(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 womens prison which first shocked
Australian viewers in 1979, then sentenced them to seven years hard viewing.
There was rarely a gday 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
The nearest the got to fun was pinching each others 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
Ian Bradley, Prisoners first producer, recalls: It was International
Womens 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 mens
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 werent their fortunes fell over themselves to be
part of it, so rare was it that a soaps 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 prisons basic procedures accurately Reg Watson
had done his homework with people from Australias Corrective Services Department
Prisoner was inevitably attacked for misrepresentation.
Reg told me: I dont 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
Prisoners Governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King) didnt 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 youd 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 were 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 shows 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
Grundys 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 Britains London Weekend Television. But we
were working forty-eight weeks of the year, making two hours of drama a week and on a
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
Prisoners 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
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
didnt 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 societys misfits even dumpy,
dopey Doreen (Colette Mann) who showed Colleen Powell (Judith McGrath) she could do
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
FIONA SPENCE from Sydney became one of the best-known TV faces but was delighted never
to be recognised in the street as Prisoners 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. Shed 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. Sheilas 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 shed 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 childrens 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. Shes 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
MONICA FERGUSON had muscles, a beer gut and a broken nose. She was
Beas 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 Monnies 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 Monnies 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.
Lesleys TV roles had included nymphomaniacs, prostitutes, gangsters wives.
Monicas 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
prisons doctor. Greg Miller (Barry Quin), after hed 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 wasnt
suitable, she felt.
MARILYN MASON was Wentworths nymphomaniac, a poor mans
Brigitte Bardot in jail for prostitution. When the series began she managed to lure the
prisons 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, whod 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 Feathers 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 Beas
daughter, the other a neighbour who tipped off the police during one of the breakouts.
KAREN TRAVERS was the tragic and most refined of Wentworths
inmates. Beautiful, educated (she was a schoolteacher), squeaky clean and deeply
religious, shed killed her husband in his shower in a sort of reverse
Psycho scene viewers saw in flashbacks.
Shed killed him after hed 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), whod loved her when they were students together, discovered the
husbands 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
Australias 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 shed 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 Petas 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
whod 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-9s 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 womens 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 the later episodes the ranks of Prisoners 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 Karens 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 Bennetts chances of becoming deputy governor improved dramatically after that.
[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.)
never taken off to a to a psychiatric hospital.
There were only
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]