Prisoner (TV series)
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|Also known as||Prisoner: Cell Block H
(UK & United States)
Caged Women, Prisoner: Cell Block H
(Women's Prison) (Sweden)
(Cellblock H) (Netherlands)
Women in Prison
Women Behind Bars
|Genre||Soap opera serial
|Created by||Reg Watson|
|Directed by||Chris Adshead
|Starring||(see List of Prisoner cast members)|
|Theme music composer||Allan Caswell|
|Ending theme||"On the Inside"
|Country of origin||Australia|
|No. of seasons||8|
|No. of episodes||692 (list of episodes)|
|Executive producer(s)||Ian Bradley (from season 2)|
|Producer(s)||Ian Bradley (season 1)|
|Running time||41–49 minutes
53 minutes (final episode)
|Production company(s)||Reg Grundy Organisation|
|Original network||Network Ten|
|Picture format||PAL (4:3 576i)|
|Original release||27 February 1979– 11 December 1986|
|Related shows||Wentworth (reimagined)|
Prisoner was an Australian soap opera set in the Wentworth Detention Centre, a fictional women's prison. In the United States and United Kingdom it was known as Prisoner: Cell Block H, with the same title and Caged Women in Canada. The series, produced by the Reg Grundy Organisation, aired on Network Ten for 692 episodes between 27 February 1979 and 11 December 1986. Originally, it was planned as a 16-part series.
The show was inspired by the British television drama Within These Walls, which was moderately successful in Australia. The Prisoner producers approached Googie Withers of Within These Walls to play the prison governor, but she declined. Due to an injunction requested by UK-based ATV, which considered the title too similar to their The Prisoner, overseas broadcasters had to change the series' name. In March 2012 it was announced that Prisoner would be "reimagined" on Foxtel in a new version, Wentworth.
- 1 Background
- 2 Synopsis
- 3 Cast
- 4 Episodes
- 5 Spin-offs, remakes, and specials
- 6 Merchandise
- 7 Cultural impact
- 8 Awards and nominations
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Prisoner was created by Reg Watson, who had produced the British soap opera Crossroads from 1964 to 1973 and would create Australian soaps The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters and Neighbours. Initially conceived as a 16-episode series, the working title of the pilot episode was "Women Behind Bars". Its storylines focused on the lives of the prisoners and, to a lesser extent, the officers and other prison staff. When the initial episodes met an enthusiastic reception, it was felt that Prisoner could be developed into an ongoing soap opera. The early storylines were developed and expanded, with assistance from the Corrective Services Department.
The show's themes, often radical, included feminism, homosexuality and social reform. Prisoner began in early 1979 with the advertising slogan, "If you think prison is hell for a man, imagine what it's like for a woman". The series examined how women dealt with incarceration and separation from their families, and the common phenomenon of released inmates re-offending. Within the prison, major themes were interpersonal relationships, power struggles, friendships and rivalries. The prisoners became a surrogate family, with Bea Smith and Jeanette Brookes (Mum) central mother figures. Several lesbian characters, including prisoners Franky Doyle and Judy Bryant and officer Joan Ferguson, appeared on the show.
Typical of long-running TV dramas, consistency and characterization were problematic for the series. Initially there was a men's prison "next door" to Wentworth, but it was never mentioned again after the early episodes. Barnhurst was originally a co-ed prison, soon becoming a women's facility. Its security status varied considerably with it being described as an 'open prison farm' by the end of the run; although it was often described as "low-security", serial murderers Bea Smith and Marie Winter were housed there for long periods. Although Blackmoor Prison was initially described as a brand new, state-of-the-art maximum-security prison, it was depicted as a Victorian-era workhouse when finally seen. Wentworth was variously described as either new or built during World War II, with aged infrastructure.
Dr. Greg Miller stated in episode one that he had his own private practice, but soon after he became frustrated at not having his own practice and purchased one from an elderly Doctor. Judy Bryant insisted that she had never had sex with a man, but her adult daughter became a regular character; Officer Terry Harrison said that he had never been married only a few episodes before his ex-wife was incarcerated at Wentworth. In her first appearance Myra Desmond said that she was living on her late husband's compensation, later saying that she had never married and was childless; soon afterwards, her murder of her husband and subsequent issues with her two children figured in a several storylines. Background officer Joan Barfield was often called "Connie" in early episodes, and "Officer Knox" was a series of background officers. As cast members left and returned, sentence continuity became a problem; Judy Bryant and Chrissie Latham received longer sentences for petty crimes than they did for murder, and Bea Smith was offered parole three years after her second murder.
Viewer's introduction to the Detention Centre featured the arrival of two new prisoners, Karen Travers (Peta Toppano) and Lynn Warner (Kerry Armstrong). Travers was charged with murdering her husband, and Warner insisted she was innocent despite her conviction for the abduction and attempted murder of a child. Both women were sent to the prison's maximum-security wing (H Block), where they were horrified by their surroundings. Karen, confronted with a former lover—prison doctor Greg Miller (Barry Quin)—was sexually harassed by violent lesbian cellmate Franky Doyle (Carol Burns). Lynn was ostracised by the other prisoners because of her crime (prisoners are known for their intolerance of offenders against children) and terrorised by "Queen" Bea Smith (Val Lehman), who burnt her hand in the laundry steam press in one of the series' most iconic scenes.
Other, less-volatile prisoners included elderly, garden-loving Jeanette "Mum" Brooks (Mary Ward); the bickering, teddy-clutching misfit Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann), alcoholic recidivist Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance) and seductive prostitute Marilyn Mason (Margaret Laurence), who seduced prison electrician Eddie Cook (Richard Moir). The "screws" (prison officers) included firm-but-fair governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King), dour deputy governor Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence, nicknamed "Vinegar Tits") and compassionate senior officer Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne).
Early episodes, featuring violence and mayhem, included Lynn Warner's burning; a prisoner hanging herself in her cell; unrequited lesbian love; a fatal stabbing, and a flashback sequence inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in which Karen Travers stabbed her abusive husband to death in the shower. The series' first major story arc was the turf war between Bea Smith and Franky Doyle, culminating in a riot where Meg Jackson was held hostage and her husband—prison psychiatrist Bill Jackson (Don Barker)—was stabbed to death by inmate Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton).
