TV Zone - Issue 90, May, 1997

IN EARLY 1978, Australia's Channel Ten commissioned a 16-episode drama series from prolific production company Grundy Television. The network needed a high-profile programme to boost its flagging ratings, and a maxi-series looking at the lives of women behind bars was felt to be an exciting and unusual concept offering wide scope for characterization and drama. Its reportedly controversial content guaranteed press speculation, and a high powered advertising campaign ensured the new series was on the lips of the public long before it made its début in March 1979. Prisoner, subtitled Cell Block H for overseas sales, was thus born to enormous ratings, the fascination of the critics and a storm of television watchdog protests.

Stabbing start

The opening episode follows the arrival of two inmates at Wentworth Detention Centre, a fictional high-security facility in Melbourne. Karen Travers (Peta Toppano) is a housewife who fatally stabbed her abusive husband in an unintentionally amusing Psycho rip-off, while Lyn ‘Wonky’ Warner (Kerry Armstrong) is a country girl who buried alive a child in her care. Viewers are introduced to life behind bars through the eyes of these 'average' people - it later transpires that neither is really guilty - and the insular world of the series is established with great economy as the pair come to terms with their incarceration. Indeed, many of the series’ most celebrated trademarks - hands in the clothes press, symbol of prison power, and frequent use of the word 'bitch', for example - are present in the earliest episodes.

The women the newcomers encounter are a varied bunch, each serving a dramatic purpose. Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florence) and Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann) are the bickering comedy relief, while Margaret Laurence's working girl, Marilyn Mason provides sex appeal. ‘Mum’ Brooks (Mary Ward) is the voice of reason and stability among the women, in direct contrast to the violent excesses of virtually psychotic predatory lesbian Franky Doyle (Carol Burns). Finally, feisty red-haired murderer Bea Smith (Val Lehman) is the ‘Top Dog’. Uncompromising and quick to anger, Bea is nevertheless a natural leader. Before long her sense of morality and unequivocal stand on drugs - her daughter died of an overdose - would come to the fore: a useful device to maintain some reality in the face of a conscious decision not to showcase substance abuse.

Although it may be a little difficult to reconcile with a ‘90s ‘kitsch’ perspective, reality was actually a major concern of the producers. They modelled their prison on an actual New South Wales gaol for women, and many of the characters and early incidents were based on the experiences of real ex-inmates interviewed during the series’ development. As time wore on, a large degree of credibility would be sacrificed in favour of more colourful and extreme plots and characters but this was perhaps an unavoidable progression in a series which ran for eight years and 692 episodes.

It soon became clear that Prisoner was the monster hit Channel Ten was looking for. Those original 16 episodes were extended indefinitely, necessitating a rethink on the scripts and format, and the momentum of the series noticeably slowed while stock was taken. The characters of Mum, Marilyn and Franky (who had proven an extremely popular anti-hero) were removed in quick succession due to the actors’ wishes not to commit to longer contracts, while new characters were introduced in tandem with greater screen time for existing supporting roles such as Doreen and Lizzie. New storylines which catered to longer-term involvement were drafted - Karen Travers was re-tried and released to run a halfway house, for example.

Staff and Stars

The emphasis also shifted more equally onto the staff of Wentworth. They comprised in the first instance prim governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King), thoroughly decent officer Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne) and acidic repressed officer Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence). This fairly basic dynamic worked well, with Meg and Vera friends despite their polarised views and Erica generally swinging between the two as the situation dictated. Shortly after the restructuring of the series, temperamental officer Jim Fletcher was added to break up the series' female ranks.

Token male notwithstanding, one of Prisoner's biggest claims to fame was its mostly female cast. It showcased younger talent as well as providing meaty work for older female actors; indeed, many of Australia's best-known actresses cut their television teeth on Prisoner, including Peta Toppano, later of Return to Eden and Sigrid Thornton, star of The Thorn Birds. Many regulars have since appeared in Neighbours, another Channel Ten/Grundy soap.

The stars were deluged with fan mail, particularly from teenagers, who identified with the classic examples of rebellion against authority demonstrated by the inmates and presented favourably in the series’ context. Every school had a teacher who was worthy of the label ‘Vinegar Tits’, the inmates’ nickname for Officer Bennett, while the inclusion of lesbian relationships was both a curiosity and salacious draw - and a source of continual criticism. The producers were always careful, however, to present lesbian characters in a sincere light; when a relationship between two officers was presented much later in the series, the actresses involved specified that it be treated in the same manner as a heterosexual relationship.

The early changeover to ongoing series was a success, and Prisoner continued to enjoy very high ratings as it settled into a bi-weekly watershed slot. In addition to a number of home-grown awards, the series won plaudits in the Untied States - its first overseas market - for it's lighting and camera work, and was in fact the first Australian drama series to be widely sold. It reached British shores in 1987 - the year after it finished on Australian television.

