Prisoner: Eight Years Inside
Detailed overview of the Prisoner
Love it or mock it Prisoner has enjoyed enduring popularity in the decades since it was first produced. As with many long running serials, there are different phases a series passes through during its run with different styles and flavours and varying levels of quality. The series is perhaps the world's only television serial to prove popular in repeated screenings decades after the original episodes were produced, particularly in the UK, despite the series not appearing there until after actual production on the series had almost ceased. Thousands of fans throughout the world devote considerable time energy and money to their love of Prisoner, many religiously retaining videotaped copies of each of the 692 fifty minute episodes originally produced in Australia between November 1978 and September 1986.
The series has also spawned several theatrical spin-offs in the United Kingdom which have been successfully staged in several cities there. Shortly after its Australian premiere the series was sold to the US and successfully screened in many areas. It achieved high ratings for a couple of years, but the US saw only the show's first three years and subsequently it has been largely forgotten there. In the 2000s, all of the 692 one-hour episodes were released on DVD.
Prisoner has stood up remarkably well to criticism over the years and is indeed superior to many similarly produced television serials produced more recently with more time and more money than was available to the Prisoner producers. While much criticism seems to point out that various similar storylines were constantly re-worked throughout the run of the series this is no more the case in Prisoner than with any other series to have such a lengthy run.
During its original run in Australia, the series did garner a few good reviews (though many were quite negative) and was regularly applauded for providing meaty roles to talented actresses who were never likely to succeed on looks alone.
Prisoner was originally devised by Reg Watson and was intended as a sixteen-part serial with a definite beginning, middle and end. The initial emphasis according to publicity at the time was realism, although entertainment value played a big part too.
The original cast featured a range of contrasting character types. The show's lineup ignored the fact that in real life the majority of women prisoners are serving time for drug offenses.
Bea Smith (in for murder - was released March 1979 having served ten years)
Franky Doyle (armed robbery and murder - life sentence)
Karen Travers (murder - life sentence)
Lynn Warner (kidnapping - ten years)
Doreen Anderson (forgery, theft)
Lizzie Birdsworth (murder - had served around twenty years when the series began)
'Mum' Brooks (murder - had served 15 years and was due for parole as the series began)
Marilyn Mason (prostitution - sentence of six months)
Erica Davidson (Governor)
Vera Bennett (Deputy Governor)
Meg Jackson (Officer)
Dr Greg Miller (Doctor)
The show's other original regular character was electrician Eddie Cook.
The introduction to the series was provided by two naive and relatively innocent young women prisoners entering Wentworth. They arrive during the opening scenes of the first episode and dumbfounded shock quickly escalates to sheer terror as the twosome encounter the horrors of Wentworth: everything from the perfunctory induction to sadistic screws and unwelcoming and dangerous fellow inmates. The horrified newcomers, Karen Travers (Peta Toppano) and Lynn Warner (Kerry Armstrong), are our eyes and our introduction to the strange and unfamiliar Prison and its inhabitants.
Early scenes detail the problems of Karen and Lynn settling into Wentworth. Karen is preyed on by tough lesbian inmate Franky Doyle (Carol Burns) between romantic interludes with her former fiancé, who just happens to also be Wentworth doctor Greg Miller (Barry Quin). Lynn, meanwhile, quickly finds an enemy in tough and unsympathetic "top dog" Bea Smith (Val Lehman) who knows just how to deal with a suspected child kidnapper.
Lynn did have one friend, the wise and forgiving Mum Brooks (Mary Ward). Mum led a quiet and dignified life tending the Wentworth garden while serving a twenty-year sentence for the mercy killing of her terminally ill husband. Mum is soon released and the problems of a long term prisoner entering an unfamiliar and hostile outside world are explored. On a lighter note was a serving of sex and romance in the form of seductive blonde nymphomaniac Marilyn Mason (Margaret Laurence), cunningly enticing the prison electrician Eddie Cook (Richard Moir) into amorous trysts which quickly develop into a cute though sometimes rocky romance.
The officers were not left out of the proceedings with contrasting vignettes featuring sadistic Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence) exploring the person behind the stern facade, while nice officer Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne) deals both with teenage rebellion and a personal tragedy that underlines most emphatically the concept of giving one's life to the prison service. Patsy King enacted the prim governor Erica Davidson, a progressive but somewhat misguided academic.
Due to the envisioned short run of the series the storylines move along very quickly. These early episodes were extremely well written and produced, and are definitely a far cry from the typically padded out serial fodder of most continuing series. The early scenes have a stilted, almost theatrical feel which actually works very well considering the prison setting.
Much of the storyline progression of this period lay with hugely popular character Franky Doyle, detailing her one sided love affair with Karen Travers and her attempts at replacing Bea Smith as top dog of the prison. Finally, with Bea firmly back in place at the helm and the realisation that any relationship with Karen is pure fantasy, Franky stages a daring escape, taking along two previously under utilised members of the original regular cast, Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann) and Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance). Originally the death of Franky Doyle was to form the conclusion of the series.
After the first ten episodes the popularity of the series prompted the decision to extend it from sixteen to twenty episodes, and then into an indefinitely running serial. The production rate on the series was also increased from one hour a week to two.
