Fiona Spence

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Fiona Spence
Born (1948-10-10) 10 October 1948 (age 69)
Kent, England, UK
Occupation Stage and television actress
Years active 1978-present
Partner(s) Unnamed fiance (1968) [1]
Unnamed fiance (1978) [1] Denise Morgan (1979–2011) [2]

Fiona Spence (born 10 October 1948) is an English-born Australian stage and television actress and drama teacher. One of the most recognisable stars on television during the 1980s, for her roles as Gestapo-like prison officer Vera Bennett in Prisoner and the unlucky in love spinster Celia Stewart in Home and Away. She has also had a successful and long-running career in the theatre both in Australia and the UK, including playing Bonnie in the Melbourne Theatre Company production of Hurlyburly in 1986, and reprising her role of Vera Bennett in a UK touring production of Prisoner in 1990.

Early life[edit]

Spence was born in Kent, England to an Irish mother and an Australian-born father serving with the British Army. When her father finally left the service, Spence and her family (including her sister-in-law, casting director Kerry Spence) moved to Hong Kong when she was three and then to Australia when she was six.[3] After leaving school, she was trained as a secretary and later traveled to Montreal where she was a hostess for the Australia Pavilion (Expo 67) at the Canadian Expo.[4]

After living in Canada for a year, she left for England and lived in London for a time working as a saleswoman for Fortnum & Mason. It was while seeing several plays in London's West End, she became interested in acting. She was engaged when she was 22, but broke it off.[1]After returning back to Australia, wanting to become an actress, she trained with The Independent Theatre.

Early career[edit]

Spence began acting professionally during the late 1970s. She became engaged a second time, but again the relationship ended around 1978.[5] While living in Sydney, she appeared in her first television role in the teen drama Glenview High in 1977.[6]

Prisoner (Prisoner Cell Block H)[edit]

In 1979 she first found fame playing the sad and sadistic, authoritarian prison officer Vera Bennett, in cult soap opera Prisoner. It was on the set of Prisoner that she first met her long-term life partner, scriptwriter Denise Morgan. They remained together until Morgan's death in 2011.[7] The character of Vera Bennett, the show's main villain, was nicknamed "Vinegar Tits" by the inmates. The role continued from the show's premiere in 1979 until 1981, appearing in episodes 1 to 224. In the first episode she was coldly sad. Later developments showed other more sensitive angles of her personality and explored the idea that her tough behaviour in the cell block was connected to her loneliness and social awkwardness outside the prison and caring for her elderly mother. Spence who played Vera with her hair in a tight bun, was hardly recognisable if she let her hair down. Spence herself commented she wasn't readily recognised in real life, as Vera whenever she wore her hair down.[8]

When producer John McRae took over day-to-day running of the series in 1981, plans were made to write Spence out of the series. Her character had become immensely popular during her two-years on the show and, when news of her departure was announced, the Ten Network received at least 100 phone calls and countless fan mail asking for Spence to remain. Spence however quietly left the show later stating "I loved playing Vera. But it was time to wash that dame right out of my hair."[9]

During her last year with the show, Spence appeared in supporting roles in both the television mini-series Women of the Sun and the television movie I Can Jump Puddles, which also featured a number of other former Prisoner co-stars including Sigrid Thornton, Sandy Gore, Lesley Baker and Anne Phelan.

Home and Away[edit]

From 1988 until 1990, Spence became well known for playing spinster Celia Stewart in Home and Away. While working on the show, she attended Monash University earning an arts degree in English.[10]She also made sporadic television appearances during the next several years as a celebrity guest on game shows Cluedo and Sale of the Century as well as making a guest appearance on the television series Law of the Land.

