was my now ex-wife, my two young children (who were four and two when Daddy started “working away”) and my family who had to bear the brunt of it. But I understood and accepted my sentence, using the time wisely to learn trades and new skills as I didn’t know if I could return to making films. I needed to be able to look after my family financially whatever the future had in store for me. And I wrote every night, racking up half a million words by the time I walked out the gate two weeks before Christmas 2017.         

After 1,092 days I was released from prison, the “warehouse of souls”. There was no joy; no ecstasy. I felt humbled, relieved and determined to make it up to my kids and the family and friends who’d stood by me and lived every day of my sentence too.

But I was also no longer looking over my shoulder. The price society rightly demands of those who break the law had been paid. My time was done.

And everyone knew the worst thing about me.

Not many people can say that.

Exclusive Q&A Interview with Ben Pickering

Ben Pickering wrote his first novel, Freiheit, while behind bars. Copyright Ben Pickering. Photo credit: Frazer Brown.

Award-winning author and filmmaker Ben Pickering speaks to us about the origins of his gripping debut novel, Freiheit, his upcoming movie Election Night, and the difference between writing books and screenplays, among other things. 

Q. How did you prepare for your time behind bars?

A. I was on police bail for three and a half years so I had plenty of time to prepare! But the truth is I didn't know where to start. It’s hard to prepare for what feels like the end of your life as you know it.

So after a little time wallowing in a dark place I got given the best advice: live your life. I just threw myself into making the most of life before going away, doing the things that maybe I wouldn’t be able to do after. I achieved more in those three and a half years on bail than I had in the previous fifteen. I directed my first two feature films, had another baby and made the most of every remaining minute of freedom. By the time I went away, I needed the rest.

But there was no information out there about what it would be like inside and it's not much better now. It's not in the interests of the Government to demystify prison as they need it to scare everyone, to keep them on the straight and narrow, which you can kind of understand but didn't help me. I only knew one person who'd been to prison and he never wanted to talk about it. And my solicitors and barrister knew even less—all they could tell me was to take some books and comfortable shoes (they could have done with telling me to take a coat without a hood, because hooded coats are banned and 15 months in Dartmoor without a coat wasn't fun!). 

It motivated me to write The Prisoner’s Survival Handbookwhile I was inside. It’s what it says on the tin, a practical guide about how to prepare for, and survive, the prison experience so that someone facing society’s ultimate punishment never goes into it blind again. It’s coming out in the autumn, with all profits going to Storybook Dads, a prison charity which I’m an ambassador for. It’s a must-read for anyone facing a stretch or with a loved one in trouble.

Q. What would you say was the worst part of being in prison?

A. People think prison is like on EastEnders or Hollyoaks but it’s probably a bit more like Porridge. There’s a gallows humour to it all, from staff and cons. The “screws” don’t make it any harder than it needs to be, provided you’re not difficult with them. It’s not their job to judge or punish you—that’s already happened. They’re there to get you from A to B. Treat them with respect and nine times out of ten you get it back.

So the worst part wasn’t the place itself or the people (fun as some were…). It was the impact on my loved ones left behind. My then wife nearly got fired from her job, even though this all happened long before we even met. She was also turned into a single mother overnight, with my four-year-old boy convincing himself I’d died. She had a tough time. Even though we’re no longer together and have both moved on, she didn’t deserve any of that. My kids didn’t know where I was until a few days before I got out. That was a big secret to keep for nearly three years, but we didn’t want them to worry about me or to normalise it – kids look up to their parents and that was the last thing either of us wanted. And my mum, dad, sister and grandmother all lived every day of my sentence as if it was their own. They were all the innocent victims of my crime.

Ben Pickering went from the grey walls of a prison cell to the red carpet on release. Here he is pictured with Sean Cronin, Lara Heller and Richard Blackwood at last year’s premiere of Welcome to Curiosity, filmed before he was jailed. Copyright Ben Pickering. Photo Credit: Glamourogue.

Q. How did you learn to cope while in prison?

A. I was packing my prison bag one night a few days before going in. Chris Grayling, the then justice secretary, had pretty much banned getting books in prison, regarding them as a “privilege”. So I took Moby Dick, HG Wells’ The Time Machine and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time just in case all I’d get to read was the graffiti on the walls.

