Parole review: Without suffering moral panic, this documentary is a robust defence of a much-maligned system

Given the current reactionary trends in public opinion, with the death penalty enjoying an unexpected surge in popularity, it’s a bit of a surprise to learn that the British parole system is still in business. But it is, with 360 lay and expert members, in pairs, sifting through the files of about 16,000 potentially dangerous prisoners a year. In the first of five episodes of the excellent new BBC series Parole, we meet two of the prisoners looking to go straight, and quite the characters they are, too.

First up is Colin Stacey. Back in October 1997, he was what he calls “a bit of an angry young man”, which is a bit of an understatement, given that he was found guilty of murder. Soft spoken, chirpy and rather cherubic, he doesn’t seem in the least bit dangerous – at first sight he looks like he’s been incarcerated at HMP Elmley for some sort of cheeky little crime, like persistent shoplifting. Then we learn what he got up to. Stacey was (and presumably still is) a Brighton & Hove Albion supporter of unusual loyalty, and belying their relatively civilised image, he interrupted an evening game of snooker with friends over a few drinks to beat a Manchester United fan to death. Nor was this some sort of impulsive or accidental act. He’d removed his sock, filled it with snooker balls and then hammered away at his victim. In a chilling, unforgettable moment, Stacey calmly admits that he knew that he’d killed the man because “I heard his brain crack”. Stacey got 14 years, and a previous effort at parole in 2017 failed when he beat somebody else up. His prospects don’t seem good as he prepares for some hours of interrogation by the parole board experts.

By contrast, con man David Coombs, described in the press as “Casanova Coombs”, is a much more plausible-sounding figure – or least he reckons he is. We find the 56-year-old in Wormwood Scrubs and, to be honest, this once-handsome fraud has let himself go a bit. He doesn’t look quite like the lush lothario that began his lucrative but ultimately unsuccessful life of colourful fraud as a teenager back in 1982. In and out of jail for many decades, Coombs is doing four years’ porridge for relieving his last nine female victims of some £37,000. When the judge sent him down, for yet another spell behind bars, he described Coombs’ level of dishonesty as “truly staggering… systematically and ruthlessly taking advantage of his victims”.

I suppose Coombs is the worst kind of personality to come up before a parole board because his stock-in-trade is deception. Murderers and armed robbers might think they can spin a yarn and talk their way out of jail, but the likes of Coombs literally does this sort of thing for a living. That doesn’t mean it works, though. He probably thought he’d struck it lucky when they’d allotted two female parole board officials to test him out, and, hilariously, he attempts to seduce the chair of the board by casually saying how he might now react if faced across the table with an attractive woman, such as herself. She doesn’t fall for it. The other official, a psychologist, is at first more sympathetic to the old charmer, but a perusal of his long record, and scrutiny of some cock-and-bull story, about how he himself had been defrauded by a Russian named Olga the last time he was out on probation, determines his fate. His “community management” (ie parole) officer confirms that Coombs was unreliable at best. Release is not recommended, and the lonely ladies of the south coast will be safe a while longer.

As for Stacey, he convinces the board to let him have another chance, and we see him saunter out of prison saying “see you later” to the screws, which may or may not be his little joke. Rightly, we hear from the widow of the man Stacey killed, as we hear from some of Coombs’ many unfortunate victims, and the damage and misery these criminals inflict on people is nowhere minimised or excused. The parole board’s aim is to protect the public. Therefore the programme felt well-balanced, just as the subject matter demands. Without veering into voyeurism or suffering moral panic, Parole makes a robust case for the defence of a much-maligned system. A useful and worthy experiment, then, and unexpectedly, nothing short of spellbinding. Rather like the manipulative Mr Coombs.