With this change came the announcement that four cast members: Carol Burns, Mary Ward, Margaret Laurence and Richard Moir would be leaving. Producer Ian Bradley rejected the idea that the quality of the series would suffer. "We will be producing more, but we'll be working on twice as many days." [i]
A blow to the production at this time was the sudden death of one it directors, Graeme Arthur, leaving the show a director short. To help out, veteran actor and television director Charles "Bud" Tingwell signed on to direct some episodes. [ii]
After the first twenty or so episodes the tone and overall feel of the series changes. Previously scenes seemed to have been very carefully blocked and lit, and looked as if they had been shot using the single camera technique where each shot in the scene is carefully arranged and lit. Later the series was clearly shot multi-camera with a much flatter and more standard soap opera look. The careful lighting, staging and camera angles that had given such an effective, atmospheric look had apparently been sacrificed in the reshuffle to produce two hours a week.
As the storyline and characters had initially been devised with a foreseeable conclusion, some retooling was needed to extend the situation into an ongoing serial. As the story moves past episode 16 we begin to see a slight shift in focus and a slackening of the brisk pace while writers take stock of the situation and try to adapt the characters and situations into a continuing serial format.
Though Karen was to originally have been released at the end of the sixteen episodes her trajectory was changed to keep her in Wentworth longer. With the departures of their portrayers Margaret Laurence and Richard Moir, Marilyn Mason and Eddie Cook, involved in basically a lightweight romantic storyline, were written out of the series at their storyline's original conclusion.
Carol Burns left because she felt that she could not continue her intense characterisation of Franky Doyle at the increased rate of two transmitted hours each week, fearing that the quality of her performance (and that of the series as a whole) would suffer. One of the more senior cast members, Mary Ward who played Mum Brooks, did not have such a draining character to play, but also left the show believing that the increased workload would not be sustainable.
Margaret Laurence who played dim blond prostitute Marilyn initially had concerns about taking a "sexy" role.
"I really enjoy character roles and have done quite a few Shakespearean plays, but on television they always want to cast me as the dumb blonde. I really had to think hard before taking the Prisoner role. I don't particularly like the character of Marilyn, and I was worried it would compound the sexy label, but I finally decided to take it for a few reasons. In later episodes Marilyn has a chance to develop, so she doesn't come over as a shallow, one-dimensional character for too long. Having just returned from America - where you never turn any work down - also had an influence. And I needed the publicity to let everyone know I had returned after being away for so long and losing ground here." [iii]
Laurence had been in America for two years with her American husband, actor Brandon Smith. Smith played in three of the early 1979 episodes of Prisoner as assistant to celebrity inmate Helen Masters (Louise Pajo), even sharing one scene with Laurence. Prior to leaving for America Laurence was best known for her six month stint in Number 96 from mid-1975 to early 1976.
"I played Liz Feather, Arnold's wife, in 96 and that eventually turned into a sexy role too. It was then I started to have a problem with my looks. People here like to label you. Since then, I've been really careful about the roles I accept. I don't consider myself sexy, and I don't want to risk being type-cast." [iv]
Laurence explained that she and her husband split their time between Australia and America due to the large number of work offers her husband was receiving there. Laurence herself found it harder to find work in the US but reported she had had roles in Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, Black Sheep Squadron and Scanlin. [v]
Back on Prisoner the writers did manage to come up with some entertaining situations almost immediately. These included the return to the series of recurring bit-part prison officer Ann Yates (Kirsty Child).
Yates was the briefly glimpsed corrupt screw who would help out whenever the script needed to have contraband smuggled into prison, but the character was previously undeveloped. Now she had been fired from the prison, and reentered the storyline when she ran into Vera Bennett and struck up a friendship.
Anne Yates was now working as a drug dealer. Lonely Vera put aside her better judgment and continued the friendship, especially after starting a romance with Ann's associate George Lucas (Bill Hunter). The romance ended with George's arrest. He severed contact with her and insisted to police that Vera had been an unwitting participant in order to save her career. Meanwhile intriguing new prisoner Susan Rice (Briony Behets) showed up in Wentworth. Her effective storyline involved her mysterious association with dashing television celebrity Jason Richards (David Bradshaw).
Storylines that traced the sequence of events leading to a character's crime, arrest and imprisonment were first introduced at this point.
A new character, Catherine Roberts (Margot McLennan), joined the show as the mother of a teenage girl who was raped. After several scenes depicting the domestic dramas that ensued after the attack on the girl, Catherine killed the rapist by running him down in her car. Subsequent episodes depicted Catherine's trial and her imprisonment in Wentworth where she befriended Bea Smith.
These storylines tracing the events leading to imprisonment would be featured regularly throughout the run of the series, though some fans would rather have seen just the in-prison antics of their favourite prisoners. Indeed even the writers seemed to dislike the Catherine Roberts storyline; shortly after her trial was over she was abruptly transferred to another part of the prison and never seen again.