Theatre and pantomime[edit]

In March 1984, Spence starred alongside Geraldine Cook in the 60-minute "softcore feminist" black comedy Mums, at Melbourne's La Mama Theatre. The play was about the "manic lives" of two trapped women in a high-rie flat, in which Spence played the tough aggressive Jo, while Cook played the more light-hearted Toots.[11] She played Bonnie in the 1986 Melbourne Theatre Company production of the play Hurlyburly at the Russel Street Theatre.[12]

She returned to the theatre in the early 1990s recreating the role of Vera Bennett in a British stage play version of Prisoner. She also starred in a theatrical pantomime of Aladdin with fellow Home and Away co-star Greg Benson at the Theatre Royal, in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent during December 1991 and January 1992 [13] as well as a short-lived stage show, Lipstick Dreams, in the United Kingdom.[14]

Prisoner Commentary[edit]

A commentary and exclusive interview with Spence features on volume 14 (episodes 209 – 224) of the ongoing DVD releases or Prisoner: Cell Block H. In February 2009, she was one of several former cast members who attended a barbecue and memorabilia auction in Melbourne, organised by Val Lehman, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the series.[15] In November 2009 Spence joined former cast members Gerard Maguire and Val Lehman in the UK for a celebration with fans of the 30th anniversary of Prisoner first airing in Australia. The event took place at The Moor Hall Hotel in Sutton Coldfield.[citation needed]


Year Title Role Notes
1978 Glenview High Unknown 1 episode (season 1, Ep 29 "After The Loving")
1979 – 1981 Prisoner Vera 'Vinegar Tits' Bennett 222 episodes
1981 Women of the Sun Joy Cutler (TV mini-series)
1981 I Can Jump Puddles Mrs. Wilson (TV series) 4 episodes
Unknown Cop Shop Unknown Series ran from 1977 to 1983
1985 The Fast Lane Peg 1 episode
1988 – 1990, 2000,
2002, 2005, 2012–13
Home and Away Celia Stewart 285 episodes
1992 Acropolis Now Joan
1993 Law of the Land Magistrate Maggie Mulcahy
1995 The Feds: Vengeance Lisa TV film
2013 Packed to the Rafters Eleanor McCormack 10 episodes


  1. ^ a b c "Hate Couture: Warder Sight! It's Vera Dressed Up!". Daily Mirror. March 1990. Archived from the original on 2001-06-10. 
  2. ^ "A wondrous way with words for TV". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2011-07-23. 
  3. ^ "Fiona Spence". Lee Leslie Management. Retrieved 16 August 2017. 
  4. ^ "Exhibitions: Australia at Expo '67 Montreal". National Museum of Australia. 
  5. ^ "Characters: Celia Stewart – Fiona Spence". 2000-11-01. 
  6. ^ Kingsley, Hillary (January 2000). "Press Clippings". Wentworth Web: an Unofficial Prisoner Cell Block H website. Archived from the original on 2005-10-01. 
  7. ^ "A wondrous way with words for TV". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2011-07-23. 
  8. ^ Mercado, Andrew. Super Aussie Soaps: Behind the Scenes of Australia's Best Loved TV Shows. Melbourne: Pluto Press Australia, 2004. (pg. 128–129; 133–134) ISBN 1-86403-191-3
  9. ^ Bourke, Terry (1998-03-08). "Chapter 9: The First Keepers". Prisoner Cell Block H: behind the scenes. 
  10. ^ "Fiona Spence". Lee Leslie Management. Retrieved 16 August 2017. 
  11. ^ "New Theatre: And now a brief rundown of the newest stage productions in "Melbourne". The Age. 16 March 1984.
  12. ^ "Hurlburly". AusStage. Retrieved 16 August 2017. 
  13. ^ Australian Performing Arts Collection. "Australian TV soap opera stars in UK pantomimes: Or Goldilocks goes home and away to meet her neighbours Aladdin and Cinderella". National Library of Australia. 
  14. ^ Rowe, Michelle. "The Set Is Still Wobblier Than Oliver Reed On A Bad Day, But Prisoner: Cell Block H Still Has Its Fans". The Mirror. 28 June 1998
  15. ^ Mercado, Andrew (2008-10-12). "Prisoner remembered". Daily Telegraph. 

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