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TELEVISION / Making a drama out of a soap: Jeremy Novick on the viewers made prisoners of Cell Block H

Independent - September 20, 1989

The Soap Woman is an easily identifiable beast. It enters a room shoulders first. Its hair is immobile and its face is caked in more powder than Colombia produces in a year. As for food, it feeds almost exclusively upon men.

There is one breed of Soap Women which is different. The women of Prisoner: Cell Block H. Shoulders are padded strictly with muscle. Make up? They don't even comb their hair. They don't eat very much: there are no men.

Without a dollop of gloss, Prisoner: Cell Block H is so popular a soap that it is currently being seen in over 40 countries and is dubbed into more than 12 languages.

Produced by The Grundy Organisation of Australia (also responsible for such cultural landmarks as Neighbours), Prisoner: Cell Block H is one of those strange things. A cult. And it is armed with only those statutory low-sud soap weapons - a budget not exceeding pounds 3.50 per episode, sets made out of balsa wood and scripts made out of the bits of balsa wood that weren't used for the sets.

It's been going since February 1979 and the last episode was made three years ago (it has some time to run on British TV). The cast is made up almost exclusively of women, and more important, they are unglamorous, independent, tough women. Women who don't need men. The show goes out in the middle of the night and is so rich in kitsch that the TV set practically oozes Golden Syrup. Add three spoonfuls of camp and you'll begin to understand why it has a huge gay/lesbian following.

Viewing (and massive video) figures apart, there is a British fan club with over 3,000 members, a fanzine (H Block Herald), and a following verging on the fanatical.

This Thursday sees the world premiere of Prisoner: Cell Block H - The Stage Play. And are the Blockies (as some fans like to call themselves) pleased? No! They're horrified! They're going to boycott the show.

You see, the hard line characters (and more to the point, the actresses who played them) are not in the show. Ask why and you're told by the producers that it's 'a long story'. The stage is left to softer, more palatable characters and a selection of English replacements. An example:

there's an inmate called Frankie Doyle. Rough, tough and as butch as a kennel full of boxer dogs. The original actress, Carol Burns made the role her own. In the stage show Doyle is played by English rose, Joanna Monro (whom many associate with the caring profession because of her role in Angels).

The two stars, Patsy King and Elspeth Ballantyne, (the Cell Block governess and warder respectively) both claim to be mystified as to the cause of the fans' discontent. 'We only know what we've read. Quite frankly I don't know what the fuss is about. The mail we get is lovely', they say almost as one. They also claim to be mystified as to the show's gay appeal.

Ros Vecsey and Tracey Elliott, founders of the fan club, will not be in the first night audience at the Wimbledon Theatre (see below). It was a tough decision. Prisoner: Cell Block H, The Original is their show. 'Pure television entertainment. Extremely tacky. . . the epitome of bad taste, ham acting, tacky scenery and trash content'. They clearly feel that Prisoner: Cell Block H, The Stage Play cannot live up to such high expectations.

CELL BLOCK TOUR DATES

Sept 21-30: Wimbledon Theatre (01-540 0362)
Oct (2 weeks): Theatre Royal, Hanley (01-836 8108)
Oct 9 (1 week): Charter, Preston (0772-58858)
Oct 16 (1 week): Empire, Sunderland (091-514 2517)
Oct 23 (1 week): Empire, Liverpool (051-709 1555)
Oct 30 (1 week): Palace, Manchester (061-236 9922)
Nov 6 (1 week): Theatre Royal, Lincoln (0522-25555)
Nov 13 (1 week): Congress Theatre, Eastbourne (0323-412 000)
Nov 20 (1 week): Dominion Theatre, London (01- 580 9562)
Nov 27 (1 week): King's, Southsea (0705-828 282)
Dec 4 (1 week): Bristol Hippodrome (0272-299 444)
Dec 11 (1 week): Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham (021- 643 1231).

OTHER SOAP SPIN-OFFS

ARCHERS Weekend tour of Archer country complete with a real, live Archer as guide, more real Archers for tea and possibly more for supper and evening quiz. 6 weekends before Christmas pounds 149 (includes hotel); Day, pounds 49. 0905-620 848.

BROOKSIDE Brooksiders make many charity appearances. Catch them at a charity 5-a-side football tournament this weekend at Kingsway Leisure Centre, Kingsway, Widnes WA8 7QH (051- 495 2200). Starts 1pm.

CORONATION STREET Fervent followers of Street scandal can take a Granada Studios Tour that involves a walk down the street set and a stopover at the Rovers Return. Get even closer to the stars by purchasing Coronation St boxer shorts on location. All week, 10am- 4.30pm. pounds 5.95/ pounds 3.95. Studio Tours, Water St, Manchester (061-832 7211).

EASTENDERS Days out from work in Albert Square come largely in the form of charity openings, appearances and football matches. 24 Sept: Mark Thrippleton (Paul) opens fete with balloon launch, 3pm, Assembly Halls, Tonbridge Wells. 24 Sept: Eastenders FC v Fidlesham FC, Fidlesham, Hants (024356-407). 30th Sept: 5-a-side football tournament, West London Stadium, Du Cane Rd W12 (01- 603 7481). Fan mail is answered. Send sae c/o Eastenders Production Office, BBC Elstree Centre, Borehamwood, Herts.

EMMERDALE FARM Day tours around Emmerdale country. Variable days, 10am-5pm. pounds 3.75/ pounds 3.00/ pounds 2.50. Leeds Tourism Co, St Peter St, Leeds (0532-462 454).

HOME AND AWAY Greg Benson (Mat), Amanda Newman-Phillips (Narelle), Adam Willits (Steven) and Craig Thomas (Martin) will be making tours of Britain in December. Info and fan club ( pounds 8) paraphernalia from Home and Away Fan Club, China Town, PO Box 12, Kirkby Malzeard, Ripon, N Yorks HG4 3YN. Send sae

HOWARDS' WAY Coach tour round Southampton coast taking in the Howards' Way locations. pounds 2. Southampton Tourist Board 0703-221106. Boat cruise round Solent. pounds 4. Variable days and times. Blue Funnel Tours 0703-223 278.

NEIGHBOURS Jason and Kylie fan clubs provide lots of gear for bedroom walls, the Kylie club costing more due to inclusion of personalised flexi-disc message, not disproportionate popularity. Jason pounds 4.99; Kylie pounds 6.99. Send sae Official Jason and Kylie Fan Club, PO 292, Watford, Herts. Fiona Corke (Gail) will be over in early December.

PRISONER: CELL BLOCK H Val Lahman [Should of course be Lehman, Ed.] is presently on tour in Britain. Next big date 22 Sept: Excalibur Nightclub, Stoke-on-Trent. Fan club pounds 10. Send sae to Flat 1, 80 Warner St, Derby DE3 3TS.

JEREMY NOVICK

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