Though the Susan Rice story and the return of Ann Yates were enjoyable storylines, in some ways overall the series here seems to lack focus with its attempts to hurriedly introduce a range of new situations. The new storylines are short, and are not necessarily well integrated into the overall storyline: something to be expected given the recent change in production style. However as the new production routine became established things gained momentum and several effective new ongoing characters rounded out the regular cast. Bea gained a rugged lieutenant in Monica Ferguson (Lesley Baker) and an irritating adversary in scraggy career criminal Noeline Burke (Jude Kuring). Garrulous social worker Jean Vernon (Christine Amor) arrived followed by stern Deputy Governor Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire).
An authoritative army man and veteran of the Vietnam war, Jim Fletcher was a particularly effective character. He showed animosity towards most of the prisoners, was particularly disgusted by any lesbian behaviour, and he often let his personal prejudices cloud his dealings with prisoners. Frequently he showed favouritism towards lovely elderly inmates (though not the wicked recidivist Lizzie), and towards attractive middle class types who sometimes found themselves behind bars.
Jim's portrayer Gerard Maguire credited his acne-scarred skin for his repeated casting as heavy types such as the resident baddie, bikie or rapist. "In one year, I did 13 episodes Homicide, Division Four, Matlock Police, and Bluey, playing one of these characters," he told TV Week. While the script explained that Jim Fletcher had served in Vietnam, Maguire reported that it was his acne that prevented him from serving. "They wouldn't sign me up because of my skin. Tropical ulcers can cause all sorts of problems." [vi]
With these new characters quickly established we see the storylines and pace pick up again, the plots move along very quickly and various guest characters appear and disappear at a rapid rate. Memorable characters from this period include Toorak socialite Clara Goddard (Betty Lucas) in on embezzlement charges, cocky career crim Joyce Martin (Judy Nunn), Noeline's daughter Leanne (Tracy-Jo Riley), and the wife of a powerful crime boss Toni McNally (Pat Bishop). In fact there are so many different things going on during this period missing just one episode could prove disastrous. Also notable at this point is the gritty, hard-edged nature of many of the characters and events, which contrasts the softer, soapier style that seemed to creep in during the later years of the series.
Initially a rather severe and efficient professional, Governor Erica Davidson soon evolved into more a parody of a well-meaning but hopelessly naive bureaucrat. As Erica, actress Patsy King created an often humorous character, which with her towering blond hair-do and refined accent, sometimes descended to the level of caricature. As time went on we saw more of the staff politics within the prison. While Erica usually found support in caring officer Meg Jackson and varying support from tough and often cynical Deputy Governor Jim Fletcher, officious Vera Bennett would always present a hostile front, frequently at odds with all the other officers. Though Jim and Vera often seemed to have similar methods and ideals they were often rivals and rarely agreed, with Jim mainly siding with Meg.
Various storylines would explore relatively ordinary family and social aspects of Meg and Jim's lives away from the prison or their personal involvements in various prisoners. Events depicted as the source of Vera's frequently nasty demeanour would be also explored, along with subtle indications of a special Vera-Lizzie understanding. Later we would also occasionally see a guest officer patrolling the corridors of Wentworth, and any corruption or illegal activities by officers was usually handled by these interlopers who would be promptly removed from the proceedings once their nasty proclivities came to light. Wentworth, it seemed, was home to only the most ethical and law abiding of prison officers.
Karen Travers and Lynn Warner who had been the initial leads in the series had meanwhile settled into slightly lesser roles. Unfortunately as the show's storyline progressed it soon became apparent that there was little remaining storyline potential for Lynn. She was not a career criminal or recidivist prisoner. So after Lynn's main original storyline where the truth of her innocence was revealed and she was released from prison, new reasons to explain her continued presence in the storyline needed to be developed.
This was initially effective with her continued association with Doug Parker (John Arnold), a former male prisoner she had met while she was imprisoned and he was part of a visiting prisoner work party repairing Wentworth's outer fences. Lynn had fallen pregnant after being raped prior to entering prison and her family and friends had turned against the pregnant ex-jailbird, even if innocent Lynn had been raped and was innocent of the crime she was imprisoned for. Doug and Lynn married but he soon convinced her to assist him in a payroll robbery. Doug and his accomplice Bernie (Robert Thompson) were shot and killed while Lynn was captured and thrown back into Wentworth.
Unfortunately there was little material to work with when a jaded Lynn ran through the emotions of being imprisoned again, especially since she actually had committed the crime this time and would have to accept her sentence.
Lynn was written out of the series after 44 episodes and in the show's storyline she was paroled, presumably moving back to live with her parents. The show's executive producer Godfrey Philipp explained to TV Week the reasons for Lynn's departure.
"Lynn has been in the program since it started - and there's only so much we can put a character through. After all, during those 40 episodes we've had her wrongfully imprisoned and victimised by the other inmates. She's had her lover die on her and a miscarriage as well. When you think about it, there's not much else that can happen to her unless we exceed the bounds of credibility. That's why we've had to write her out of the serial." [vii]
Lynn's portrayer Kerry Armstrong went straight into a recurring role in the Crawford Productions drama series Skyways, and a long and illustrious career in television and feature films followed.
