WDC Logo Prisoner Press Clippings

‘PRISONER’

(From: Kingsley, Hillary. Soap Box: the Australian guide to television soap operas. Melbourne : Sun Books, 1989. - pp. 272-279)

‘PRISONER’ WAS THE soap about a women’s prison which first shocked Australian viewers in 1979, then sentenced them to seven years’ hard viewing.

There was rarely a g’day at the fictional Wentworth Detention Centre for crims such as leering lesbian Frankie, beefy Bea, braindead Doreen, Big Monica or little old Lizzie with her weak heart. Mostly they were reduced to tears as the nice and the nasty warders had them stripsearched, fingerprinted and photographed, then made them follow the rules.

The nearest the got to fun was pinching each other’s friend, bashing people, being rude to the screws and cursing loudly. Most of the action took place inside the jail with its alarmingly wonky walls. Sometimes it went outside, to the prison farm and gardens or to the homes of the women. Many sequences seemed straight out of a slapstick comedy – ‘Carry On Crims’, perhaps. But while many viewers were shocked (one delicate critic called Wentworth ‘a hell house of appalling animalistic behaviour’ where ‘morality is a mockery’) and some found it laughably grim, there was a raw energy in the performances well sustained over the years and a toughness in the storylines which made it hard to resist. There was also a continuing sympathy for women.

Like the cleaner-than-clean ‘Neighbours’, ‘Prisoner’ was created by Reg Watson for Grundy TV and was mad in the same Nunawading studios in the Melbourne suburbs. After its early series Marie Trevor, now godmother of ‘Neighbours’, became its producer. But unlike ‘Neighbours’, it was meant to be heavyweight and harrowing.

Ian Bradley, ‘Prisoner’s first producer, recalls: ‘It was International Women’s Year and the idea was to show that many women were prisoners of the system, whether in jail or not. Reg had written it as a sixteen-part self-contained series.

‘But when we started screening, we realised we were on to a winner. The timing was opportune because women were beginning to examine their role in society.’

He might also have added that ‘Prisoner’ succeeded because most of us have an unhealthy curiosity about all-female societies. How do women cope for sex without men? Later Grundy made a male version of the series, ‘Punishment’, about a men’s prison. It failed because we already know what men without women do for sex.

The early episodes had an enourmous impact. The series was the second most popular show in the 1979 National Top 10. (A year later it was still in that chart but at number 8.) Australian actresses whose faces weren’t their fortunes fell over themselves to be part of it, so rare was it that a soap’s script did not require most of the characters to ‘get their gear off’ and prance around a swimming pool. And the roles of murderers, armed robbers, poisoners or conwomen were obviously more meaty than those they were usually offered – housewives and mums.

Although the soap showed a prison’s basic procedures accurately – Reg Watson had done his homework with people from Australia’s Corrective Services Department – ‘Prisoner’ was inevitably attacked for misrepresentation.

Reg told me: ‘I don’t think we ever tried to make it totally realistic, though two warders from a Melbourne prison helped us with plot lines. I went into real prisons and talked to inmates and I was quite surprised. Many of the women were quite

'Prisoner's Governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King) didn’t turn a hair when warders Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire), Vera Bennet (Fiona Spence) and Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne) described the wicked women of Wentworth

‘Prisoner’s Governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King) didn’t turn a hair when warders Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire), Vera Bennet (Fiona Spence) and Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne) described the wicked women of Wentworth.

different from what you’d expect. They were quiet, beautifully turned out, dignified women. And the other thing,’ he added with a laugh, ‘I found everyone in jail was innocent!

‘The real thing, if we’re being honest, would have been women sitting around drugged and depressed for most of the time. That would have been deadly dull to watch. So we made it like a girls’ boarding school gone wrong. The practical jokes led to violence and more violence.’

But writing, acting and producing the violence for one and then two hours a week became exhausting. Early on most of the rumpus revolved around Frankie Doyle, a nicotine-stained lesbian bikie inside for armed robbery and played by bright Brisbane actress Carol Burns, the show’s first new star. In one scene Frankie and her pals went berserk in the library. It terrified at least one member of the camera crew so much that she was found under a table, sobbing. Carol said she came out of the recording hands shaking, vision blurred.

Grundy’s executives sensed the tensions and made sure individual performers had breaks between such scenes, fearing a spate of nervous breakdowns. In time, according to many, the actresses became like their characters, belligerent and loudmouthed even on tea-breaks. Marie Trevor said: ‘It became a strain. It was hard on the writers, too. Every day they had to dream up a way for one of these unsavoury women to kill or take revenge on another. We had to keep the violence down.’