Prisoner premiered in Australia on 27 February 1979. Its success prompted the producers to extend the series, first from 16 to 20 episodes and then indefinitely. The production schedule increased from one to two hour-long episodes per week; Carol Burns left the show after 20 episodes, feeling that she could not continue playing Franky Doyle with the tighter schedule. She was written out of the show as an escapee from Wentworth with Doreen Anderson, shot dead by a policeman after being on the run for three weeks.
New story arcs were introduced. Karen Travers appealed against her sentence and was eventually released, allowing her to resume her relationship with Greg Miller and becoming involved in prison reform. As original characters began leaving the series (Mum Brooks, Lynn Warner, Karen and Greg appeared beyond the initial sixteen episodes, but most had left by the end of the 1979 season; Greg left in early 1980), new characters arrived: husband-beater Monica Ferguson (Lesley Baker), career criminal Noeline Burke (Jude Kuring), idealistic murdereress Roslyn Coulson (Sigrid Thornton) and imprisoned mother Pat O'Connell (Monica Maughan), in addition to shorter-term inmates with brief storylines. Prostitute Chrissie Latham, a minor character in the early episodes, returned in a more central antagonistic role and a male deputy governor, Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire), joined the female-dominated cast.
Bea, Lizzie and Doreen
As Prisoner began its second year of production in 1980 the series formula was in place, with its characters a recognisable set of archetypes. The prison population consisted of a core group of sympathetic prisoners – a top dog, an elderly inmate, a wayward youngster – and other characters such as an antagonist who threatened the top dog, a middle-class prisoner out of her element, remand prisoners awaiting trial and heavies used as muscle.
After the departure of Franky Doyle, Karen Travers and Lynn Warner, Bea Smith, Doreen Burns (née Anderson) and Lizzie Birdsworth became the main front-line prisoners. By 1980, Bea, a tough, ambivalent, maternal leader, had softened by comparison with the 1979 episodes. The death of her teenage daughter Debbie (Cassandra Lehman) from a heroin overdose was her motivation for killing her husband when she was released early in the series and explained her hatred of drug offenders and clouded judgement when children were involved. Doreen, a well-meaning, inept tragicomic figure, was easily influenced by others. Lizzie, a mischievous, elderly alcoholic with a bad heart, occasionally contemplated dying in prison. The three were joined early in 1980 by Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbitt), an American expatriate lesbian who got herself imprisoned to be with her girlfriend: scheming drug dealer Sharon Gilmour (Margot Knight). Introduced for the Sharon storyline (and as an opponent of Bea), Judy became part of the core group of regulars (and Bea's unofficial second-in-command), the show's longest-serving inmate and the second-longest-running character (behind Elspeth Ballantyne as Meg Jackson-Morris).
The mix of officers also established a template of character types. Progressive governor Erica Davidson's approach to the job was to the right of warm-hearted warder Meg Jackson but to the left of the acidic Vera Bennett, with firm-but-fair deputy governor Jim Fletcher often switching sides between Vera to Meg. Erica faced an uphill battle with untenable directives from her superiors at the Department of Corrective Services, represented by Ted Douglas (writer Ian Smith, the show's script editor for most of its run). Storylines dealing with the prisoners' everyday lives were cyclical: harsh treatment leading to prisoner resistance, followed by concessions and freedom (exploited by the prisoners, requiring stricter discipline).
Capitalising on the voyeuristic appeal of showcasing female prison life, Prisoner's storylines had familiar elements: smuggling, personality clashes, staff politics, prisoner resistance in the form of strikes and riots and a variety of issue-based court cases, police investigations and escapes. It made extensive use of cliffhangers, with dramatic escapes, crimes and catastrophes befalling the prison and its inhabitants. Plots also ventured outside Wentworth, with episodes about the officers' private lives and the efforts of newly released prisoners to adjust to life outside (including forces leading to recidivism). Bea Smith was released during the opening episodes; and with nothing and no-one on the outside since the drug-related death of her daughter Debbie, she shot her estranged husband dead, ensuring her imprisonment for life. The elderly Lizzie Birdsworth was released when new evidence proved her to be innocent of the poisoning for which she had served twenty years. With no place for her on the outside, Lizzie committed a petty offence to return to her "home" at Wentworth. Although the series had upbeat storylines (such as Karen Travers' in 1979), for characters like Bea and Lizzie prison was the only option.
Notable storylines during the show's Bea-Lizzie-and-Doreen era (late 1979 to late 1981) included the 1979 cliffhanger about a terrorist raid on the prison, during which governor Erica Davidson was shot and wounded. A long-running story arc involved Judy Bryant's vendetta against corrupt male warder Jock Stewart (Tommy Dysart) after he murdered her lover, Sharon Gilmour, by pushing her down a flight of stairs. Angry at a cover-up (a verdict of accidental death, and Jock suspended), the women staged a rooftop protest in which Noeline Bourke's daughter Leanne (Tracey-Jo Riley) fell to her death. Judy's efforts to avenge Sharon's death and exact vengeance against Jock included escaping and working as a prostitute to find and kill Jock and a final confrontation when she was out on parole, which ended when Jock fell down a flight of stairs and was left permanently paralysed. Before Judy began working as a prostitute, she admitted to Helen Smart that she was a 40-something virgin (telling the same to Tracey Morris in episode 154); near the end of the same season her adult daughter arrived, searching for her birth mother. In a 1980 cliffhanger, Bea, Lizzie and Doreen are trapped in an underground tunnel after a mass-escape plan goes awry.
When Prisoner reached its 200th episode Bea Smith developed amnesia, with no memory of her imprisonment, after a car crash during a transfer from Barnhurst. Bea looked for Mum, going from one old address to the next. She found Mum, who offered help to her "sick friend". Mum told parole officer Meg that Bea sought her help the night before and Meg told Mum she must inform the police, since Mum was on parole. The police raid Mum, Meg and Bea, and Bea and Mum were returned to Wentworth.
