Women in prison
Shades of Hollywood in the '30s

Boston Globe – April 7, 1980

There haven't been more than a handful of films, and fewer television dramas, about jailed women since World War II. Those prewar flicks starred a parade of pent-up females in drab, gray wrappers: Aline MacMahon, Glenda Farrell, Joan Blondell, Sylvia Sidney, Joan Crawford.

Australian television either is just catching up with Tinseltown of the Depression, or has fallen upon a new soap opera idea. Either way "Prisoner: Cell Block H," which premieres tonight on WLVI-TV (Channel 56, 11 p.m.), will boom or bust quickly; more likely boom.

If men in prison are animals, women in prison are frozen dynamite, liable to explode at the slightest jar. Their lives are locked away with them; their memories haunt them like night voices down the echoing cellblock corridors; their bodies are lashed by their minds, and, in turn, lash the cell bars.

Each has a story to tell and each will tell that story as the highly-rated import runs five nights weekly, tonight through Friday, on Ch. 56.

Anyone from the Aline MacMahon era will recognize the stereotypes among the cast. The young leading woman is a decent type driven to violence by fate; the innocent rural type should still be milking the goats; the decent woman guard - they call the guards "screws," just like in Hollywood - compensates for the vicious, sadistic screw. The tough Queen Bee inmate leader runs the prison with the help of her lieutenants. The prison lesbian is mean and crazy and an object of sympathy. "Mum" is the old lady who is wise and tends to her flower beds, and the other old one is a drunk and a thief and an escape artist.

The handsome male doctor is obligatory, and there is the macho electrician whose service calls send shock waves rippling through the cells and corridors. Add a female warden who looks the other way to keep the peace, toss in assorted institutional types, and you've got Wentworth Detention Centre.

The cast includes many well-known Australian theater and television stars, headed by Peita Toppano, a lovely, dark-haired ex-dancer who plays Karen, the wife who failed to defend herself for murdering her brutal, philandering husband. Barry Quin is the prison doctor, Greg Miller, who grew up with Karen and now is her ally behind bars.

Kerry Armstrong is Lynn, the country girl who became a city nanny and the dupe in a strange kidnapping case whose lurid headlines make her the target for inmate hate and aggression. Carole Burns is Franky, the lesbian, a wild- tempered, woman driven and tortured by her obsessions, and Colette Mann is Doreen, Franky's cellmate and love object.

Marilyn, the cellblock vamp, is played with joyous abandon by Margaret Laurence. Her trysts in the ceiling crawl space with Eddie the electrician, portrayed lustily by Richard Moir, are tender and amusing, albeit high voltage.

Val Lehman is Bea, the inmate leader who longs for freedom and rules with an iron hand. Elspeth Ballantyne plays the good screw, Meg, and Fiona Spence is wonderfully rotten and mean as Bennett, the bad one.

With the soaper overtones and turgid plotline, one might expect to see more sex and violence than really appears. This is not to say that the producers would be unhappy if "Prisoner" wins a reputation as a red hot series. The syndicator's suggested advertising themes for this first week of episodes includes such items as "When Love Is Gone! The punishment of women without men," "The Code of Desperate Women," and "Caged Women Come Out Fighting." Shades of those Silver Screen wall posters of the '30s.

The Ch. 56 debut is not the first for Boston. "Prisoner" has been airing for some two months on New York's independent station WPIX-TV late at night, and the episodes are picked up here by Warner Cable, which services cable TV in communities north and west of Boston. The show has received good to strong ratings in the major cities where it has aired to date, running a strong second to one of the network shows in its time slot in Los Angeles.

Robert A McLean

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Last updated 1999-01-08.
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