When ‘Prisoner’ was sold to America (censored to protect their more fragile sensibilities) Los Angeles lesbians picketed the studio protesting at the portrayal. Later they adopted Frankie as a champion. When she committed suicide, they held a wake.

By late 1987 late-night screenings in Britain had turned ‘Prisoner’ into a cult. But the flimsy sets (sometimes you felt you could blow the walls down without much of a huff or puff) were much mocked.

Phil East, the producer who preceded Marie Trevor (and who also went on to ‘Neighbours’ for eighteen months) said: ‘When they started the series they decided it should be set in a modern prison and, yes, the sets did lack the character of an older building. This was emphasised by another show running at the same time, "Within These Walls", made by Britain’s London Weekend Television. But we were working forty-eight weeks of the year, making two hours of drama a week and on a limited budget.

‘When we decided to end "Prisoner" after 980 episodes in 1986, when audience figures started to drop and we all wanted to move on to something fresh, there was a huge protest.’

The series ended, much to the relief of teachers who had inherited the nicknames of the prison screws (‘Vinegar tits’ was one favourite), thanks to ‘Prisoner’s devoted audiences of children, the longest-running serial in terms of episodes to date, having given actresses who might otherwise have been seen only pouring tea a real chance to act. The roles they played made soap history. Here are some of them.

THE CHARACTERS

DOREEN ANDERSON was the little pudding in jail for forgery after following her boyfriend into crime. Slow, stupid and childlike – she sucked her thumb and cuddled a teddy bear at night – she had lesbian tendencies, but seemed to fail everything she tried, including her relationships with other prisoners. At first she didn’t mind being inside – she had nowhere else to go. But when her friend Lizzie seemed about to pop her prison clogs after a heart attack, Doreen went into a kind of stupor and was taken off to a psychiatric hospital.

COLETTE MANN played nineteen-year-old dopey Doreen, though the actress, singer and choreographer was one of the most energetic of the ‘Prisoner’ cast, Colette, who trained as a classical dancer, also had experience as a social worker and was an adviser on the series. Despite the hectic schedule while working on the show she still managed to fit in weekly sessions of movement and dance for the inmates of Pentridge jail.

'Prisoner' was sympathetic to society’s misfits - even dumpy, dopey Doreen (Colette Mann) who showed Colleen Powell (Judith McGrath) she could do joined-up writing.

‘Prisoner’ was sympathetic to society’s misfits – even dumpy, dopey Doreen (Colette Mann) who showed Colleen Powell (Judith McGrath) she could do joined-up writing.

VERA BENNET was known throughout Australia as that hard bitch, the sadistic warder of Wentworth. Second in command, she hoped that her rule of iron (administered with the force of a Sherman tank) would win her the top job in time. Single, she lived with her elderly mother, but occasionally she let her scragged back hair down, went on a bender and became more frightening still. Frankie Doyle, one of her tougher prisoners, named her ‘Vera Vinegar Tits’, a nickname other inmates enjoyed repeating.

FIONA SPENCE from Sydney became one of the best-known TV faces but was delighted never to be recognised in the street as ‘Prisoner’s poker faced screw. Fiona wears her hair down, in soft waves, speaks quietly and admits that one of her best friends is her ‘Prisoner’ enemy, nice warder Meg Jackson, alias actress Elspeth Ballantyne. Fiona had previously worked in ‘Glenview High’ and is now playing local busybody Celia Stewart in ‘Home and Away’.

LIZZIE BIRDSWORTH was serving life in Wentworth for poisoning four sheep shearers who were her lodgers, criticised her cooking and were given a taste of arsenic ‘to teach them a lesson’. Described as having a heart of gold and a head of sawdust, loopy Lizzie, the deliberately comic character of the cast, was obsessed with escaping. She had a weak ticker but having ‘turns’ proved useful: she could feign them to divert the warders’ attention while others tried to escape.

SHEILA FLORANCE was sixty-two when she became a household name and won a Best Actress award from playing Lizzie after forty-five years as a busy actress. She’d worked with Jack and Claude Hulbert in London, had been killed off five times in roles in ‘Bellbird’ and was a double winner of the Melbourne Critics’ Award for stage work. Sheila’s first husband was killed in the war, her second husband, a Polish air ace, is a war invalid, and two of her four children died tragically. ‘But it was lovely,’ she said, ‘to have children dancing around you chanting, Lizzie, we love you".’

ERICA DAVIDSON, queenly governor of Wentworth, always had time to get her hair and make-up done before dealing with a riot or an escape. Fair-minded but with little understanding of and no feelings for the prisoners, her decisions often needed to be changed after pleas by the warders. I always thought she’d run a sewing circle with more dedication.