After a long holiday break, Prisoner moved to an earlier time slot in the Melbourne area: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 19:30. After a recap of the 1980 season on 3 February 1981, the series resumed with episode 166 the following evening. From episode 205, it returned to its original 20:30 timeslot. During the second half of the 1981 season Vera (Vinegar Tits) Bennett left, written out when she became governor of Barnhurst. Supporting characters complementing the lead ensemble gained importance. The officers ranks were augmented by sarcastic, militant union representative Colleen Powell (Judith McGrath) and bespectacled, ineffectual Joyce Barry (Joy Westmore). Colleen benefited from the departures of Vera and later Jim Fletcher, taking over as deputy governor when Meg Morris turned down the job. Chrissie Latham, Margo Gaffney and Helen Smart (Caroline Gillmer) became central characters.
In late 1981 Bea, Lizzie, Doreen and Judy receded into the background. Bea was hospitalised for a kidney transplant operation, Lizzie was briefly paroled, and Doreen and Judy were temporarily transferred to Barnhurst. The storylines shifted to three new characters; cocky moll Sandy Edwards (Louise Le Nay) and intelligent, enigmatic Kate Peterson (Olivia Hamnett) were convicted of murder and cunning, villainous career criminal Marie Winter (Maggie Millar) was transferred from Barnhurst. In the 1981 cliffhanger, Marie manipulated Sandy into starting a riot to protest increasingly-oppressive prison conditions following new directives from the Department. With a copy of the prison keys and improvised weapons, Sandy lead the women through the prison; in the subsequent siege, rookie officers Janet Conway (Kate Sheil) and Steve Faulkner (Wayne Jarratt) were taken hostage.
The first few months of 1982 focused on power struggles, schemes and double-crossing by Sandy, Marie and Kate, including several murder attempts. As Sandy and Marie competed for top-dog position, Kate plotted her release from Wentworth by playing different sides against each other. When they were written out of the show, its focus returned to Bea and company.
In 1982, a formidable new officer, Joan "the Freak" Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick), arrived. Imposing her will with black-leather-gloves, she molested prisoners during spurious "body searches" and took a cut of all prison rackets, Ferguson was as cold, calculating and sinister as the worst prisoners but was on the other side of the bars and therefore untouchable.
Bea and Joan became deadly enemies. Joan schemed to beat Bea and Bea plotted to oust Joan, beginning a new story arc in which the women of Wentworth try to get rid of the Freak. The officers (particularly Meg Morris) recognized Ferguson's nature and unsuccessfully attempted to expose her; resulting in the resignation of Steve Faulkener.
Chrissie Latham and Margo Gaffney returned to the show, and Doreen and Judy were released from Wentworth. Doreen left the series; while Judy took charge of a halfway house for recently released prisoners, named Driscoll House after its first resident Susie Driscoll (Jacqui Gordon). The storylines were divided between the prison and the halfway house, allowing the series to explore issue-based plots through the Driscoll House residents. Doomed heroin addict Donna Mason (Arkie Whiteley) featured as a remand prisoner and temporary resident of Driscoll House. Young biker Maxine Daniels (Lisa Crittenden) joined the regular cast, flitting between Driscoll and Wentworth.
The main storyline was the ongoing animosity between Bea Smith and Joan Ferguson. Their enmity peaked for the 1982 season cliffhanger, in which Bea lured the Freak into a trap by claiming that Ferguson's diaries, which contained incriminating evidence, had been hidden by white-collar criminal Barbara Fields (Susan Guerin). As a diversion, Chrissie Latham lit a small fire in the prison library. Margo Gaffney started a larger, turpentine-fed fire in a storeroom.
The storeroom fire raged as Bea Smith and Joan Ferguson battled it out in the isolation wing; Bea strangled Joan with the intention of killing her and Barbara Fields retrieved the diaries from the governor's office. The fire triggered the riot alarm, locking down the burning prison. Fields, overcome by smoke, collapsed in the governor's office as flames surrounded her (and the diaries); two other inmates, Heather "Mouse" Trapp (Jentah Sobott) and Paddy Lawson (Anna Hruby), were trapped. Paddy escaped through the air ducts, and a panicking Mouse died in the fire as governor Erica Davidson attempted to unlock the gates.
Ferguson regained consciousness and attacked Bea, beating her unconscious. Ferguson soon realised that an unresponsive Bea had her keys with Ferguson trapped on the other side of the locked gate. In the episode's final scene, Joan, Bea and Paddy were trapped in the burning building.
The 1983 season began with Paddy crawling through the air ducts and finding Bea and Joan; they escaped through the roof. The season was characterised by short-term characters and storylines, anchored by the rivalry between Bea and the Freak. Chrissie Latham, Margo Gaffney and Erica Davidson left the series; while callous, menacing and brutal double murderess Nola McKenzie (Carole Skinner) became a new adversary for Bea and a partner in crime for Joan. The first prisoner to actively collude with the Freak, she began running contraband rackets, plotting to seize power from the "good" top dog. Bea briefly escaped from Wentworth, contacting Doreen Burns (Colette Mann).
The Bea-Joan-Nola conflict peaked shortly after Bea was returned to the prison. Joan and Nola attempted to drive Bea to suicide by evoking the memory of her dead daughter Debbie, coercing tarot-reading medium and remand prisoner Zara Moonbeam (Ilona Rodgers) to assist them. The plan backfired and it was Nola, not Bea, whose body was removed from Wentworth. A few months later, Joan triumphed over Bea and had her old enemy transferred to Barnhurst. After playing Bea Smith for 400 episodes, Val Lehman had tired of the role and felt that all possible storylines for the character had been exhausted and resigned. Actress Sheila Florance left shortly afterwards, leading to the departure of Lizzie Birdsworth, leaving Elspeth Ballantyne (Meg Morris, formerly Jackson) as the sole remaining original cast member. In the 1983 cliffhanger, Lizzie was waiting to hear if she has been paroled and subsequently found a body in the prison yard; new officer David Bridges admitted to the murder and told Lizzie she would "be set free".