My ex-wife turned to me and said, “Not many people like you end up experiencing something like this”, by which she meant people who could write and talk about the experience. She said I should treat it like a journey to a land people knew nothing of and shine a light on it. I'll always be grateful to her for putting that idea in my head. From the moment I stepped from the dock and headed down the darkened staircase that leads to the court cells below, my eyes became a camera and I absorbed everything. 

I wrote a lot inside! I spent the first year and a half behind the door from 6pm until 8am the following morning. There was only so much Gin Rummy you could play, I wasn’t really into the soaps, and I was no good with matchstick models. I worked out that I wrote at least half a million words. Among these was a journal that I kept, writing a page every day for the next 1,092 days, about everything I heard, saw and experienced. I'll publish it next year as In The Nick Of Timeand I wrote it to shed light on the prison system as it really is, using my own journey through the bowels of the British justice system as a lesson to others. It’s been emotional re-reading some of my diary entries, knowing exactly where I was when I wrote them and what was going on. My fears of losing my kids when my ex-wife started dating the local police inspector (who obviously loved me!) to the hope when I started dating a fashion designer I met on the train on the way back to jail from a home leave. It was a rollercoaster ride; not one I want to get on ever again, but one I made the most of.

Q. What did prison teach you?

A. Apart from pay your taxes? Don’t ever get clever with the system because it has a knack of coming back and biting you. And never be afraid to say ‘no’. I spent so long telling people what they wanted to hear to avoid offending them or upsetting them and it got me into so much trouble. It's much simpler to be frank and honest upfront.

It also taught me that human beings are at their most ingenious when their backs are against the wall. The innovation and creativity I saw behind the wall, from cooking fantastic meals with nothing other than Happy Shopper ingredients and a kettle to some of the books written by other inmates that I've had the privilege of reading, showed me that prison is what you make of it.

You can be in a prison of your own in the real world. While my body was incarcerated, my head was never there.

Despite doing time, Ben Pickering has been able to return to the film industry, something he attributes to taking ownership of his crime. Copyright Ben Pickering. Photo credit: Angus Young.

Q. What do you think drives low-risk prisoners to turn to a life of crime in the first place?

A. I don't think anyone chooses consciously to end up in prison and have a criminal record.  I think we all make choices every single day of our lives. And those choices all take us one step closer to an unknown destination. If you've grown up in a troubled family environment, with little money and parents too busy trying to keep a roof over your head to be able to truly parent you, things are going to get missed.

Education is the key thing. If you've got qualifications, you can get a job, you can earn money and spend that money living your life. If you don't have the qualifications (or in my case, qualifications that were worth having), you up in life’s slow lane or in a lay-by. And that's why most of the drug-dealers and the burglars and the fraudsters are in jail: because they've skipped a beat earlier in their lives, which was the difference between a law-abiding good life and a hard one on the fringes.

Q. You have described prison as a “warehouse of souls”. What do you mean by this, and how would you look to overhaul the penal system for the better?

A. There are over eighty thousand people in custody in the UK right now. And we, as a society, don't know what we want done with them. We want them to come out to lead law-abiding, productive lives but we're not prepared to give them either the tools or the opportunities to take that second chance and make it work.

Of course we should punish people who break the law; how else do we hold society together and keep people safe? But there has to be a balance between retribution and rehabilitation and it’s not there right now.

I learned to wall tile and brick lay while I was away. Those courses cost taxpayers £3,500 each. But the courses are mainly for show, to keep cons busy and staff employed, and they don’t give the full qualification. I’d have to do nine months of further training on release in either field even to get on site. Given we were a captive audience, it would have made more sense to do those nine months while I was at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. It’s a criminal waste of resources and time.

But the main issue is the number of prisoners who can’t even read, let alone write. It’s all very well running these expensive trade courses but if you can’t write a C.V., fill in a form, write a simple letter, even read a court summons when you’re in trouble, you have no chance of rehabilitation and you’ll end up back inside. That’s why I’d not let any prisoner leave prison until they could read and write to GCSE grade ‘C’. Prison is the opportunity to fix the things that went wrong earlier in life so they don’t blot the rest of our time on this earth. That would mean some people staying in prison longer and some getting out halfway through their sentence, as almost everyone does now without doing anything to earn it. And it would fix a big problem in society.