Of her relatively brief Prisoner role Armstrong later admitted that:
"The cast thought I wasn't trying as hard as I should've been, but I was. I never felt confident when I was there and I guess that was partly due to my soggy character." [viii]
The character of Lynn did seem to lack depth which limited the storylines she could realistically be involved in, and Armstrong's work here is certainly not her best acting (which is usually very good). Lynn's generally whiny character was not helped by her voice, described by Armstrong as "a high-pitched country wail" that she said was put on intentionally for the part. [ix]
The writers persevered with the character Karen with more success, and the character continued with a range of credible and engaging new storylines. This included the understated romance with her appeals lawyer Steve Wilson and the quite intriguing antics of the lecturers and fellow students she meets after being granted day-release to attend university.
Finally Karen is granted parole and we see a thoughtfully handled and quite compelling exploration of the problems facing a recently released prisoner; problems of finances and finding work and accommodation, well-meaning but misguided friends, and simply the mundane problems of settling back into normal life.
After struggling for a while Karen is rescued by stylish lesbian lawyer Angela Jeffries (Jeanie Drynan) who offers Karen support and a job and finally appoints her as live-in manager of the new halfway house, a house providing accommodation and support for recently released women prisoners.
Despite a new romantic involvement with Meg, Greg Miller remained interested in Karen and, partly as he was wary of Angela's intentions, was quite heavily involved with Karen and in the halfway house project. The halfway house provided a home for the newly paroled Doreen, and we see an effective personal storyline when Doreen's estranged mother Alice Hemmings (Anne Haddy) appears.
By the end of 1979 Monica, Noeline (though she would return the following year) and Jean Vernon had departed, while new characters in substantial roles were Pat O'Connell (Monica Maughan), a concerned and caring mum and Bea's new confidante, and the young but embittered Roslyn Coulsen (Sigrid Thornton). Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton), the despised tart who had made such a pleasing impression during the very early episodes, returned for the first of many stints in the series.
While Karen's storylines remained interesting actress Peta Toppano decided to leave at the end of 1979 and the character was written out of the series. Karen's departure also spelt the end for Greg Miller, with whom she had resumed a romantic liaison.
In all, an excellent year, with mostly thoughtful, convincing and enjoyable storylines, few goofs, and good characters and acting.
As the series continued on into 1980 the regular cast became slightly larger than before with up to three different storylines running concurrently. Guest characters that previously might appear in only a few episodes in which they would be extensively featured now seemed be around for up to three months while their particular storyline slowly pans out.
Three such characters were new prison social worker Paul Reid (George Mallaby), his wayward son Tony, and inmate Sharon Gilmour (Margot Knight). The storyline concerning Sharon Gilmour, a spiteful drug dealer and enemy of Bea Smith, was particularly memorable. Here the series began to show more complicated plotting in comparison to what had been seen before, with longer running storylines and various complex characters and events interwoven contrasting the earlier style that was characterised by a high turnover of short-lived characters in relatively brief storylines.
Unlike some of the storylines that had featured during the first year of Prisoner, much of the action of the next few years concentrated on the internal dramas of Wentworth Detention Centre. Storylines usually revolved around short-term prisoners and their interaction with the more established inmates.
The success of this period lies squarely with the popular Bea, Lizzie and Doreen trio, a perfect vehicle for all manner of storylines and enough comic relief at other times. Bea was the tough leader, Lizzie the loveable but crotchety old dear, and Doreen the wayward youngster finding support and guidance from the other two. Each had quite marked weaknesses and temperaments which, combined with their gleeful rebellion against authority, led to many explosive situations and unpredictable events over the years. Likewise the mix of officers; nice Meg, acidic Vera, stern authoritarian Jim and the progressive Erica was an ideal combination.
This dynamic worked well with effective and appealing portrayals, though it might have all been very different. Val Lehman, who became one of the program's most popular figures forever synonymous with the role of top dog Bea, reports she had initially been put up for the role of Vera Bennett.
"My agent sent me to audition for the role of the 'gestapo' style prison officer, but when the casting people saw me, they said 'we think you're Bea Smith material', so I came back for a screen test, and got the job." [x]
Meanwhile the show's makers had had much difficulty finding the right Vera, and it was the final role to be cast. During auditions actor Fiona Spence was waiting in a room adjacent to where producer Ian Bradley was on the telephone. He put his head around the door a number oftimes after hearing her voice, and after looking at her, suggested she pull her hair back - and Prisoner's Vera Bennett was born. [xi]
The producers had always agreed that drug use should not be shown and violence should be kept down, so while the prisoners mostly delighted in causing trouble, in many ways it was depicted as girls' boarding school gone wrong. There would always be more unscrupulous prisoners battling the goodies (notably Noeline Burke and Chrissie Latham during the early years) but they usually came to no good with Bea and her gang always remaining victorious. Apart from these measures, Prisoner is nonetheless one of the most consistently violent modern television serials ever produced.
The Bea, Lizzie and Doreen dynamic was soon joined by newcomer Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbit). Initially introduced as Sharon Gilmour's lover and intended as a tough but short-lived rival for Bea, Judy soon softened and became a permanent fixture in the series, eventually becoming Bea's new off-sider, though she was not always willing to accept Bea's sometimes prescriptive leadership without a fight.
The halfway house continued in the series with Rhonda West (Joan Letch) replacing Karen as manager. Lizzie was paroled and moved into the halfway house where she and Doreen continued their comical routines. Later Doreen met and eventually became engaged to Kevin Burns (Ian Gilmour). However Lizzie and Doreen were sorely missed in the inside Wentworth scenes which meant their freedom could only be short-lived.