Prisoner returned in 1984 resolving the previous season's cliffhanger; officer David Bridges told Lizzie that he killed two inmates and she would be next. Lizzie then had a heart attack; Cass looked towards the shed, and saw Lizzie lying at Bridges' feet. When she ran to Lizzie's aid, Bridges told her to go away. Cass was then led into the shed by Bridges, where he tried to kill her with a knife. Cass defended herself with a shovel; she decapitated him and began to lose her mind.
New characters had gained prominent roles in the series. Ann Reynolds (Gerda Nicolson) replaced Erica Davidson as a spirited, no-nonsense governor. Prisoner Phyllis Hunt (Reylene Pearce) received an expanded role amidst new arrivals: dreamy, romantic serial bigamist Sandra "Pixie" Mason (Judy McBurney) and cool, villainous vice queen Sonia Stevens (Tina Bursill). Judy Bryant was brought back into Wentworth as stopgap top dog, the Driscoll House storyline being phased out after Judy euthanized terminally-ill former inmate Hazel Kent (Belinda Davey). Department boss Ted Douglas, was exposed as corrupt, left the series and was briefly replaced by Erica Davidson.
The Freak briefly becomes governor when Ann Reynolds was recovering from breast cancer and Colleen Powell was discredited. Erica Davidson helped expose Ferguson, and Mrs. Powell was reinstated. Mrs. Powell's family was then murdered in an explosion, in a storyline similar to Jim Fletcher's.
Additions to the cast included Cass Parker (Babs McMillan), whose slow wit and gentle nature was offset by her strength and temper; middle-aged con artist Minnie Donovan (Wendy Playfair), and volatile-but-vulnerable street kid Bobbie Mitchell (Maxine Klibingaitis). The season's major players were Reb Kean (Janet Andrewartha), a dynamic-but-troubled young armed robber who turned to crime in rebelling against her wealthy family, and the series' new top dog: Myra Desmond (Anne Phelan), a thoughtful, tough former Wentworth prisoner who had appeared sporadically as a representative of the Prison Reform Group and was now imprisoned for killing her husband (despite saying in episode 223 that she was not married). Reb and Myra became enemies of the Freak and each other. During the season's first half, departed characters made return appearances: Wally Wallace (Alan Hopgood), Helen Smart, Erica Davidson, Doreen Burns, Margo Gaffney, Tracy Morris (played by a different actress) and Marie Winter.
This season and the following one were characterised by cast reshuffles. Midseason saw the exits of Minnie Donovan, Sonia Stevens, Cass Parker and long-time deputy governor Colleen Powell. Juvenile prankster Marlene Warren (Genevieve Lemon) and elderly inmate Dot Farrar (Alethea McGrath) were new arrivals. Enduring inmates introduced during this period were sneering troublemaker Lou Kelly (Louise Siversen), who developed from a bit player to a sociopathic wannabe top dog and the series' main villain; dopey Alice "Lurch" Jenkins (Lois Collinder) and streetwise card sharp Lexie Patterson (Pepe Trevor), who dressed like Boy George until the Freak cut her hair.
Prisoner became increasingly violent. In the 1983 cliffhanger, recent "escapes" from the prison were a series of murders by the psychotic David Bridges (David Waters). Twisted psychologist Jonathan Edmonds (Bryan Marshall) arrived at Wentworth to conduct research and brainwashed Cass Parker into trying to kill best friend, Bobbie Mitchell. During her final stint in 1984, the villainous Marie Winter colluded with the Freak and organised another riot, ravaging H Block to ensure the dismissal of an already reprimanded Ann Reynolds so Ferguson would take over as governor of Wentworth; when this failed, Winter subsequently escaped, hanging from the landing gear of a low-flying helicopter.
Serial murderess Bev "the Beast" Baker (Maggie Dence) terrorised staff and inmates with thrill-seeking antics, which included nearly throttling Marlene Warren; cutting Bobbie Mitchell's hands with a razor blade, stabbing a visiting social worker in the heart with a knitting needle and, finally, committing suicide by injecting herself with an empty hypodermic syringe. Meg Morris was raped in her home by a masked intruder, on the orders of psychopathic inmate Angel Adams (Kylie Foster). Joan Ferguson faced off against murderous male counterpart Len Murphy (Maurie Fields) in a bad-screw turf war. A trio of male inmates – Geoff McRae (Leslie Dayman), Matt Delaney (Peter Bensley) and Frank Burke (Trevor Kent) – were introduced, transferred to Wentworth for their safety after preventing an escape at their men's prison. Near the end of the season, as Myra Desmond and Reb Kean had a final confrontation over the top-dog position Ann Reynolds received poison-pen letters and death threats. She and Meg Morris were kidnapped, left gagged and bound in a crumbling warehouse laden with bombs and trip-wire booby-traps. In the season cliffhanger, Myra revealed that Reb was a fake and newly arrived inmate Yemil Bakarta (Maria Mercedes) ran to the recreation room to tell them to save Pixie as Lou, Alice and Frances Harvey (Wanda Davidson) were beating her in her cell.
The 1985 season began with Reb Kean being transferred to Blackmoor after fighting with Myra and promising Joan that she would be back for her. Pixie Mason was raped by male inmate Frank Burke, and lapsed into a coma. McRae had an affair with Myra Desmond, and Delaney married Marlene Warren. Lou Kelly tried several times to kill Myra Desmond in her bid to become top dog, and tried to kill Joan Ferguson with a home-made gun.
Around episode 534, Delaney and Warren's prison wedding coincided with the departure of a number of characters: the male prisoners, Marlene Warren and Judy Bryant. The Freak was hospitalised for emergency brain surgery when she experienced blackouts after Frank Burke dropped a prison-library bookcase on her head. The women (led by Myra Desmond) used this in an unsuccessful plan to get rid of her, beating Lou Kelly and framing Joan for the assault. Joan was fired until a penitent nun, inmate Sister Anita Selby (Diane Craig), spilled the beans to Ann Reynolds. The Freak was reinstated amid stricter security, and Reynolds refused to acknowledge Desmond as top dog following the incident.
