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When I was a school kid, we would rush to the TV room at the end of prep to watch Prisoner – was it on Wednesday nights? —————————————————————————

February 16, 2009 – 1:09PM

Thirty years ago, Prisoner hit our screens with a bang. Michael Idato looks back fondly on a classic.


When the Australian jailhouse soap Prisoner made its debut 30 years ago, the television landscape changed forever.

Set in the fictional Wentworth Detention Centre, it ran for 692 episodes, turned Bea, Doreen, Lizzie and “the Freak” into household names and became one of Australian television’s biggest exports.

It is remembered fondly for a rogue’s gallery of actresses, many of them big-boned, and themes and storylines that were provocative for the time. But its greatest contribution to the cultural landscape, according to former star Colette Mann, was in shattering the glass ceiling for women on television.

“Before Prisonerwe had the very gorgeous Paula Duncan and Lynda Stoner [in Cop Shop], with lip gloss and guns pressed up against the wall, and a number of women cut up the carrots for their husbands in Bellbird but, really, we hadn’t seen women as leads,” she says. “We hadn’t seen women play strong women’s roles.”

Another former star, Maggie Kirkpatrick, agrees. “We were very conscious of the strengths of playing power and commitment and it was there for all of us that we were doing something very different. Women, even in American programs, no matter how good their characters, were adjuncts to male leads. With Prisoner, it was a groundbreaking effort.”

The series took its first bow on February 27, 1979, though it had spent the best part of the previous year in development, initially as an Australian version of the critically acclaimed British drama Within These Walls, about the progressive governor of a tough maximum-security prison.

That idea was married to a report published in 1978 by the Nagle Royal Commission into prisons in NSW, which landed in the lap of veteran executive producer Reg Watson (The Restless Years, The Young Doctors). It painted a damning portrait of the corrective services administration and recommended a wide range of reforms.

Watson brought in producer Ian Bradley, who, with writers Denise Morgan and Michael Brindley, shaped what became Prisoner.

“It was an amalgam of a show idea and some research, which wasn’t really much of a show,” Bradley recalls. “What we took from the research, however, was that everybody was a Prisonerof their environment – both the officers and the prisoners – and that is how we laid the foundations for the show.”

A labyrinthine set, which included the cellblock, laundry, governor’s office and recreation and dining rooms, was built at Channel Ten’s studios in Nunawading, Victoria, while the writers worked on a cast of characters writ large from the archetypes of prison life – murderess and “top dog” Bea (Val Lehman); institutionalised Doreen (Mann), who was under the spell of lesbian biker Franky (Carol Burns); alcoholic recidivist Lizzie (Sheila Florence); and happy hooker Marilyn (Margaret Laurence). Guarding them were the warders – gentle Meg (Elspeth Ballantyne) and cruel Vera (Fiona Spence), whom the inmates nicknamed “Vinegar Tits”, and elegant, intellectual governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King), unmistakably based on Googie Withers’s governor Faye Boswell in Within These Walls.

Led by a massive marketing campaign – “If you think prison is tough for a man, imagine what it’s like for a woman?” – Prisonerhit Australian screens like a tornado. Mann describes it as “a sort of Underbelly of its day in that everybody knew it was coming up and every woman wanted to be in it”.

The Sydney Morning Herald declared the series “stirring stuff, intelligently written and brilliantly acted”, praising the casting of theatre actresses over the “tired old faces from the soap operas” and its scriptwriting, which “sparkles with freshness and originality”.

It was like being in the eye of a storm, Lehman says. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says. “You don’t realise the power of it as much when you’re in the middle of it as you do when you look back on it.”

The commercial success of Prisonerwas unprecedented. A telemovie, The Franky Doyle Story, was produced from re-edited footage and the series was sold to the US, where a series of tie-in novels were published, and in Britain, where Lynne Hamilton’s theme song, On The Inside, became a hit and episodes were released on the then-new VHS video format.

In Australia, the Ten Network aired PrisonerIn Concert, and a spin-off, Punishment, set in a men’s prison. The former was aired once and never repeated (for good reason, frankly) while the latter is noteworthy only because it marked the screen debut of Mel Gibson as PrisonerRick Monroe.

Prisonerbecame even more successful in its fourth year when Kirkpatrick was cast as the Lady Macbeth-like officer Joan “the Freak” Ferguson, a bent screw in every sense of the phrase. She took a cut of the prisoners’ illegal rackets and paid the occasional nocturnal visit to some of her prettier charges, such as Hannah Simpson (Julieanne Newbould) and Paddy Lawson (Anna Hruby).

“I’m proud of my contribution to what I saw as a terrific drama series,” Kirkpatrick recalls. “I wasn’t worried about the nefarious nature of the old girl. It’s a job, I’m an actor and it was just 41/2 years of a very long career.”

Despite the affection lavished on the show by its fans, most critics agree the show spent its final years in steady decline largely because the producers kept trying to shoehorn new characters into the templates of long-departed favourites – the tough-loving top dog, the wily geriatric and the dizzy dumpling among them.

The Herald described the mixed fortunes of Prisonerthus: “Prisoneris a strange series which fluctuates from good to bad, from believable to ludicrous, from entertaining to abysmally boring. An innovative series to begin with [it is now] laden with characters who resemble Sherman tanks in denim tarpaulins.”

The show’s Australian life ended on December 16, 1986, with a two-hour finale in which the prison’s dying top dog, Rita Connors (Glenda Linscott), was given a rose from the prison grounds (a nod to the theme song) and the Freak was exposed, charged and locked up in Wentworth as an inmate.

It was “moving, apt, topical and brilliantly handled”, said the Herald at the time. “Prisoner, like the Freak, went out with its head held high.”

But it wouldn’t die.

Late-night repeats in Britain (the show was retitled Prisoner: Cell Block H) turned the series into a cult. It was remade in the US, where it failed, and in Germany, where it was a hit. It also spawned a stage musical in Britain.

Thirty years on, Lehman says the show has lost none of its power.

“The issues – incest, rape, murder, domestic violence – never change. They are all still there and the way we handled them, it wasn’t closeted, it was up front and out in the open,” she says.

“And the characters were identifiable. We weren’t hiding behind inches of make-up and clothes; we were very ordinary women in a very extraordinary situation.”–radio/bad-girls-broke-the-shackles/2009/02/16/1234632706023.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap2

He used to give me roses,
I wish he could again;
But that was on the outside,
And things were different then.

We'd built our world together,
With a love so clear and strong;
But that was on the outside.
Where did i go wrong?

On the inside the sun still shines,
And the rain falls down;
But the sun and rain are prisoners too,
When morning comes around.

Last night i dreamed we were together,
Sharing all the love we've known;
Til i had to face the nightmare,
Of waking up alone.

On the inside the sun still shines,
And the rain falls down;
But the sun and rain are prisoners too,
When morning comes around.

On the inside the roses grow;
They don't mind the stoney ground;
But the roses here are prisoners too,
When morning comes around.

He used to give me roses,
I wish he could again;
But that was on the outside,
An things were different then.


    • Ben Wilson
    • Posted April 30, 2009 at 5:21 am
    • Permalink

    Prisoner was and still is a fantastic show. I’ve been really grateful for the DVD releases, and have enjoyed every minute of every episode I either relived or saw for the first time. It made be old now and a bit rough round the edges but theres something about it which is so endearing and addictive!

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