The halfway house was also used to introduce Caroline Simpson (Ros Speirs) and her mother Vivienne Williams (Bernadette Gibson) to the main proceedings when they arrive there seeking refuge from Caroline's abusive father. Turned away by Rhonda they return home and the father ends up with a knife in his back. The two women are promptly charged with his murder and arrive at Wentworth.
Vivienne takes the familiar role of middle-class woman completely out of her depth in prison, while stylish and attractive daughter Caroline begins a romance with officer Jim Fletcher. Though it provided a more direct link to new characters destined to commit a crime and wind up in Wentworth, as well as serving as the locale for a bailed Caroline to conduct her romance with Jim, without continued sustenance from the main Wentworth crew the halfway house scenes quickly became monotonous and it soon disappeared from the storyline.
Pat O'Connell also left the series, while Jim Fletcher suffered personal and professional problems connected to his involvement with Caroline and his soured friendship with former army colleague Geoff Butler (Ray Meagher). The shocking conclusion to this storyline featured the death of his family and resulted in Jim's storyline involvement being temporarily scaled down for some weeks. Various recurring guest characters including Colleen Powell (Judith MacGrath), bookie and second-rate thug Margo Gaffney (Jane Clifton), and general prison rabble such as Phyllis Hunt (Reylene Pearce) and 'Mouse' Trapp (Jentah Sobbot) popped up in regular appearances.
With the main core cast members all in place the scene was set for a series of memorable storylines: ex-con Ken Pierce (Tom Oliver) helps the women set-up a drama group, a scheme succeeding purely because of Bea's romantic interest in him. Later crusader Ken arranged for his wayward daughter Debbie (Dina Mann) to be sent to Wentworth as an inmate for two days in an attempt to scare her straight. After an impassioned speech from Bea Smith, seems this scheme was a success. Meanwhile evil new officer Jock Stewart (Tommy Dysart) attempts to coerce Doreen into selling her mother's house after making a deal with the developers.
This period also saw the eventful appearance of artist inmate Kerry Vincent (Penny Downie), the surprise appearance of Lizzie's long-lost daughter Marcia (Judith Dick), and the shocking death of Sharon Gilmour. Sharon's demise led to a climactic protest staged in an attempt to expose the identity of her killer, a protest that famously featured the reappearance Leanne Burke, who was at this time a prisoner at Wentworth. All fondly remembered classic highlights in the series.
Soon after this Noeline Burke made her triumphant return, and with a lull in the storylines the knockabout stirrer dominated stories for a while. Pace picked up again with the women's work release at the factory becoming the major plot-thread. After an extended quiet and pensive period, Jim Fletcher slowly began returning to his normal stern self, while whiny housewife Gail Summers (Susanne Haworth) entered Wentworth as a despised new inmate. The factory plotline saw Doreen being victimised yet again, this time by gruff foreman Vince Talbot, and the storyline also introduced a suave and sinister new character in the form of the shady office manager Kay White (Sandy Gore). Meanwhile a new dimension was added to the Erica Davidson character when she was romanced by factory owner Andrew Reynolds (John Lee).
Tracey Morris (Sue Devine) was a remand prisoner charged with drug smuggling. The crime made an enemy of Bea Smith while Judy befriended a naive youngster. This friendship caused many perceived problems due to prejudice from others over Judy's lesbianism, but ultimately it was the engagement of her father Bob Morris (Anthony Hawkins) to officer Meg Jackson that prompted Tracey's transfer to Barnhurst. Then there was Jacki Nolan's (Diane Craig) association with Jim and Vera's excellently handled alcoholism storyline. Finally the tunnel escape storyline and the activities of unbalanced prisoner Anne Griffin (Rowena Wallace) took the storyline to the end of the 1980 season.
Vera Bennett had emerged as a particularly interesting character, and was in no way a one dimensional villain. Vera was generally a strict and officious stickler for the rules. Her cruel and scheming moments - she was gleefully sadistic in the earliest episodes before the character was fully developed, then agreed to smuggle in a drug filled doll to prisoner Barbara Davidson as part of a supposed set up shortly after - were often followed by guilt and misgivings. The prisoners occasionally repeated the nickname "Vinegar Tits" that Franky had initially invented for her, but generally understood that her bark was worse than her bite.
Fiona Spence shone as the socially inept spinster who was in control only in the cell blocks of Wentworth. Only there Vera had power over others, and was utterly convinced that her strict and unerring adherence to prison regulations was the proper way to run a prison. Vera judged Governor Davidson as too soft, believing the women took advantage of this, and believed she could show them all how a prison should be run - if only she had the chance.
Vera had nursed her sick but shrill and demanding mother for years, causing her to be stuck at home and be left on the shelf when it came to boyfriends and marriage. The mother dies early on in the series leaving Vera all alone. Resentful of this she decided that mere prisoners, whom she referred to as "animals", did not deserve to be mothers, and on a couple of occasions conspired to ruin prisoners' relationships with their children. Knowing that custody might be granted if prisoner Rosie Hudson (Anne-Marie MacDonald) was seen to be emotionally distraught on separation from her young son, Vera convinced the young prisoner that custody would only be granted if she remained cool, calm and level headed. Seeing the girl's blasé attitude, authorities refused to give custody. Rosie's outburst when the truth came to light led to her transfer to a mental institution.
