Essay on Prisoner and fan cultures and how the series has
entered into spaces and contexts outside its conventional boundaries
Prisoner was an Australian soap opera about a women's prison produced by The Grundy Organisation between 1979 and 1986. In Australia it enjoyed consistently good ratings, won more than twenty major industry awards, [i] with audience figures going into decline in only its final year. [ii] It has screened in many countries, [iii] usually retitled Prisoner: Cell Block H, achieving notable success in the United States and the United Kingdom. In these overseas markets the series provoked divergent and unique reactions.
Prisoner screened in the United States from 1979 to significant success and media discussion. [iv] While the ratings suggest mainstream success, [v] the US gay community's engagement with the series dominates reports of its effect there. Shortly after Prisoner's Los Angeles premiere about forty five members of Hollywood's gay community picketed KTLA-5 protesting about the portrayal of lesbian biker Franky Doyle. [vi] Producer Reg Watson attempted to explain that the series was not anti-lesbian, a fact elucidated by ensuing episodes, and he reports that fans who continued watching made Franky into a figurehead, holding a wake when she died. [vii]
Popular engagement in several regions of the US led to a flood of fan mail and some viewers reportedly wearing "I Love Lizzie" tee shirts, [viii] in reference to the show's elderly inmate character Lizzie Birdsworth. Australian television producer Sue Masters was living in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and recalls the series had an "extraordinary following in San Francisco. People used to dress-up in clothes like the inmates wore on Prisoner, then get together at each other's houses to watch it on air." [ix] Masters would in 1984 assume the role of producer of Prisoner. In a 1997 television appearance actor Carol Burns reported that during a US promotional tour a visit to a gay nightclub revealed fans costumed as her character Franky Doyle. [x] Perhaps the paucity of lesbian characters on US television provoked this reaction? Certainly popular Australian programs Number 96 (1972-77) and The Box (1974-77) had lesbians and female bisexuals prior to Prisoner. Ironically Prisoner's US buyers asked that the lesbian angle be de-emphasised. [xi] The series has not been broadcast in the US since February 1982. [xii]
Prisoner achieved renewed success in the UK from 1988, with peak viewing figures of 10 million sometimes quoted. [xiii] These figures were despite a late night timeslot in contrast with Australian prime time [xiv] and US evening and afternoon broadcasts. [xv]
Though Prisoner had initially attracted both good and bad reviews when it premiered in Australia [xvi] and the US, [xvii] it did not experience strong sustained media scrutiny in those television markets. With its UK success Prisoner entered the nation's mainstream public consciousness. There Prisoner quickly assumed the position previously held by serial Crossroads (1964-1988) in becoming a byword for any crude, badly produced, contemptible and exploitative form of popular entertainment.
As with Crossroads, jibes about Prisoner's
alleged wobbling sets, terrible acting and ridiculous scripts became
a journalistic art form in itself. Academics Docker and Curthoy's judge
the views of Sandra Hall in her book Turning On, Turning Off:
Australian Television in the Eighties and the reviews of Marion
Macdonald in the Sydney Morning Herald as output that "likes
to reveal the critic's wit and verbal play at the expense of
contemptible popular offerings - and at the expense, often of even the
remotest accuracy of what actually happens in a program." [xviii] (While Docker and Curthoy
also place the
reviews by Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian [xix] in this category, her
reviews are actually
characterised by a good natured humour congruent with the camp
aesthetic of the series she writes about.) In their opinion Hall's
criticism of the inclusion of lesbians in the program would unlikely
have been made of an item of "high" culture. [xx]
UK critical comment on the series followed similar contours and many evaluations of the program there took a superior, moralistic and disapproving tone. [xxi] Eventually critiques of Prisoner in the UK were reduced to a mere recounting of the program's stereotypical faults rather than a description of anything in the actual series. As late as 1998 - at least twelve years after the final episode was produced and more than a decade after the series premiered on UK screens - Prisoner was still being generically described as being "famed for it's dodgy dialogue, wobbly set and acting so wooden that Pinnocchio should have been signed up for a lead role." [xxii] Any mention of the series seemed incomplete without the requisite "wobbly walls" jibe, apparently to remind readers which program was being discussed (or because the journalist had never actually seen the show).