PATSY KING played many teenage girls on radio at the same time as she frowned ladylike frowns as the governor in ‘Prisoner’. Her light and versatile voice was always in demand. Patsy had compered many children’s programmes and worked in the theatre before her soap sentence.

FRANKIE DOYLE had naked women tattooed on her breasts, nicotine on her teeth and a large chip on her shoulder. With a record of crime and a sentence of nine years for armed robbery, the illiterate bikie was the toughest and most unhappy of the inmates. She was also an aggressive lesbian with a passion for Karen Travers, a fellow prisoner, who was horrified by her. Reg Watson based Frankie on a real person but ‘toned her down’. The original would have been to shocking, he said.

After Frankie died, Doreen was for a long time the only overtly lesbian character in the show. But in 1982 a new warder Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson arrived, a bruiser played by Maggie Kirkpatrick. The Freak terrorises the crims until, after being knocked unconscious by one of her victims, she underwent brain surgery. Maggie went on to take a leading role in ‘Richmond Hill’.

CAROL BURNS from Brisbane wore yellow stain on her teeth and drab dungarees to play Frankie Doyle, the most striking of the early ‘Prisoner’ characters. She said as she developed the role: ‘I like her. She’s a lost soul in a society where the bikie and the lesbian are misfits. I find a particular pathos in the fact that Frankie has never had anyone to love or love her. She loves Karen because she represents something gentle and pure – something Frankie can never be.’ Carol left the series after a year – the plot had Frankie commit suicide by jumping off the prison roof – because she objected to the decision to screen two episodes a week. After Wentworth, Carol appeared in the movie of ‘The Sullivans’ and in several stage plays.

MONICA FERGUSON had muscles, a beer gut and a broken nose. She was Bea’s main rival as the prison heavy – they had many brawls. She bashed her little husband Fred (Gray Files, who was Tom Ramsay in ‘Neighbours’ with a different hairdo) and she terrified viewers like me.

At one point Fred had swiped Big Monnie’s money with the intention of running off with his busty floosie (she had an exotic past involving a snake). The floosie, drenched in diamonds and furs bought with Monnie’s cash, enlisted a pal to help her bash him up for the rest of his valuables. He crawled back to Monnie who delivered a series of short right jabs to his face and ribs with a concluding kneeing in the groin. Fred sporting a giant dressing and a sling (though his arm seemed the least of his injuries), laid an assault charge on Monnie who was sent back to Wentworth and solitary confinement. Meanwhile the floosie, also arrested, was in the jail waiting for her. The ladies continued their differences of opinion for several episodes.

LESLEY BAKER would have hated solitary confinement – the frequent lot of Big Monica. The actress had spent most of her previous twenty years working in comedy shows and doted on her son Benjamin, a toddler while ‘Prisoner’ was being made. Lesley’s TV roles had included nymphomaniacs, prostitutes, gangster’s wives. ‘Monica’s the first husband-basher I played,’ she said. ‘I think she loved old Fred a lot, but he kept putting his hands in the till.’

MEG JACKSON was the nice warder whose social worker husband was killed in a prison riot and whose teenage son took the event badly. Meg balanced nasty Vera and sympathised with the prisoners. One of her regular jobs was to give Lizzie kisses of life when the old dear had real or faked heart attacks. Later she began an affair with the prison’s doctor. Greg Miller (Barry Quin), after he’d stopped mooning over his student sweetheart Karen, in prison for murder.

ELSPETH BALLANTYNE from South Australia was well known to radio listeners as the young, well-behaved Lori Chandler in ‘Bellbird’ and to viewers from roles in ‘Cop Shop’ and ‘Power Without Glory’. Divorced, she brought up her two sons while working on ‘Prisoner’ but refused to let them watch. It wasn’t suitable, she felt.

MARILYN MASON was Wentworth’s nymphomaniac, a poor man’s Brigitte Bardot in jail for prostitution. When the series began she managed to lure the prison’s lone electrician Eddie Cook (Richard Moir) into a cubby hole off the recreation room for regular sex sessions. When she was released, the set up home together, but she soon began soliciting again and Eddie, who’d been sacked by then for the sex sessions threw her out.

MARGARET LAURENCE trained in Britain then worked in American on stage and in several day-time soaps. When she moved to Australia, the role of Arnold Feather’s second wife Liz in ‘Number 96’ was waiting.

