In the Clean Break Archive - Killers (1980) by Jacqueline Holborough

In this blog we take a closer look at one of Clean Break's earliest plays, Killers by Jacqueline Holborough. It was performed at the Pleasance for a three-week run during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and toured to theatres, prisons, educational and community venues across England in the summer and autumn of 1980. Killers is set in HMP Durham's maximum security H-Wing where Jenny and Jacqueline, the two founder members, met.

Killers and In or Out? Tour 1980

Since 1979, Clean Break has commissioned and produced over sixty original plays. Since 1990, many of the plays have been published but, like many theatre companies that were part of the alternative theatre movement in the 1970s and 1980s, Clean Break’s early plays were only available to audiences in the moment of performance. Thankfully, many original scripts from the founding years - In or Out? (Eva Mottley and Jenny Hicks, 1980), Avenues (devised by the company, 1981), The Sin Eaters (Jacqueline Holborough, 1986) and Treading on my Tail (Gilli Mebarek, 1986) - are held within the archive. The early plays are pivotal in understanding the activist imperative that led to the formation of Clean Break and it’s determined survival since.

Killers is set in HMP Durham’s maximum-security wing for women, H-wing, referred to in the tabloid press as “She-Wing”. Holborough and Hicks met at Durham and their experiences fuelled their commitment to expose women’s experiences of structural inequality and state violence through criminalisation and incarceration.


Flyer as part of the campaign to close Durham H-Wing by Women in Durham Prison Suport Group.

In 1965, a maximum security prison for men was built at HMP Durham, E-Wing. As a result of prisoners’ riots and hunger strikes protesting living conditions, two government enquiries were commissioned which condemned the unit as inhumane. Mountbatten’s report left no room for doubt, ‘The conditions on this block are such that no country with a record of civilised behaviour ought to tolerate them any longer than is absolutely essential as a stop-gap measure’ (Mountbatten Report 1966). In 1971, Durham’s E-Wing was closed. However, 3 years later, it was re-opened. As a women’s prison.

In its original incarnation, E-Wing held 20 men convicted for serious and violent offences. It had considerable public attention as it held notorious, high profile prisoners including those involved in ‘The Great Train Robbery’ and the Krays. Reopened, as H-Wing, it held 35 women. Only 3 of the women held in this maximum security complex were Category A prisoners, convicted for acts of terrorism and murder. The remainder had committed non-violent crime, mainly theft and fraud, and were serving short sentences – the “day trippers” referred to in Killers. The women - regardless of conviction, sentence or individual need - were living in a maximum-security unit within a larger men’s prison. Campaign groups at the time, demanding the closure of H-Wing, reminding the public and politicians that the punishment is the removal of liberty through imprisonment and that people shouldn’t be sent to prison for further punishment through brutal treatment and inhumane living conditions.


Killers gives us insight into the political contexts of the mid-late 1970s, the use of incarceration and the ways in which women were treated both within and beyond prison walls.

Killers is set in a cell in H-wing on Jubilee Day, 1977. The original production was written and performed by Jacqueline Holborough, with live songs written and performed by Cat Coull. 

In Killers, we meet an unnamed woman, who has recently arrived in Durham, who addresses the audience directly, bringing us on a guided tour of prison life from the confines of her cell. Her comment in an imagined conversation with her parents, 'Of course I’m not mixing with killers – don’t be silly. They’re just ordinary people – like me', makes explicit the bundling together of women, regardless of conviction, and acknowledges wider social prejudice about 'women in prison'.

Coull’s songs mark the passage of time and offer memories and wonderings about life beyond the prison walls.

The following extract details the banal and the extraordinary of prison life with wry, sharp humour, characteristic of much of Clean Break’s early work,

            'Every day of the week has some small variation worked into it. An incentive to keep on moving. Kit change day, library day, canteen day – and so on. So the days of the week are marked and with them go the months and I suppose the years, as the industry ticks on ...  Even after a few days it seems somehow acceptable. Nobody complains. When the men were here there were protests. Demonstrations every day. Hunger strikes, mutinies, escape attempts. Questions in the house. The media waited eagerly for news of fresh disturbance from Durham’s E-wing. Committees of experts came and went filing reports about psychological damage and conditions intolerable to civilised society. So they moved the men out. And after a decent lapse of time and a change of title, they moved the women in. Since which time the wing has hardly been known to exist. There are only women here now. Tension is all pre-menstrual. Give ‘em enough Valium and they’ll fade from view' (pp. 11-12).

Killers, 1980. Cat Coull (l) and Jacqueline Holborough (r).

The lack of consideration given to the experiences of women living in a high-security unit is made explicit when the unnamed woman asks,

          'One key, two bolts and a few thousand volts to keep my door locked. Am I meant to take this seriously? Not one, not two but three sets of bars at my bullet-proof window. Looking onto the fences, the walls, the cameras, the scanner lights…barbed wires, dogs….. And all this to contain eight and a half stones of frightened female. Is there some subtle message here? Some expectation of greatness yet to come. Should I prepare myself? Must I be ready to live up to all of this? Will the day arrive when I shall be required to smash through tons of concrete and steel. Rip down gates. Tear up tarmac. In my desperate desire to devastate' (p. 15).

The use of Durham’s high security H-wing to hold women regardless of categorisation or sentence duration reveals much about how women have been – or not been - considered in the criminal justice system. Importantly, Clean Break’s theatre making was part of a wider activist agenda to raise awareness about this. As Jacqueline said in an interview at the time, 'We hope the plays will give people a better idea about what happens in prison and break down some of the misunderstandings that exist' (“Inside Look at Art Behind Bars” in Palmer and Forlong, 1980).

Based on the considerable coverage of the company's run during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1980, Clean Break was highly successful in raising awareness and stimulating conversation about prison and those who live and work within it. Colin Afflecks’ review attends to both the play and the political implications of what it is about and how it was made,

           'Didactic plays from committed groups are often too self-enclosed to be convincing, dramatically or otherwise, and may degenerate into tedious lectures that can only bore the converted and alienate the heathen even further. It is greatly to the credit of the Clean Break Women Prisoners Theatre Company that they have totally avoided these dangers. “Killers” consists of an amusing and unmawkishly moving monologue by a young middle-class prisoner, expressing her feelings, fantasies and frustrations with songs and guitar playing from the prisoner in the next cell. The relevant points are made so subtly as not to disrupt the dramatic structure. It is a fine piece of writing, and the standard of acting is extremely high.'


Affleck, C. (1980) ‘Review of Killers’. Newspaper Unknown. Exact date unknown. Personal archive of J. Holborough.

Mountbatten, Lord of Burma. (1966). Report of the Inquiry into Prison Escapes and Security. London: HMSO.

Palmer, M. and James Forlong (1980) “Inside Look at Arts Behind Bars”. Newspaper unknown. Exact date unknown. Personal archive of J. Holborough.