Later, Vera similarly interfered with Pat O'Connell's relationship with her children. Several times during her run in the series Vera had enjoyed short-lived romantic interludes. Unfortunately she was terrible at picking men, frequently ending up with sinister types with ulterior motives. Vera's strong sense of morality meant that these unions would always be short-lived.
Meanwhile fellow authoritarian officer Jim Fletcher was consolidated as a key character through the 1980 season. His portrayer said of the soap role that:
"I had a very good reputation as a stage actor but due to some strange prejudices in this business, a TV series was considered beneath the dignity of a lot of actors. But when Prisoner came along I looked at the quality of the people who were involved in it and saw it was an opportunity to play a character and not be a personality. And the financial security that comes with doing a soap opera was tempting. So, after 13 years of avoiding this work I thought I'd give it a go." [xii]
Maguire had a lot of praise for the largely female cast.
"In Prisoner, more than any other series in Australia, the women exist in their own right. They're not there as somebody's girlfriend or their wife. They have their own identity. The actresses working in the series are very talented and I enjoy working with them." [xiii]
Such was the quality and popularity of the program's early episodes - and the character of Franky Doyle - that the Reg Grundy Organization in 1980 produced a TV movie entitled The Franky Doyle Story.
The movie did not contain new footage - it was created by editing together key scenes from previously transmitted episodes. However the Reg Grundy Organization hit a major snag with the special when the show's actors learned they would not be paid for their work being used in the special. They initially assumed they would be paid and when learned they would not, the cast called a stop work meeting. Three hours later, when Reg Grundy Organization had still failed to make an acceptable offer, the actors went on strike.
Grundy executives made an immediate application for an Arbitration Commission hearing in Sydney while the actors chose cast members George Mallaby and Colette Mann to represent them. Mallaby and Mann flew to Sydney to testify before the Arbitration Commission and two officials from Actors Equity spearheaded the actors' case. The hearing lasted several hours before being adjourned. The following day Grundys agreed to most of the actors' demands and the cast went back to work after being on strike for 48-hours, confident there would be no further recompiled TV movies of this type.
The incident was publicly reported by TV Week in an article in the magazine's 7 June 1980 edition, which described the two day strike as having occurred "recently". The report said the actors considered that the "bits and pieces" method was "parasitical", with the article surmising their opinion that techniques like this do not create work or jobs… for anyone. [xiv]
Paul Reid acted as Wentworth social worker for several months and was involved in many key storylines. His portrayer George Mallaby had previously left his role in Cop Shop due to stress and high blood pressure. The self-confessed "workaholic" had signed on for 13 weeks in Prisoner because the role offered greater flexibility compared to Cop Shop. Paul was not such a pivotal character and his presence was not crucial to all of the Prisoner storylines, meaning he could realistically operate as a peripheral figure in some storylines. In contrast his Cop Shop character was head of CID so realistically would have to have a reasonably large involvement in the majority of activities in the storylines of that show.
Indeed Mallaby had been promised a certain amount of flexibility to take time off from Prisoner if required and agreed to the role with hopes that the flexible schedule would mean the problems of over work would not resurface. This flexibility would also give Mallaby time to write four Prisoner scripts, as specified in his contract. [xv]
Eventually an undisclosed health scare prompted his abrupt departure from the show in June 1980. At the time of his departure Mallaby's contract was soon to expire and his character was in the process of being written out of the storyline by returning to Adelaide with son Tony. The unexpected illness prompted Mallaby's departure four episodes earlier than expected, and with no proper farewell scene in the can scripts had to be urgently rewritten to work around Paul's premature disappearance. [xvi]
In the show Paul's son Tony kept Meg up to date with all of his and Paul's plans and discussions, while an unseen Paul was said to be brooding in his office, and Tony alone was seen making the preparations to leave. Later, Paul was found to have not reported for work as expected, leaving only a resignation letter for Erica. George Mallaby himself wrote what was originally to be the final episode of his character Paul Reid, but with the illness Paul's final onscreen appearance had occurred four episodes earlier. [xvii]
In December 1980 it was revealed that it was a heart attack that forced Mallaby's sudden exit from his on-screen Prisoner role. [xviii] Mallaby had continued to contribute scripts for Prisoner after leaving the role of Paul.
In May 1981 TV Week magazine reported that the arrangement where Mallaby writes scripts for the series was terminated when he came into conflict with the Reg Grundy Organisation after he had rewritten a script, reportedly without formal permission. The program's then Executive Producer Philip East told TV Week that:
"The effects of his story had serious ramifications at that stage and affected a lot of following scripts. George didn't agree with us over a story and we had to end the arrangement. He agreed he was in the wrong. There was no falling out. It was all very mutual. We were very pleased with George's work and we didn't want to lose him. We are always looking for good serial writers." [xix]
Mallaby himself refuted the claim it was "mutual" and presented his side of the story.