Episode 536 was a flashback episode, with clips from the show's past as the remaining women reminisce. A mass transfer from Barnhurst after a riot, fire and the off-screen death of Bea Smith introduced five new inmates: Nora Flynn (Sonja Tallis), a reformed triple murderer; aging cat burglar May Collins (Billie Hammerberg) and her partner in crime, former fence Willie Beecham (Kirsty Child, who played a corrupt prison officer who was later incarcerated and murdered in the prison in early episodes); garden-loving misfit Daphne Graham (Debra Lawrance) and the shy, intelligent thief Julie Egbert (Jackie Woodburne).
The Ballinger siege story arc, which began with the introduction of the Barnhurst Five, happened when staff and inmates were held hostage by armed mercenaries who broke into the prison to free remand prisoner Ruth Ballinger (Lindy Davies) on the orders of her drug-baron husband. Surrounded by police, the mercenaries took the women and officers Joan Ferguson and Joyce Barry captive and threatened to shoot a hostage every hour until they received safe passage out of the country. The siege ended in an airfield shoot-out with Joan as a hostage and the shocking death of Myra Desmond, who gave her life to save the other women.
Other characters introduced during the season were Ann Reynolds' daughter Pippa (Christine Harris) and her former schoolmate, Jenny Hartley (Jenny Lovell), who ended up in H Block on remand when she was accused of murdering her wealthy grandmother. Meg Morris became engaged to fellow officer Dennis Cruickshank, but the relationship ended when escapee Frank Burke shot and paralysed Cruickshank. Fellow officer Joyce Barry left her husband (who died soon afterwards) and moved in with prison chef Mervin Pringle; they married during the final season. Joan Ferguson began an ill-fated relationship with fellow officer Terri Malone (Margot Knight, who previously played inmate Sharon Gilmour). Six months later the Barnhurst Five was down to one, when May Collins was killed and Willie Beecham pardoned; both were released to participate in a police sting which went awry. Of the Barnhurst transferees, only Julie Egbert remained in the series. Terri Malone, Pippa Reynolds and Jenny Hartley left in quick succession soon after Pippa married lawyer Ben Fulbright (Kevin Summers).
Storylines after the siege were lower-key, with Nora Flynn a peaceable top dog after Myra's death. By the end of the season, the story arcs became livelier and included the return of Reb Kean as a timid, meek figure after 27 rounds of ECT and torture at Blackmoor. Officer Joyce Barry was severely beaten by Eve Wilder (Lynda Stoner), who framed the forgetful Reb. Ann Reynolds questioned her position after May Collins' death, and she resigned as governor. Nora Flynn, tired of the prison's power struggles, escaped and was murdered by a criminal-hating psychotic. In the season's cliffhanger Eve Wilder's lawyer, David Adams, told her he can no longer continue with her case and shot himself.
Prisoner's last season revolved around the conflict between the Freak and a new challenger, brash biker Rita "The Beater" Connors (Glenda Linscott), who takes over as top dog after previous incumbent Lou Kelly clashed with temporary governor Bob Moran (Peter Adams) and incited a riot. Following the episode-600 riot Alice Jenkins became friends with Rita, who formed a prison gang (the Wentworth Warriors) which included Lexie Patterson, Julie Egbert Jackie Woodburne, demure housewife Nancy McCormack (Julia Blake, on remand for killing her husband but covering up for her son), biker chick "Roach" Waters (Linda Hartley) and con artist Lorelei Wilkinson (Paula Duncan). After working with former inmate Ettie Parslow running a block of flats for wayward youngsters, Ann Reynolds returned to Wentworth as governor. Bob Moran was made her deputy and Meg Morris was demoted, this was reversed after a wildcat strike action organised by the Freak. Shortly afterwards, the Freak deposed Meg Morris and became deputy governor against Ann Reynolds' wishes. Ferguson began plotting to bring down Reynolds, working with the Minister for Corrective Services, Julie Egbert's future mother-in-law and corrupt inmates to win the governorship. She briefly obtained Reynolds' job, until the Minister began to realise she was not to be trusted. Rita's gang burnt down Ferguson's uninsured house in retaliation, leaving Ferguson turning to male friend Andrew for support. After Ferguson refused to be blackmailed into bringing heroin into the prison Andrew was murdered, and she turned to the police. Julie Egbert was transferred to Barnhurst after her wedding to doctor-turned-prison-handyman Steve Ryan (Peter Hayes).
In addition to the Freak, Rita's other adversary was Kath Maxwell (Kate Hood), a middle-class friend of Bob Moran who retaliated against Rita for her brutal initiation to prison life because of her crime: the mercy killing of her terminally-ill daughter. Kath became a strong contender for the top-dog role with her monopoly on prison contraband rackets, and was supported by comic-loving cellmate Merle Jones (Rosanne Hull-Brown). Other inmates to arrive in 1986 included sneering racketeer Rose "Spider" Simpson (Taya Straton) and blackmailing call-girl Lisa Mullins (Nicki Paull and Terrie Waddell). Kath's relationship with Moran lead to his resignation from Wentworth. The officers' ranks were bolstered by three trainees: Meg Morris' son Marty Jackson (Michael Winchester), Delia Stout (Desiree Smith) and Rodney Adams (Philip Hyde), who begab to emulate Ferguson in an attempt to climb the ladder at Wentworth.
Rita tried several times to murder the Freak, sabotaging a work-release project on a boat, stranding the women and leaving Ferguson lost when she went for help. While in charge of Wentworth for a day, the Freak transferred Rita to Blackmoor, where she encountered the sadistic governor Ernest Craven (Ray Meagher). After inciting a riot at the prison in which her brother was shot dead, Rita started a fire which lead to the mass transfer of prisoners to Wentworth. Craven conspired with Ferguson to oust Reynolds once and for all. He ordered the brutal rape of Lorelei Wilkinson, threatening to kill her child unless she covered for him. Reynolds was dismissed, and Ferguson became governor. Craven tried to kill Rita, which lead to his death at the hands of Wilkinson (who became catatonic and was transferred to a mental hospital). Young aboriginal inmate Sarah West and her social worker, Pamela Madigan (a friend of Ann Reynolds) were subjected to extreme racism; when Craven arrived at Wentworth, Madigan had West transferred to Barnhurst for her own safety. With Craven dead, Ferguson dismissed Meg Morris, Joyce Pringle and Marty Jackson, who conspired to expose her corruption. With the help of an investigative TV show, Ann Reynolds reinstated as governor with Meg as her deputy and all return to the prison. Ferguson resigned, but on learning that former prisoner Willie Beacham was a powerful businesswoman who had blacklisted Ferguson from all employment, Ferguson threatened the Minister with exposure and was reinstated as an officer at Wentworth.
