Prisoner (TV series)

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For the 1967 UK television series, starring Patrick McGoohan, see The Prisoner.
Missing image
Prisoner.png
The "Prisoner" logo.
Prisoner (known in the UK and USA as Prisoner: Cell Block H, and in Canada by the English title Caged Women) was an Australian television soap opera set in Wentworth Detention Centre, a women's prison. Because of its success in the UK, the series has become one of the most enduring in Australian television history.

The show has some similarities to the earlier London Weekend Television series Within These Walls, and may well have been influenced by it.

The series was created by Reg Watson and produced by the Reg Grundy Organisation and ran on Network Ten from 1979 to 1986. The show's storylines primarily concentrated on the lives of the prisoners and, to a lesser extent, the officers and other prison staff.

Within the walls of the prison, the major themes of the series were the inter-personal relationships between the prisoners, the power struggles, friendships and rivalries. When the series launched in 1978, the press advertising used the line "if you think prison is hell for a man, imagine what it's like for a woman".

While it is remembered now mainly for its campy qualities — the low budget, at-times silly storylines and tiny production values — it was hailed in its time for ground-breaking storytelling.

Contents

Themes

The themes of the show were often radical, including feminism, homosexuality and social reform. While many of the characters were played, at times, for comedy, the series had an extraordinary humanity, examining in detail the way in which women dealt with incarceration, and separation from their families.

Several lesbian characters were featured throughout the show's run, notably prisoners Franky Doyle and Judy Bryant, and prison officer Joan Ferguson. The lesbian angle was never used for titillation, rather for thoughtful and realistic storylining.

Characters

The character structure of the series rarely changed throughout the series run, even though the individual personalities and actors often did. The prison population always comprised a "Top Dog" and gang, an elderly inmate, a handful of heavies used for "muscle" and an agitant prisoner who threatened the "Top Dog"'s control.r

The major characters of the series early episodes included:

  • Bea Smith (Val Lehman), the tough and uncompromising top dog — the name given to the unofficial leader of the prisoner population — who ruled Wentworth's H Block with an iron fist.
  • Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann), a dim-witted and easily led prisoner who was briefly involved in a sexual relationship with Franky Doyle (Carol Burns).
  • Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbitt), a lesbian who deliberately committed a crime to join her lover in prison. She was initially an agitator, but later became one of Bea's allies.
  • Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance), an elderly, chain-smoking, alcoholic recidivist prisoner, who provided much of the series comic relief.
  • Franky Doyle (Carol Burns), an agitating lesbian bikie whose violent attitude stemmed from the fact that she was illiterate. Despite her popularity, she appears in only the first 20 episodes.
  • Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton), a tarty and lascivious prostitute who spent much of her time behind bars lamenting the fact that there were no men around.
  • Erica Davidson (Patsy King), the prison's governor. Davidson was a former barrister with political connections, best remembered for her clipped English accent and pompadour hairdo.
  • Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne), one of the prison's senior officers. Born in a prison herself, Jackson was often sympathetic to inmate needs, hoping to rehabilitate the prisoners. The departures of Bea Smith in September 1983 and Lizzie Birdsworth in February 1984 left Meg as the show's only remaining original cast member. Meg continued until the end of the series, making her the only main character seen through the show's entire run.
  • Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence), the acid-tongued senior prisoner officer who believed that Erica's progressive methods were wrong, and that the prisoners needed discipline and authority. Her nickname was "Vinegar Tits".
  • Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire), the prison's male deputy governor, a stern, authoritarian ex-army man who had a tendency to fall in love with his charges.

As the series progressed, a number of major cast changes followed. This is a rundown of some of the major personalities who appeared in the series throughout the remainder of its 690-episode run:

  • Joan Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick), a sadistic and corrupt lesbian prison officer known to the prisoners as "the Freak".
  • Ann Reynolds (Gerda Nicolson), who replaced Erica Davidson as governor of the prison. A former social worker, she was a progressive governor, who believed in rehabilitation.
  • Colleen Powell (Judith McGrath), a senior prison officer who rose to prominence after Vera's departure and was deputy governor for much of Ann Reynold's administration. She was fair-minded, but had a sarcastic, dry sense of humour.
  • Myra Desmond (Anne Phelan), a prisoner who replaced Bea Smith as the show's second long-running "top dog". She was a thoughtful but strong woman.
  • Margo Gaffney (Jane Clifton), one of a long line of agitators in the prison cellblock who generally played rival to the reigning top-dog.
  • Rita Connors (Glenda Linscott), a spirited bikie, nicknamed "Rita the Beater" who became the show's third long-running (and final) top dog.
  • Pixie Mason (Judy McBurney), a flighty, romantic inmate initially admitted on bigamy charges. (Mason, addicted to weddings, had married a number of men.)
  • Reb Keane (Janet Andrewartha), a tough inmate who played rival to top dog Myra Desmond. She was born into money, but rebelled against her wealthy family.
  • Alice Jenkins (Lois Collinder), a prisoner who, like many, graduated from a small non-speaking part into a more fleshed-out role. Her character, initially a thug, later mellowed.
  • Lou Kelly (Louise Siversen), a vicious prison thug — perhaps the most violent agitator in H Block, during the later years of the series. She killed Alice Jenkins mother and brother.
  • Bobbie Mitchell (Maxine Klibingaitis) Streetwise and rebellious youngster and punk during the mid-years of the series.
  • Lexie Patterson (Pepe Trevor), a loud-mouth punk and card-shark, who spent her first few months in Boy George-style garb. (With George's change in image and subsequent fall from favour occurring prior to Lexie's on-air debut in February 1985, these episodes already seemed dated at the time of first broadcast.)