Inside and Out

The prison setting provided ample scope for varied characters and plotlines. The stories generally centred within Wentworth on the interplay among the inmates and with the officers, though the focus sometimes moved outside to look at the officer’s home lives, the situations of soon to be prisoners or the struggles faced by released inmates. Although the faces changed, the series retained certain conventions throughout its run. There was usually a core group of four or five sympathetic prisoners, with ‘types’ including the tough leader, the old lag, the wacky comic relief and the sensible voice/wronged victim. The most well remembered gang comprised Bea, Lizzie, Doreen and Judy Bryant, who joined the series at the beginning of the second year. The ‘goodies’ would always have one or two antagonists to contend with, the best of these being snowy-haired Marie Winter, callous murderer Nola Mackenzie, sneering Lou Kelly and misunderstood Kath Maxwell. Both sides would face off against the ‘screws’ aka the warders, and occasionally make deals with the corrupt ones, while various ‘guest’ prisoners would join in for the requisite 13 to 52 episodes.

Recurring plots included riots or protests, strike action - real or threatened - by officers, and an endless cycle of harsh treatment. The level-headed governor would face an uphill battle against untenable directives from ‘the Department’, and was threatened with the sack at least once per year. Despite this transparency, the series usually acquitted itself well, and the repetition only became apparent towards the end.

Time off for good behaviour

Following an eight-week period in early 1982 when the major inmates were given a back-seat to allow the actresses some time off, episode 287 saw the most striking development in Prisoner's history: the introduction of Joan ‘the Freak’ Ferguson, superbly played by Maggie Kirkpatrick. Ostensibly a replacement for Vera Bennett, the vicious and immoral lesbian officer began a reign of terror incorporating countless inmate bashings and a vendetta with Bea Smith which culminated in a cliffhanging prison blaze forty episodes later. Her arrival injected new life into the series exactly when needed, and as the focus shifted to incorporate her dramatic potential and popularity, so the Freak inversely became synonymous with Prisoner in the eyes of the general public.

The end of the fifth year heralded a real blow for the programme with the departure of Val Lehman (Bea) and Sheila Florence (Lizzie). The failure to find a suitably strong replacement for Bea set the series adrift and signalled two years of little focus and a high turnover of rather unmemorable characters. The exception was Ann Reynolds, the spirited governor who had replaced Mrs Davidson earlier in the year; the late Gerda Nicholson was never less than excellent in the role.

The producers compensated for these upheavals with more colourful sets and costumes and outlandish plots such as the introduction of three male inmates, charity telethons and waltzes, guest appearances by Australian ‘celebrities’ and even brain surgery for the Freak after a knock on the head!

Although ratings remained buoyant, the credibility of the series suffered, and it’s whole style moved more towards short term incident and endless recrimination in place of involving character stories. A policy of recycling old plots was apparently initiated, bringing viewers more riots, another terrorist siege, a second prisoner with communication difficulties, another bomb scare… The series began moving in circles. On top of this, the physical threat of the Freak was watered down, perhaps in response to the constant criticism of the series’ casual violence.

Quality End

Happily, the last hundred episodes of the programme brought with them a huge resurgence in quality. Bikie Rita Connors, magnificently played by Glenda Linscott, was the strong central character Prisoner had been waiting for, and her explosive feud with the Freak, who was responsible for her boyfriend’s death, returned some tension to the series. Throughout its final year Prisoner introduced a number of well-written scripts and took steps to renew its strained credibility. The plots could still be far-fetched - a bizarre escapade on a wayward boat, for instance - but bolstered by strong performances and grounded in greater realism which afforded storylines such as Rita’s sojourn in brutal maximum security prison Blackmoor, the programme was the most riveting it had ever been.

Even at it’s most mediocre, Prisoner remained oddly compulsive viewing. Many theories for the series’ appeal have been presented over the years, among them the sensational superficialities of violence, swearing and grisly death. Despite frequent jibes at its perceived wobbly walls, the production standards were actually quite solid for a two-hours-per-week soap opera which demanded action sequences more associated with expensive film series. The truth, however, probably lies in the characters and a certain kind of viewer voyeurism. Despite the fantastic situations and occasional ‘enthusiastic’ performance, the characters belonged to a world unfamiliar to the average viewer as noted by Australia’s longest-serving female inmate, Sandra Wilson - an advisor at the series inception - the inmates represented the underdog fighting to survive, antagonists guaranteed to gain viewer sympathy. Along with the strong female characters, this would also account for the series’ current cult status and also a large gay following.

Prisoner closed its gates at the end of 1986. Despite the high quality of the final year, ratings were slipping and there was a general feeling the series had run it’s course. Fortunately the production team was given some notice, and the scripts were re-tooled to conclude the series with an ingenious twist which finally put paid to the hated Freak. Unlike so many series, Prisoner went out in style, and the fact that it has amassed a huge fan base and returned to British terrestrial television for a full repeat run is testament to its legacy.

Peter Griffiths

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Last updated: 1999-01-08.
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