Ratings had been declining for some time, continuing to fall in 1986, and Network Ten decided in July not to renew the series. Production ended on 5 September, and the final episode aired on 11 December 1986. The producers had several weeks' notice that the series was ending, enabling them to construct strong concluding storylines (including the ultimate defeat of Joan "the Freak" Ferguson). Prisoner's final episodes dealt with the redemption of the misunderstood Kath Maxwell and concluded the ongoing dynamic between Rita Connors and Joan Ferguson. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Rita conspires with a disillusioned Joan to rob a building society but all was not what it seemed.
|Season||Year||Original broadcast||Time slot||No. of episodes|
|Season premiere||Season finale|
|1||1979||February 27, 1979*||November 28, 1979||Tuesday & Wednesday 8:30 pm
Tuesday & Wednesday 7:30pm (ep 166 to 204 only)
|2||1980||January 22, 1980||November 12, 1980||86||80–165|
|3||1981||February 4, 1981||November 11, 1981||81||166–246|
|4||1982||February 9, 1982||November 9, 1982||80||247–326|
|5||1983||February 1, 1983||November 3, 1983||Tuesday & Thursday 8:30 pm||90||327–416|
|6||1984||January 17, 1984||November 8, 1984||89||417–505|
|7||1985||January 24, 1985||November 5, 1985||83||506–588|
|8||1986*||January 9, 1986||December 11, 1986||104||589–692|
- Episode one premiered on 26 February 1979 in the Sydney region.
- Season eight finished broadcast in 1987 in some regions.
Spin-offs, remakes, and specials
Willow B: Women in Prison
A pilot for an unproduced American version of Prisoner was produced in 1980, entitled "Willow B: Women in Prison". The cast included Ruth Roman, Virginia Capers, Carol Lynley, and Sally Kirkland. The pilot aired on ABC-TV on 29 June 1980.
In March 2012, it was announced that Foxtel would produce a contemporary "re-imagining" of Prisoner, Wentworth, set in modern-day Australia. Wentworth recounts the rise of Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) from her arrival at Wentworth as a remand prisoner to "top dog". The series is filmed at a new, purpose-built prison set in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton.
Wentworth features contemporary versions of vintage characters a new characters. Characters and cast members include Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), crime matriarch Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade), Liz Birdsworth (Celia Ireland), Doreen Anderson (Shareena Clanton), Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva), Sue "Boomer" Jenkins (Katrina Milosevic), social worker Erica Davidson (Leeanna Walsman), officer Will Jackson (Robbie Magasiva), officer Matthew Fletcher (Aaron Jeffery), deputy governor Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson), and governor Meg Jackson (Catherine McClements).
None of the original cast was initially scheduled to return for the first series, but on 29 November 2012 it was confirmed that Anne Charleston (who appeared in the original series) would make a guest appearance. Wentworth premiered in Australia on Foxtel's SoHo channel on 1 May 2013. On 5 June 2013, it was announced that Foxtel had ordered a second season.
In 1980 Saturday Night Live aired a parody of the series, "Debs Behind Bars". In the sketch, the inmates (including guest host Teri Garr) are spoiled debutantes who complain about "icky" living conditions in prison. During the early 1990s, Seven Network's comedy sketch program Fast Forward parodied Prisoner; Gina Riley (Bea Smith), Jane Turner (Lizzie Birdsworth), Magda Szubanski (Doreen) and Marg Downey as officer (Joan Ferguson) gave scenes from the series a comedic twist.
In 1991, Prisoner was reprised for the American market as Dangerous Women. The US version borrowed heavily from the Australian original for characters. In Dangerous Women the emphasis was outside the prison, focusing on the prisoner relationships in a halfway house. It is remembered now mainly for the early appearance of actor Casper Van Dien in the role of Brad Morris. In 1997 Prisoner was revised in a German-language version, Hinter Gittern – Der Frauenknast (Behind Bars). The series ran from 1997 to 2007, for 16 series and 403 episodes.
There have been several tie-in books and video and DVD releases. Prisoner's theme song ("On the Inside", sung by Lynne Hamilton) reached number one in Australia in 1979 and peaked at number three on the UK Singles Chart in 1989. "On the Inside" was re-released as a digital download and CD single in March 2012. The song was featured as a B-side on punkabilly group The Living End's EP, Second Solution/Prisoner of Society.
In 1980 the Prisoner cast, led by Equity representative Val Lehman (Bea Smith), went on strike due to the content of tie-in paperback novels in the United States: soft-core pornography at odds with the series. Six books were published: Prisoner: Cell Block H, The Franky Doyle Story, The Karen Travers Story, The Frustrations of Vera, The Reign of Queen Bea and The Trials of Erica.
Two behind-the-scenes books were published in the UK during the early 1990s. Prisoner: Cell Block H – Behind the Scenes was written by Terry Bourke and published by Angus & Robertson Publishers, who published similar books about Neighbours and Home and Away. Bourke documents the show's genesis and development, and the book has many stills and character profiles. Hilary Kingsley's Prisoner Cell Block H – The Inside Story emphasises plot and characters. Both are rife with factual and typographical errors.
A limited-edition book, The Inside Story, was published in 2007 as part of the full-series DVD release in Australia. Written by TV journalists Andrew Mercado and Michael Idato, the commemorative book has the series' background, year-by-year storylines, character details and quotes by cast and crew. It was available as part of The Complete Collection DVD set. Behind the Bars, a companion book, was published in summer 2013.
The show had a cultural impact during its original screening. Prisoner was successful in a number of countries, particularly the US (where it was the first major breakthrough for an Australian series). A UK Prisoner fansite was established in 2005, supported by series distributors FremantleMedia. The website has a large amount of information about the show and sells Prisoner merchandise. In December 2007 the website introduced a subscription membership giving members access to cast interviews, Prisoner out-takes and rare cast and production photos. Future plans include a Prisoner magazine. The website gets about 80,000 hits a week.