"I was led to believe that I could change the script. I was led to believe that the changes I had made would improve it. Other people chose to assert themselves and it was rewritten. I was not planning to quit at all. Philip East may say that it was mutual but that is not so. I have a letter from Philip East which contradicts that." [xx]
Co-incidentally Philip East had previously been involved in a dispute with several actors during the taping of the final-ever scene for serial The Box in 1977 when they asked an element of the script be changed. East was the director of that episode, and when he refused to alter the script some of the performers made their objections apparent as the cameras rolled to tape the scene. One the actors involved in that incident was John Stanton [xxi][xxii] who replaced George Mallaby's character in the show.
At the start of the 1981 season the show's timeslot switched from the adult slot of 8.30 pm to the family-oriented 7.30 pm. For 1981, the "AO" (Adults Only) rated series was reclassified as "A" - suitable for "Adults", not children.
Producer Philip East told Brian Courtis of The Age newspaper that this change would only affect how the stories were interpreted. There would be no restriction to the subjects covered or a softening of the approach.
One problem was that work on the serial's storylines was six months ahead of broadcast. This meant a review of scripts was required before the stockpiled episodes were broadcast in the opening months of 1981. Said Philip East:
"At the moment I'm looking at the language we're using. But apart from that it's really not our intention to change any subjects we're tackling, or the way we're tackling them. The violence will stay ... but there are degrees in this, of course. We will watch, possibly, the amount of blood and other abhorrent things. But these are differences in interpretation not affecting the end result."
Of the new timeslot, East admitted it was not the most appropriate for the serial.
"Well, personally, I would prefer the later spot. It's easier at 8.30 pm. I believe it's an 8.30 programme myself, but I'll be guided by the wisdom of people who supposedly know about the programming of television."
Philip East also summed-up the format of the series with its band of regular characters and regular turnover of guest characters. The key to the program's success, East felt, was viewer engagement with the show's regular characters.
"It's not the story itself, it's how the story affects those characters they have come to know and, hopefully, love that matters. Other actors that come in and out act as catalysts. When we are designing stories, we always look at the effect those newcomers have on our characters, rather than the reverse." [xxiii]
After the first two weeks of ratings for 1981 it was reported that Prisoner had "lost ground" at 7.30 pm. [xxiv] It was returned to the 8.30 pm slot later that same year.
Fitting the change to 7.30 pm the 1981 episodes seemed to be aiming for entertainment and excitement with less emphasis on social commentary or realism. While many of the 1980 stories had been thoughtful and serious, the 1981 episodes were less so. However the show's quality was sustained. Stories remained enjoyable with some great highlight storylines appearing during this period.
These included the appearance of journalist Sandra Hamilton (Candy Raymond) who had herself imprisoned hoping to get the scoop on the recent tunnel escape. Of her six-week stint in the serial Raymond told TV Week that "Prisoner and The Sullivans are my favourite TV series. They are of high quality and the cast members are very professional." [xxv]
Then self-righteous herbalist Evelyn Randall (Julia Blake) was imprisoned after being accused of poisoning a patient, and was ridiculed by the prisoners as a quack. The presence of idealistic new prison teacher David Andrews (Serge Lazareff) did little to help the mood of ambitious and spiteful union-representative Colleen Powell, although David had some success with rebellious young prisoner Georgie Baxter (Tracey Mann).
Young prisoner Jenny Armstrong (Sally Cooper) serves time in prison in lieu of paying a fine, but when Georgie attacks her she promptly pays the fine and is released. However news soon comes through that recent international traveler Jenny might have been infected with a mysterious tropical disease. Sure enough inmates and staff soon begin to fall ill and a quarantine of the prison is instituted.
Evelyn comes to the rescue with herbal remedies that quickly cure the tropical fever, however attending physician Dr Granger (Peter Regan) quickly discovers the shocking truth behind the disease and the cure.
Elderly Sid Humphrey (Ed Hepple) began as prison handy man providing a romantic storyline for Lizzie while vicious Vera, rather smitten with an attentive David and friendly with jolly Sid, softened considerably.
Margo Gaffney got a major storyline of her own when she was released and made a concerted effort to go straight... unfortunately she was soon involved in a failed payroll grab with dim boyfriend Wayne Bradshaw (Vincent Gil).
Next came Bea Smith's abrupt transfer to Barnhurst. The action at this point briefly extends to the rural prison and there we meet that prison's top dog Marie Winter (Maggie Millar) for the first time. This was quickly followed Bea's unforgettable amnesia storyline which included the return of the Mum Brooks character. Despite being rather far-fetched, this was one of the best storylines ever seen in the series, an excellently handled further exploration into the character of Bea with the acting of Val Lehman and Mary Ward riveting.
It is perhaps at this point that the series seems to be moving into its next phase. After her involvement with the hostage dramas that ensued after Margo's bungled payroll robbery, Meg was convinced (mainly by husband Bob) to switch jobs and become a parole officer, which she promptly did. Though she continued to make regular appearances within the prison Meg had many other outside storylines during this period thus opening her character up to new stories such as her over-involvement with sulky young parolee Nick Clark (Ned Manning) and also making her more accessible to events occurring outside Wentworth, as seen during Bea's amnesia plotline.