The other thing I’d do is give prisoners the chance to re-earn their good name. For me, the big thing wasn’t the prison time—that was way harder for my loved ones than it was for me.  It was the stain on my character. I have a criminal record. And like anyone who has been sentenced just once to four years or more, I’ll have a criminal record for the rest of my life, while someone who’s been in and out of prison on a dozen short sentences for burglary or bag snatching will get to wipe the slate clean even though they’re the repeat offender.

If we truly want to give people a second chance to be productive members of society, all sentences bar murder, violence and sex crimes should become ‘spent’ once you’ve served them plus, say, five or ten years. It doesn’t get rid of Google or peoples’ memories, but I couldn’t think of a better incentive to never commit a crime again.

Ben’s debut novel, Freiheit, examines the consequences of meddling with time. The fast-paced work of alternative history won the Koestler Platinum Award for longer fiction.

Q. Freiheit involves a bit of time travel, meddling with history. If you could go back in time, what would you change about your life?

A. While I was writing Freiheit, I wrestled with this constantly! One day I sat down and worked out when I’d have to go back to in order to avoid going to prison. The answer was to when I was 18. That’s when I started making bad decisions and hanging out with bad people.

But then I thought, if I could go back and change that, I’d probably never have met my now ex-wife and even if I had, I’d have probably had completely different children with her. And I’d have lost the person I became as a result of my experiences, good and bad.

Genes are what we look like. Experiences make us who we are. I wish I hadn’t had to go to prison but I finally like the person I see in the mirror every morning: a decent, upfront guy who made some catastrophic choices in his youth and caused a lot of trouble, but who refuses to be defined forever by those choices.

Q. In prison you feared that your film career would be over, but since your release you seem to be busier than ever. Why do you think you’ve been welcomed back into the industry?

A. I wouldn’t quite say welcomed back—perhaps given a second chance?

I think it's partly because time is a healer. I think quite a few people were shocked and disappointed when I first went away, but I did my time without complaint and with a positive attitude and I think that helped.

But I also think it's because I owned my mistakes. I didn't get Google to delete every article that got written about my crime, like some people have done to try and airbrush their own chequered past. I was honest about what I'd done, never hid it when meeting new people and so they knew the worst thing about me from the off. How many people can you say you know the worst thing about them?

I also think that, having just turned 40, I’m finally good at what I do. So it’d be a shame to waste all of that….

Sean Cronin and Rebecca Ferdinando star in new politically-themed horror movie Election Night, which is the first film to be produced by Ben Pickering since his release from jail. Copyright Ben Pickering. Photo Credit: Emma Barrott.

Q. Tell us about your upcoming film, Election Night

A. While I was away, I wasn’t allowed to vote. So I didn’t get to have my say in two General Elections nor in the EU referendum. That didn’t stop me laughing at the outcomes of all of them as the world burned and politics was turned on its head.

But all of those events have had a huge impact on our country since, and they’ve inspired me to make my first political film, after making two crime thrillers. I teamed up with film director Neil Monaghan, who used to work for former Labour Deputy PM John Prescott, to produce Election Night. It’s a home invasion movie that’s set on a fictitious election night in the near future. There’s a radical left-wing leader set to take over from a weakened Conservative government but a right-wing populist is waiting in the wings, ready to strike. With all that’s going on in politics right now we should have, perhaps, made it into a documentary! The film doesn’t take sides, politically, but explores the consequences when people stop compromising and toleration is replaced with hate. The film wrapped in June and we’re now hurrying to get it ready for its first public screening on October 31st.  That’s Brexit Day, or Hallowe’en—or maybe both if you’re a Remainer. For me, however, it’s my son’s birthday.

Q. You’re acting as the producer for Election Night, but what about your plans as a director?

A. Having had the pleasure and privilege of producing a few feature films for other directors this year, I’m now itching to jump back into the director’s chair. For my first project since 2014’s Welcome to Curiosity, I’m currently torn between a psychological thriller set on the west coast of Ireland or a Bollywood musical set right here in the UK. Or perhaps both. 2020 is going to be a busy year.

Freiheit by Ben Pickering (Jericho Lane Publishing Limited) is out now on Amazon, priced £6.99 for paperback and £1.99 for Kindle.

For more information, visit www.BenPickering.com