BEA SMITH, built like a coalbunker and with about the same sensitivity, ran the show at Wentworth. Her first conviction was for murdering a co-worker, a drugs trafficker. She was paroled after ten years but learned that her husband had taken up with another, so she bought a revolver, had her hair done (like you do) and shot him. She was soon back in jail for life, give or take a few escapes. Her first rival was Frankie, then Monica, who stabbed her in a fight. Whether prison brutalised Bea, or she brutalised it, is hard to fathom.

VAL LEHMAN made a big impact from playing ‘Queen’ Bea (with her size and strong voice she could hardly make a small one). An experienced film and theatre actress, she has two daughters who took guest roles in ‘Prisoner’, one playing Bea’s daughter, the other a neighbour who tipped off the police during one of the breakouts.

KAREN TRAVERS was the tragic and most refined of Wentworth’s inmates. Beautiful, educated (she was a schoolteacher), squeaky clean and deeply religious, she’d killed her husband in his shower in a sort of reverse ‘Psycho’ scene viewers saw in flashbacks.

She’d killed him after he’d made her have an abortion and attacked her cruelly, then offered no defence at her trial. At one point Greg Miller, the prison doctor (dishy, naturally), who’d loved her when they were students together, discovered the husband’s cigarette burns on her back. After a while she was allowed to leave Wentworth daily to go to university where she kept her ‘secret’ from other students. Later lawyer Steve Wilson won her case and her heart.

PETA TOPPANO came from a musical family and was born in England. An accident put paid to a dancing career so she concentrated on singing and appeared in most of Australia’s musical TV shows as well as ‘The Young Doctors’, in which she played Dr Gail Henderson. When ‘Prisoner’ went into rehearsals and Peta learned the producer was searching for an actor to play the prison doctor, she recommended English Barry Quin whom she’d met when he toured Australia with a production of Othello. Barry flew over and took the role, and the couple unhappily in love in the series, married a few weeks after the series debut. They have now split but Peta’s success in films and glossy series such as ‘Return to Eden’, in which she played the black-hearted villainess, grows steadily.

LYN WARNER was the walking disaster of Wentworth, a quiet country girl who’d kidnapped a child and tried to bury him alive. At first she seemed to do little but weep. Then, when out on parole, she became involved with a man who made her drive the getaway car in a wages snatch. She was caught, of course.

KERRY ARMSTRONG toured with British comedy actor Sid James as a fifteen-year old schoolgirl, then took a job as GTV-9’s weather girl before landing roles in TV series, including ‘Cop Shop’ and ‘The Sullivans’. For the role of Lyn, Kerry spent several weeks talking to inmates of Fairlea women’s prison.

To cry convincingly, as Lyn did often, Kerry said she forced herself to imagine terrible accidents had befallen her family. Kerry went on to work in ‘Dynasty’ in America.

In the later episodes the ranks of ‘Prisoner’s token men were swelled by a (handsome of course) prison lawyer, Steve Wilson, played by James Smyllie. Wilson defended several prisoners, apparently for free, and successfully pushed for Karen’s retrial while falling in love with her.

There was also a male deputy governor, Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire), around whose head a red haze occasionally appeared to denote that he was recalling his days in Vietnam. When a safety deposit box key went missing, it seemed Jim needed money and his career prospects took a dive. A psychologist who got hold of his old army file discovered he was frightened of the sight of blood and mentioned it to dreamy Karen who told the girls. They later staged a first aid class in front of the poor fellow and at the sight of the (fake) blood, he had a nasty red flush, then an outburst and consequently a reprimand by Mrs Davidson. Vera Bennett’s chances of becoming deputy governor improved dramatically after that.

hr

[The text above contains several errors and mistakes:

  • Franky did not commit suicide, she was shot dead by a policeman while on the run with Doreen. (Franky was on the roof of Wentworth in an earlier episode, but Karen managed to talk her down.)

  • Doreen was never taken off to a to a psychiatric hospital.

  • There were only 692 episodes.

  • Bea's co-worker was not a drugs trafficker, she was having an affair with Bea's husband. That was why Bea killed her. [Stu]

  • Bea didn't buy the revolver. It was supplied by her ex-cell mate Val. [Stu]

  • It was ex-officer Anne Yates who stabbed Bea. [Stu]

  • Steve Wilson won Karen's case but obviously not her heart since she ended up with with Greg Miller. [Stu]

Thanks to Stuart Gray for pointing out many of the mistakes.
If you find any more errors or mistakes send them to wentworthweb@swipnet.se.]

hr

Maintained by Anders Nicolaysen.
Last updated 1999-02-03.
Legal Disclaimer

http://home.swipnet.se/wentworthweb
wentworthweb@swipnet.se