Darren McGarvey: The State We’re In review – this whip-smart look at life in the UK absolutely flies by

<span>‘An important pulse-taking exercise’: Darren McGarvey inside HMP Barlinnie, Glasgow.</span><span>Photograph: Jack Cocker/BBC/Tern Television Productions Limited</span>
‘An important pulse-taking exercise’: Darren McGarvey inside HMP Barlinnie, Glasgow.Photograph: Jack Cocker/BBC/Tern Television Productions Limited

‘This is a bit of a flashback for me,” jokes the hip-hop artist, author and social commentator Darren McGarvey, as he gets into the back of a police car. This time, though, he has chosen to jump in of his own accord, rather than being obliged to. It’s a light moment for The State We’re In – the ambitious, broad and whip-smart documentary he presents, which raises two questions about the state of the UK today. First, how did we get here? And second, what can be done about it? Over three episodes, McGarvey breaks his investigation into three areas: the state of education, the state of our healthcare, and in this opener, the state of the justice system.

McGarvey grew up on a council estate in Scotland and has always been interested in questions of power and poverty. There are plenty of people talking about that but, in a point he returns to again and again, the opportunities for prominent working-class voices addressing issues that reflect their own experiences are vanishingly rare. Fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Ambulance and 24 Hours in Police Custody provide more of a state-of-the-nation portrait than they are given credit for, but there is no guiding narrative there. The State We’re In is more of a polemic, and an important pulse-taking exercise. It is a relief to view it through the eyes of someone who is not merely an observer, untouched or unaffected by what is going on.

Each of the three topics is weighty, but justice is a particularly divisive theme. McGarvey gets around it with something approximating a 360-degree approach. He sets the scene – trust in the police is at an all-time low, and we have one of the largest prison populations in Europe – then promises to take us on a journey through the system as a whole. He meets Chloe on her first day as a police officer in Tunbridge Wells (she is in the front of the aforementioned car) with the aim of finding out why a young woman from a council estate would ever want to join the police. As is the case with every person he encounters, it begins as a loose interview, but transforms into a more challenging provocation (or revelation).

In a particularly wrenching moment in Liverpool, he meets Leanne White, the mother of Ava White, the 12-year-old girl murdered by a 14-year-old boy with a knife in 2021. Here, the question of justice becomes less theoretical and more horrifyingly concrete. White’s courageous willingness to share her nightmarish experience, and her opinions on the nature of justice, appear to challenge McGarvey’s instinctive point of view. Later, when he speaks to people on the street to ask for their views on prison, what he gets isn’t quite the polarised, hardline perspective meted out by the rightwing press, but something more measured – a blend of views heavily based on people’s life experiences.

For such a dense programme, it flies by – testament to McGarvey’s lightness of touch. He visits a volunteer-run boxing gym called Weapons Down Gloves Up, which offers accessible physical training to young adults. He meets a charity offering legal advice over the phone, in the absence of legal aid. He meets a barrister who explains, in fairly clear terms, why the profession went on strike; and he meets a man who studied law while in prison for the robbery of a post office, pursuing a legal career after his release.

McGarvey visits two prisons, one in Glasgow and one in Norway, to demonstrate the vastly different approaches to justice. The Norwegian system is one of the most humane and effective on the planet; an attitudinal and cultural world away from the understaffed institutions in the UK. As elsewhere, it is both a conversation with the people experiencing that world – the guards and prisoners – and a discourse with viewers about what prison is for. Is it about punishment, or retribution? In what balance, and how do we measure it? Is it better to aim to return offenders to society or – as one person on the street puts it – to simply build more prisons?

McGarvey makes no secret of his opinion, but nor is he naive to the enormous cultural shift that would need to take place to change things. He ends with a challenge: visit the public gallery of a courtroom, and listen to the accents you hear. Who is in the dock, and who is deciding their fate? It’s about time we started to hear other voices, from all walks of life, getting involved in these vital conversations about the country we are all living in.

• Darren McGarvey: The State We’re In aired on BBC Two and is on iPlayer.