Major storylines

The storyline for the opening episodes involved the arrival of two new prisoners, Karen Travers (Peta Toppano) and Lynn Warner (Kerry Armstrong). Travers had been charged for the murder of her husband, and quickly found herself the unwilling recipient of Franky Doyle's affections. Warner was charged with the abduction of a child, a prickly issue with the other inmates. (Prison populations are known for their intolerance torwards criminals who commit offences against children.)

Both prisoners quickly found themselves in the midst of a power struggle in the prison — between established Bea Smith who ran the prison's maximum security wing (H Block) and the upstart Frankie Doyle. Their power struggle ends in a prison riot in which officer Meg Jackson is held hostage, and her husband, prison psychiatrist Bill Jackson, is stabbed to death.

The storylines which drove the series used familiar elements — smuggling, personality clashes between the prisoners, a range of issue-based storylines, court cases and police investigations and escape plots.

One of the major drivers of the middle years of the series was the personality clash between Bea and Joan 'The Freak' Ferguson. The former was the prison population's benevolent 'Queen Bea', the latter was a corrupt, sadistic lesbian warder who delighted in terrorising the inmates.

Their conflict peaked in a showdown which brought the prison, literally, to the ground. In episodes 326–327 of the series, a plan was hatched to decoy the prison staff with a fire, while Smith lured The Freak into a trap.

The fire spread out of control, inadvertently overloading the prison's security system which engaged the "riot gates", leaving prisoners and staff trapped in the burning prison, while the show's two protagonists fought in what was to be a final showdown. The episodes now rank among the most popular with fans.

Analysis

Unlike many other contemporary soap operas (Dallas, Dynasty, etc.), the characters and settings were predominantly working-class. Additionally, a majority of the characters were female, over-40 and — because of the show's setting — were not played by typically glamorous TV actors. The series was praised many times for the opportunity it gave actresses who, under more conventional TV circumstances, may not have been cast in leading roles.

The first four episodes of the series were produced as a standalone mini-series, with the working title Woman in Prison. That title was never used on air, but remains on the title plates of the original studio video tape copies of the episodes. It is visually distinct by the title cards used on the commercial breaks. (In the mini-series a prison door closed over the frozen image; in the weekly series a prison gate closed across an empty prison corridor.)

The series made good use of cliffhangers, often involving dramatic escapes, crimes, and catastrophes befalling the prison and its inhabitants. For a significant period of the show's middle-run, the action was split between the prison, and a half-way house, Driscoll House. (It was named after the first inmate whom it housed, Susie Driscoll (Jacqui Gordon).)

Distribution

Prisoner was one of the first Australian soap operas exported to the UK where it was screened as Prisoner: Cell Block H. The name was changed to avoid confusion with the other well-known British series, The Prisoner. It achieved enduring success there despite much negative criticism from reviewers.

In addition to the UK and Australia, the show has also aired in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the United States of America. Its US broadcast is noteworthy for a candlelight vigil held outside the Los Angeles station which aired the show, by lesbian fans of the show, to mourn the on-screen death of biker Franky Doyle (Carol Burns).

The show has a cult following in Sweden, where it has been shown on TV4 for many years. An unofficial fan club organizes an annual get-together, and also gathered several thousand signatures (including that of Elspeth Ballantyne) to convince TV4 to continue airing the show in 2000. Now, the show has ended for the second time in Sweden and the fanclub has once again started to gather signatures to convince TV4 to air it a third time in 2005.

The show's theme song, On The Inside was released in the UK as a single on May 6, 1989, and peaked at number three in the pop charts.

Spin-offs

In 1979, a telemovie titled The Franky Doyle Story was produced. It was made using material edited from the first two dozen episodes of the series, with emphasis on the character of Franky Doyle (Carol Burns). It was the first of an intended series of telemovies. The plan was shelved when the cast took the matter to the industrial commission, who ruled that they were not being fairly compensated for what amounted to a "second use" of their work.

In 1981, a spin-off titled Punishment was produced. Punishment was a male version of Prisoner, set in the fictional Longridge prison. It was produced by Bruce Best and Alan Coleman. The series was a ratings and critical failure. Only 26 episodes were produced. It is noteworthy for the presence of a young Mel Gibson as inmate Rick Monroe.

In 1986, when the series was cancelled, a spin-off titled Barnhurst was proposed. The series would have shifted the story focus to one of Wentworth's sister prisons, Barnhurst, which was mentioned frequently in the series. Although the treatment for the spin-off was in circulation for a number of years, with a number of working titles, it was never produced.

In 1991, the series was re-versioned for the American market as Dangerous Women. The US version borrowed heavily from the Australian original for characters, but not storylines. In Dangerous Women the emphasis was shifted outside the prison, and focused on the prisoner relationships at a half-way house. It is remembered now mainly for the early appearance of actor Casper Van Dien in the role of Brad Morris.

In 1997, the series was re-versioned for the second time, this time for the German TV market. The German language version of Prisoner was titled Hinter Gittern (Behind Bars) and premiered in 1997 and, as of 2004, is still in production.

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