The reputation proved to be both enduring and pervasive, and provided inspiration beyond newspaper columnists and television reviewers short on ideas. A sketch on the Hale and Pace television series got comedy mileage from the stereotype in depicting the home of the Prisoner set designer with flimsy walls and furniture collapsing around the inhabitants. When the manufacturers of snack food Pot Noodle [xxiii] sponsored Channel Five's Prisoner rerun for 12 months starting March 1998, [xxiv] the associated advertisements featured a facsimile prison set with furniture collapsing and walls swaying. This reputation persisted when Prisoner came in at number 35 in 2000 UK television special 100 Greatest TV Moments from Hell. [xxv] The wobbly walls joke was predictably repeated, but the ensuing panel discussion gave a largely approving evaluation while sequences of effective straight drama from Prisoner were shown to illustrate the program. Crossroads also featured in the special, but with clips chosen to illustrate that show's visibly flimsy sets and flubbed lines.
Why did Prisoner gain this reputation? Perhaps it stemmed from resentment over the large number of Australian soap operas then finding success on UK television, with the show becoming a lightning rod for objections to the influx of old Australian soaps. With its cast of women and the late night time slot, critics perhaps concluded the series had only a cult audience of women, lesbians and students. The show became an easy target that columnists and reviewers could mock without fear of censure from respected television figures or critics. Prisoner was a decade old by the time of its UK success and sometimes the signs of haste and economy were apparent on screen, but this was true of the other Australian shows then screening in the UK that escaped the same intense scrutiny.
At the height of its UK popularity Prisoner inspired a successful touring stage play, basically a straight drama based on early episodes of the series and featuring several original series actors. [xxvi] Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical followed. Its 1995 West End run and 1996 and 1997 national tours all starred drag character Lily Savage as a prisoner, while Maggie Kirkpatrick reprised her role of evil lesbian officer Joan "The Freak" Ferguson from the series, but with the addition of knee high leather boots.
The musical was explicitly presented as a camp comedy based more on prevalent Prisoner stereotypes than the actual series, while also parodying the sexual and sadomasochist angle of the women in prison film genre with the caged women prisoners and sadistic guards. The musical in some ways connects with Prisoner's camp sensibility, and parallels may be drawn between Savage's persona and the character of the defiant Cockney tart Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton) of the original series. However the sex and sadism elements of the musical have little to do with Prisoner itself as those elements were never the focus on the series, and were never deployed by the show to add appeal or provoke interest. Docker and Curthoys note that it is a common but mistaken belief that Prisoner was "voyeuristic, relying on images of caged and uniformed women, with a sexual suggestion of bondage." They judge that the program's portrayal of prisoners largely as ordinary women with a strong orientation towards motherhood, family, and family-like relationships locates them outside a voyeuristic image. [xxvii] Swaggering Chrissie Latham with her sexy outfits, blond hair and Cockney accent may initially have evoked a stereotypical image of a woman in prison. Yet as the series progressed the character's raison d'etre became her attempts at being a good mother to her baby, Elizabeth.
Prisoner has inspired a myriad of Internet sites, from the encyclopaedic Who's Who in Wentworth, [xxviii] to the more humorous evaluations of the Bea's Knees website (last updated 24 October 2004) [xxix]. An email group dedicated to the series, the Prisoner Mailing List, [xxx] started in 1995. This email group was very active from the late 1990s through Prisoner's repeat run in the early 2000s (as of 2008 activity has reduced to a trickle) and at its peak various aspects of the show were discussed and debated at length. Henry Jenkins describes Cassandra Amesley's observation that the continued discussion amongst Star Trek fans of plot problems, mistakes and amusing series conventions ("red-shirted security officers die") creates a new text that can "revitalise viewer interest in the series even after repeated viewings." [xxxi] A similar phenomenon could be observed on Prisoner email list where the new, modern and retrospective take on unfolding events in the show helped to sustain viewer interest in the familiar proceedings ("a new female character who associates with an officer outside the prison will soon end up behind bars!"). Overall the various debates and re-evaluations prolong enjoyment of the otherwise completed narrative. [xxxii] Spirited discussions explore why fans enjoy the series. Some bravely insist they watch only to laugh at the mistakes and series shortcomings. (The reluctance of some fans to admit they actually enjoy the program was parodied by reviewer Nancy Banks-Smith who concluded a humorous and affectionate review by noting that "of course, I don't watch it myself." [xxxiii]) Other viewers largely see beyond the show's dated and low-budget look, enjoying it basically as straight drama.