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The show has a cult following in Sweden, where it has been shown on TV4 beginning in 1994 as Kvinnofängelset (Women's Prison). A fan club organises an annual get-together, and collected several thousand signatures (including that of actress Elspeth Ballantyne) to convince TV4 to repeat the show in 2000. After the series ended that year, work began to persuade TV4 to air the show again. TV4 originally screened the series in a late-night (01:00) slot three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, airing the final episode on 3 February 2000. During a repeat run from 2000 to October 2004, Prisoner aired at 02:15 four times a week: Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The episodes were repeated over the weekend: the Monday and Tuesday episodes on Friday and the other two on Saturday. In May 2014 TV4 Guld began rerunning the series again Monday to Thursday at 22:00, with episode 32 shown on 3 July. The broadcast schedule was later changed to five nights a week at 00.00.
A stage version of Prisoner, based on the original scripts, was produced in 1989 and toured the United Kingdom. Elspeth Ballantyne (Meg Morris) and Patsy King (Erica Davidson) reprised their characters and Glenda Linscott (Rita Connors) played a new character, Angela Mason. A second tour, with Fiona Spence (Vera Bennett) and Jane Clifton (Margo Gaffney), followed in 1990; Jacqui Gordon (Susie Driscoll) played new character Kath Evans.
A musical version followed, with Maggie Kirkpatrick reprising her role as Joan (the Freak) Ferguson and Lily Savage as an inmate. The musical, a parody of Prisoner's kitschier aspects, toured and had a West End run in 1995 and 1997. Val Lehman (Bea) was critical of the production, questioning why a drag queen would be in a women's prison.
Due to Prisoner's popularity in the UK during the late 1980s, its British fan club organised personal-appearance tours for several actresses including Val Lehman (Bea Smith), Carol Burns (Franky Doyle), Betty Bobbitt (Judy Bryant), Sheila Florance (Lizzie Birdsworth), Amanda Muggleton (Chrissie Latham) and Judy McBurney (Pixie Mason). A TV special, The Great Escape, was produced in 1990. The programme, which featured Val Lehman, Sheila Florance, Amanda Muggleton and Carol Burns on their 1990 UK visit, includes extensive footage of their on-stage interview with TV presenter Anna Soubry in which the cast members discuss their time on the series. Recorded at the Derby Assembly Rooms in Derby, it was briefly available in the UK on VHS video.
Several Prisoner actors have appeared in British stage drama and pantomime, including Val Lehman (The Wizard of Oz, Beatrix Potter and Misery), Peta Toppano, Fiona Spence, Maggie Dence (Bev Baker), Debra Lawrance (Daphne Graham), Linda Hartley (Roach Waters), Ian Smith (Ted Douglas) and Maggie Millar (Marie Winter). In 1997 a Prisoner clip from its second episode (Franky Doyle and Lynn Warner's fight in the garden) appeared on the BBC sitcom Birds of a Feather, and the series was mentioned several times during Birds of a Feather's seven-and-a-half-year run. The theme song was played briefly in episode three of BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave. Prisoner has also been referenced in British sitcoms 2Point4 Children, Absolutely Fabulous and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, and the soap operas Coronation Street and EastEnders.
ITV regional scheduling
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Prisoner began airing on Yorkshire Television in October 1984, with the service cutting scenes involving hanging (including the attempted hanging of Sandy Edwards and the hanging of Eve Wilder). Yorkshire also heavily edited the episode-326 fight scene with Joan and Bea. Several other regions also cut scenes deemed inappropriate despite its time slot, well past the 21:00 watershed.
The TVS region followed in October 1985. In 1987 Central, Thames, Scottish and TSW began the series; most other regions began broadcasting it in 1988, nearly two years after it finished production). Ulster began broadcasting Prisoner in late 1989.
Each ITV region decided when (and how often) Prisoner would be broadcast. Channel Television began the series on 16 January 1986 with episode 10, when it aligned its schedule with TVS; it was previously aligned with TSW. Regional alignment meant that around the end of 1992, some episodes were skipped; Tyne Tees skipped 293 and 294 and Border Television omitted 71 episodes, 477 to 547.
Central Television increased to three episodes weekly, finishing on 16 December 1991 before rerunning it. Most other stations also completed the series: Granada Television on 9 February 1995, Grampian Television on 11 March 1996, HTV on 25 April 1996, STV on 19 November 1996 and Tyne Tees on 7 April 1997. When Border, Grampian and Granada TV screened the final episode in the UK, continuity announcer John McKenzie conducted a telephone interview with Maggie Kirkpatrick (Joan "the Freak" Ferguson).
Some UK regions did not see the entire series; in Ulster, Prisoner ended with episode 562 on 15 December 1997. In London, where the series ran on Thames and Carlton Television, viewers were told after episode 598 on 20 August 1998 that the series would resume after a summer break; it never did. The last ITV Prisoner episode was shown on Meridian (formerly TVS), which finished an initial run with episode 586 on 12 July 1999.
The ITV regions inserted two commercial breaks into each episode, for three parts per show. The breaks were usually inserted at the second and fourth breaks in Australia. At the end of the show, the cliffhanger would lead into the end credits (unlike Australia, where a sixth break was inserted on later episodes). The Australian sponsorship was removed from the end credits; the picture would blank for a moment before resuming at the Reg Grundy and copyright pages, as the song continued uninterrupted. The time lost to the sponsorship removals resulted in the closing-credits tune seldom being played in full.
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Early on 31 March 1997 Channel 5, which had begun broadcasting at 18:00 the previous evening, began a full run of Prisoner while later episodes were still appearing in many ITV regions. Except for an airing of the fire episode (326), as part of a 1995 Channel 4 soap weekend, it was the series' first UK network broadcast and gave some areas their first full run of the series. Although the schedule varied during the Channel 5 run, episodes were typically shown about five times a week in the 04:40 slot. It briefly moved to a late-night slot, usually around 23:30, before returning to the 04:40 slot. The Channel 5 run ended on 11 February 2001, with a double bill of the penultimate and final episodes. Channel 5 have no plans to re-run the series, despite viewer requests. For most of the Channel 5 run the programme was sponsored by Pot Noodle, with humorous Prisoner-esque sequences (set in a prison cell and playing on the series' wobbly scenery and props) played before and after the episodes and in the leads into and out of commercial breaks.
