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There can be no escape; Prisoner Cell Block H, The Musical

Times of London - October 22, 1995

This week, Prisoner Cell Block H The Musical opens. Next month, its fan club is relaunched. Why does this tacky Australian TV series have such a cult following, asks ROLAND WHITE

In the uproar over responsibility for the prison service, nobody has pressed Michael Howard on the real question that has been troubling the public. Who is to blame for Prisoner Cell Block H?

The programme, shown piecemeal on ITV over the past few years, has built a cult following. It has a British fan club with 5,000 members, videos of past episodes are selling well, members of the cast still tour the country to meet fans, and this week sees the London opening in preview of Prisoner Cell Block H The Musical, starring the transvestite entertainer Lily Savage.

"It will be true to the format of the original television show, but more camp," says Savage. "Everyone slagged it off when it was on the telly, saying the sets wobbled and the acting was awful, but in fact the acting was very good." It is not what Andrew Lloyd Webber might think of as ideal musical ditty material, featuring as it does an armed robber, a poisoner, a forger, a nymphomaniac, a predatory lesbian and a prison officer called Vinegar Tits, but the Prisoner industry is expecting great things. "We expect even more interest because of the musical," says Sam Forrest of NTV Entertainment, which produces seven Prisoner videos. "The videos have been exceptionally popular."

A hard sell will probably not be necessary. Prisoner fans are so fanatical that, last year, crowds of them made regular trips to Scotland, where Prisoner was shown three times a week on Grampian it is only shown once a week everywhere else. When Carlton dropped its Thursday-night screening, hundreds of viewers wrote to complain.

Prisoner, as it is called in Australia, was launched in 1979 by Grundy Television, which also makes Neighbours. In 1988, two years after the show had finished, it was launched in the UK, but under a new title to distinguish it from the similarly cultish Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan. The plots are not complicated: in general, the prison officers hand out instructions to the prisoners, and the prisoners try to disobey the instructions. It is Tenko in dungarees.

If you are a stranger to Wentworth Detention Centre, home of Prisoner Cell Block H, here is a typical scene from the programme, to give you an idea of the flavour:

Bea (old lag, to new prisoner): "What are you in for?"

New prisoner: "What's it to you? Mind your own business!"

Bea (standing over new girl in threatening way): "Everything that goes on in this place is my business and don't you forget it."

Warder: "Shut it, the pair of you. You should make more effort to get on with each other y'know, because from tomorrow you'll be sharing a cell. Governor's orders."

(All prisoners scowl. Cut to governor's office.)

If you find it difficult to believe that scenes like this can be successfully set to music, I have reassuring news: it has been done before. Here is a genuine extract: "4am, I was in my cell and someone started to yell" This was sung in The Outside Tour, five shows in 1990 organised by a fan in Derby called Roz Vecsey. She persuaded four of the original cast to come to the UK, where they were greeted by huge crowds and treated to a civic reception in Derby.

Vecsey's life is now almost entirely devoted to Prisoner, but her interest started by accident. "There used to be a lock-in at this pub in Derby, and I noticed that all these big, butch men were disappearing early," she says. "It turned out that they were sneaking off to watch Prisoner. Just for a laugh, I wrote off to try to get some pictures of the cast to hand around the pub. Soon there was a real buzz in Derby. I appeared on the radio and got 300 letters from fans."

She organises tours for the cast mainly around bingo halls and gay clubs and campaigns for more episodes to be shown on British television. Central is repeating the series following a year-long campaign that included a demonstration outside its studios in Birmingham. Whoever wins the franchise for Channel 5 can shortly afterwards expect a letter from Vecsey. Who are these fans? "We have had some total weirdos," says Vecsey. "They just moon about in the shadows. They tell you that it's their life-long ambition to meet Bea Smith, and when you introduce them they can't speak. And we get lots of anoraks: 16- or 17-year-old boys who send photographs of their bedrooms with all these big butch women on the walls."

The fan club is to be relaunched next month with backing for the first time from Grundy Television. For Pounds 20, members of the fan club will receive a membership card, a wall chart of prisoners past and present, and a quarterly news sheet, the H-Block Herald, which features a pen-pal column. There are occasional parties that feature Prisoner lookalike contests, and the relaunch will also feature a competition to find Prisoner Cell Block H's No 1 fan. "Everybody who writes to us signs their letter Prisoner's No 1 Fan," says Vecsey. "So I thought we would hold a competition."

Although Prisoner events are popular in gay clubs, Vecsey says that the majority of fan-club members are not gay or lesbian. "There is an element of gay men paying homage to Queen Val," she says, referring to Val Lehman, who plays Bea Smith, "because she is a strong woman. But the lesbian characters are such bad role models. Franky Doyle (armed robber, played by Carol Burns) was just a mad ranting dyke in a leather jacket."

Prisoner is especially popular in the north. "It's a working-class thing," says Vecsey. "There is so much snobbery about the show in the south. We surveyed our members and found that most of them are either on very low incomes or unemployed. If you are watching television at the time of night when Prisoner normally goes out, you are probably unemployed.

"Some of it is great television, though," she adds. "A lot of television is so bland, with a goodlooking surfer boy who has just been pulled out of a model agency.

Prisoner is just so different. It has turned a bunch of cons into heroes and the figures of authority are the baddies."

Perhaps not so far from the world of Michael Howard and Derek Lewis after all.

For details of The Official Prisoner Cell Block H Fan Club, which relaunches on November 17, write to PO Box 415, Derby DE22 3ZX

Roland White

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