Perhaps more than any stage performance or website this email list embodies the organised fandom described by Jenkins as a forum of "theory and criticism, a semi-structural space where competing interpretations and evaluations of common texts are proposed, debated, and negotiated and where readers speculate about the nature of mass media and their own relationship to it." [xxxiv] In the mailing list the multiplicity of different uses of the series come together, finally rebutting many enduring stereotypes about Prisoner. One stereotype sometimes discussed is the belief that Prisoner enjoys an inordinately large gay and lesbian following. Perhaps as good as any analysis here is the observation of the stage tour's production assistant Lee Abbott that in Wimbledon the play was greeted with cheers, laughter and applause by an audience of "blue-rinsed ladies, professional people, lots of people from the gay community." In the English Midlands "there was complete silent concentration. Obviously the audience were enjoying it as a straight drama." [xxxv]
Originally written April 2004
First uploaded 24 November 2008
Last updated 8 February 2013
[i] Docker, John (with Ann Curthoys). "Melodrama in Action: Prisoner or Cell Block H." Postmodernism and Popular Culture a Cultural History. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, Melbourne. 1994, 260
[ii] ibid, 268
[iii] Nicolaysen, Anders. "Prisoner Worldwide." Wentworth Web - an unofficial Prisoner Cell Block H website. 26 April 1999: http://home.swipnet.se/wentworthweb/wentworthweb/worldwide.html, 24 November 2008.
[iv] Bourke, Terry. Prisoner: Cell Block H - Behind the Scenes. Angus and Robertson: London. 1990, 74-7
[v] ibid, 75
[vi] ibid, 74-5
[viii] Bourke, op. cit., 76-7
[ix] ibid, 77
[x] Where Are They Now? Channel 7, Australia. August 1998
[xi] Kingsley, op. cit., 78; 88
[xiii] Kingsley, op. cit., 7
[xiv] Docker, op. cit., 268
[xv] Bourke, op. cit., 75-6
[xvi] Docker, op. cit., 269-70
[xvii] Bourke, op. cit., 74
[xviii] Docker, op. cit., 270
[xix] Banks-Smith, Nancy. "The collected reviews by Nancy Banks-Smith on the Guardian's TV page."Who's Who in Wentworth - Prisoner: Cell Block H. 1991-96: http://www.wwwentworth.co.uk/library/banksmit.htm, 24 November 2008
[xx] Docker, op. cit., 270
[xxi] Williams, Tryst. "Is TV turning us all into Blockheads?" ic Wales. 9 March 2004: http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/women/020403features/content_objectid=14030557_method=full_siteid=50082_page=1_headline=-Is-TV-turning-us-all-into-Blockheads--name_page.html , 4 April 2004
[xxii] Rowe, Michelle. "Cell Shock H." The Mirror. 28 June 1998: Features Section, 3rd Edition (accessed at http://www.pcbh.org.uk/digest_view.php?vn_digest=689, 13 April 2004)
[xxiii] n.a. "Just add H2O." ic Wales. 19 March 2004: http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/0750expats/nostalgia/tm_objectid=14067775%26method=full%26siteid=50082%26headline=just%2dadd%2dh2o-name_page.html , 24 November 2008
[xxvi] Kingsley, op. cit., 90-1
[xxvii] Docker, op. cit., 268
[xxxi] Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge: New York and London, 1992. 76
[xxxii] ibid, 88
[xxxiii] Banks-Smith, Nancy, op. cit. (see review dated 11 July 1992)
[xxxiv] Jenkins, op. cit., 88
[xxxv] Kingsley, op. cit., 91