The Channel 5 broadcasts included commentary over the closing credits, usually from chief continuity announcer Bill Buckley but sometimes from deputy announcers such as Stuart McWilliam. This began in the early-100s episodes (when Prisoner briefly moved to the late-night slot), when Buckley would deliver a quip about the episode before making continuity announcements. This developed into humorous observations about the episode just shown, and the reading of letters and depicting of trivia sent in by viewers (which Buckley called "snippets"). Due to its early-morning slot, when most viewers relied on VCRs to follow the series, upcoming schedule changes were announced as part of the commentary.
In Canada, Prisoner began airing at the end of 1979 as Caged Women. The series began in New Zealand in 1981 on TV One, and was later rerun on SKY 1. In South Africa, public-television channel SABC 1 began airing the series in 1998; it was cancelled on 2 October 2000, after episode 156.
In the United States (as Prisoner: Cell Block H), the series was first aired on KTLA in Los Angeles on 8 August 1979. Shown Wednesdays at 8 pm, it was the first Australian series broadcast in US prime time. It ran in New York on WPIX from 1980 to 1981, when it was cancelled after episode 274. Beginning in 1980 it was aired on WLVI in Boston, on KYW-TV in Philadelphia from 1980 to 1984, on KTVU in San Francisco, KOB in Albuquerque and from 1980 to 1983 on WTTG in Washington, D.C.
Network Ten began rerunning Prisoner on 8 May 1995; the series was cancelled, despite promises that it would return after the 1996 Christmas break. BBC UKTV began airing it from the beginning on 30 November 1997, at 00:15 on Tuesday and Thursday and 23:30 on Saturday and Sunday. A repeat was broadcast at 14:00 on Monday.
The 111 channel began the series at 18:30 AEDT on 7 March 2011, moving to 17:30 AEDT on 10 December 2012; each episode was repeated the following afternoon, and the final episode aired on 11 November 2013. The next day, the channel returned to episode one at 15:00 AEDT, moving to 13:00 AEST on 7 July 2014. Foxtel holds unlimited screening rights to the series until 2017, and the series' popularity on 111 inspired plans for a modern-day remake.
Believing that Prisoner would resonate with new audiences, in 2010 111 group programming director Darren Chau planned to replay the series against the introduction of digital channel Eleven and Network Ten's plan to move Neighbours to Eleven. The channel ran a promotional campaign highlighting the rerun, with a new version of the theme song by Ella Hooper and a cast reunion.
Awards and nominations
- Best Lead Actress in a Series — Carol Burns (1980)
- Best New Drama Series — Prisoner (1980)
- Best Lead Actress in a Series — Sheila Florance (1981)
- Best Drama Program — Prisoner (1981)
- Most Popular Show in Victoria — Prisoner (1981)
- Most Popular Actress — Val Lehman (1982)
- Best Lead Actress in a Series — Val Lehman (1982)
- Best Drama Program — Prisoner (1982)
- Best Lead Actress in a Series — Val Lehman (1983)
- Best Supporting Actress in a Series — Sheila Florance (1983)
- Most Popular Show in Victoria — Prisoner (1985)
- Nominated:—Gold Logie Award for Best Personality on Australian Television — Val Lehman (1980)
- Nominated:—Gold Logie Award for Best Personality on Australian Television — Val Lehman (1981)
- Nominated:—Best Supporting Actress in a Series — Betty Bobbitt (1982)
- Best Sustained Performance by an Actress in a Series — Carol Burns (1979)
- Special Commendation Outstanding Ensemble Acting — Val Lehman, Sheila Florance, Colette Mann and Betty Bobbitt (1981)
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series — Anne Phelan (1984)
- Best Series Actress — Anne Phelan (1985)
- Best Sustained Performance — Gerda Nicolson (1985)
- Certificate of Commendation — Maggie Kirkpatrick (1985)
- Certificate of Commendation — Genevieve Lemon (1985)
- Certificate of Commendation — Joy Westmore (1985)
- Best Drama Serial — Prisoner (1986)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Series — Glenda Linscott (1986)
- Sammy Awards
- Best Actress in a Series — Sheila Florance (1980)
Official Prisoner Awards
|Greatest Prisoner Year||1982|
|Greatest End-of-Year Cliffhanger||1982 season finale|
|Greatest Top Dog||Bea Smith|
|Greatest Prisoner Screw||Joan Ferguson|
|Greatest Villain Inmates||Nola McKenzie|
|Greatest Escape Attempts||The Tunnel Escape|
|Most Shocking Death||Myra Desmond|
|Most Popular Male Character||Jim Fletcher|
|The Greatest Prisoner Storyline||The Great Fire|
|Funniest Moment||Laughing Gas|
|Greatest Characters You Love to Hate!||Alison Page|
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- "Foxtel commissions new Prisoner series, titled /Wentworth". if.com.au. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
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- Prisoner:Cell Block H, retrieved 17 January 2016[not in citation given][dead link]
- "'Lily Savage' star takes over as Chitty Childcatcher – News". whatsonstage.com. Retrieved 10 April 2012.[dead link]
- "Cell Block The Great Escape 1990". Youtube. November 11, 2013. Retrieved April 22, 2016.
- "Prisoner Cell Block H Tour 1990: The Great Escape [VHS]". Amazon.co.uk. Retrieved April 22, 2016.
- "Connections". Imdb. Retrieved April 22, 2016.
- "Re-live one of Australia's best dramas - Foxtel Insider - What's On". FOXTEL. 3 March 2011. Archived from the original on 19 May 2013. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
- Knox, David (3 March 2011). "Prisoner cast reunite on the inside". TV Tonight. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
- Knox, David (4 March 2012). "Foxtel to remake Prisoner". TV Tonight. Retrieved 1 February 2013.