Terry Harrison (Brian Hannan) joined as a new officer. He initially seemed rather caring, supporting Bea through her amnesia and romancing Vera, however soon afterwards he rather foolishly became embroiled in some blackmail strife after trying to cultivate Margo Gaffney as an informant. He then had even greater problems when his ex-wife Kathy Hall (Sue Jones), who was apparently in trouble with a ruthless organised-crime boss, arrived in Wentworth as a prisoner. Terry was eventually revealed to not be the nice-guy he initially seemed.
Briefly seen guest characters included scheming remand prisoner Michelle Parkes (Nina Landis), a beautiful and cunning athlete who had Jim Fletcher spellbound, and the appearance of Judy's long-lost daughter Lori Young (Sussannah Fowle), which gave Judy something to do finally after a period of inactivity. Fowle had enjoyed a brief brush with fame after playing the lead role in acclaimed 1977 Australian feature film The Getting of Wisdom. At the time of her Prisoner casting she told TV Week that "for the two years Prisoner has been on air, I wanted to act in the series. Finally my dream has come true." [xxvi]
Then we got the irritating Alison Page (Fay Kelton), a troubled housewife from suburbia thrown into prison after trying to run down her husband in her car during an argument. Alison alienated inmates and officers alike by constantly asserting her superiority to the other prisoners but convincing no one. Alison filled the familiar role of the middle-class woman thrust into prison and completely out of her depth. Alison's histrionics brought out the viciousness in Vera again, after a rather thoughtful period for the officious screw.
Late 1981 saw the first major change to the show's regular line-up with the departure, in episode 224, of deliciously evil Officer Vera Bennett who had been with the series from the beginning. The move was prompted by the decision of actor Fiona Spence to leave the series in order for her to play other roles and develop new characters, and was major news many months before the event occurred on screen. Spence advised producer Philip East of her decision to finish work on the series on 5 June 1981, while TV Week speculated that the news was probably the biggest shock for Prisoner fans since the 1979 departure of actor Carol Burns who had played the cult figure Franky Doyle in the show. [xxvii]
Spence told TV Week that:
"Certainly, I've enjoyed working on the show and, therefore, I had to put a lot of thought into my decision. It's also been very nice to feel secure. I've been able to buy a house and other luxuries. But, naturally enough, I didn't go into showbusiness assuming total security, and I've left Prisoner to play other roles. It's been a lot of hard work, but I've enjoyed it enormously. I've had the opportunity in the past couple of years of working with some of the best actresses in Australia, and it's been lovely to be involved in the huge success of Prisoner both here and in America." [xxviii]
Terry Harrison had also departed. On Vera's departure recurring officer Colleen Powell became a regular character. Colleen soon made her presence felt and emerged as an officer whose temper rivaled that of Vera is her darkest moods.
In her previous, relatively brief, stints in the series, Colleen had already been seen as frequently spiteful and ambitious. Audiences had already seen her cause much angst through her overzealous application of prison - and union - rules, and she had already forced teacher David Andrews out of his job in this manner.
Immediately after Vera's departure we got another such storyline for Colleen with her terrifying clashes with middle-class inmate Alison Page and with new political-activist prisoner Andrea Hennessey (Bethany Lee). While Colleen alienated her colleagues during this period and then started a rivalry of sorts with Meg, Colleen's nasty period here lasted only a few episodes. After this Colleen settled down again, but would remain a smug and sarcastic presence. Sometimes her scheming, ambitious side would re-emerge.
Fortunately by this point the writers had also allowed Meg to return to her previous job as officer. Though the career change had initially generated some good storylines for the character, the rather limited scope of storylines in this area had by now become exhausted.
A new officer, Janet Conway (Kate Sheil), arrived soon after. She started out rather a sympathetic character and suffered the usual dramas befalling any new inexperienced officer while also playing romantic interest for Jim Fletcher. Janet's other twist was that she had previously been a remand prisoner at Wentworth, and had known Bea Smith from those days. The cosy chats between the pair made the other prisoners suspicious for awhile. Certainly Janet was a well-drawn character, and Kate Sheil good in the role. Unfortunately Janet Conway was a bit too serious, and eventually got a bit dull.
Janet's portrayer Kate Sheil described working on the show for TV Week.
"I was hesitant about accepting Prisoner because I didn't like the thought of people hassling me in the street. I've found a way out, though. I'm going to cut my hair when I leave the show. Prisoner is about the only TV series that attempts to comment on social issues, and it's a chance to work with women in their own right. I find the style of work in a soap is very difficult. You have to find a line between going over the top and playing too low. You've got to find a level otherwise you'll kill a scene." [xxix]
Sheil watched a playback of one of her early scenes but wasn't happy with it, so stopped viewing the playbacks. However it was her appearance and not her performance she disliked. "I look so old. We're not allowed to wear makeup, and the word has come through that I'm not allowed to curl my hair." During her Prisoner stint she took time off to play a glamorous role in the film The Perfect Family Man.
"I did the movie Puberty Blues early this year  and I looked horrible, just like my Prisoner role. So I wanted something to make me look pretty for a change." [xxx]
While there was a constant stream of guest characters moving through the series, Bea, Lizzie, Doreen and Judy remained the dominant figures in most of the storylines. That said, increasingly priggish Doreen had become rather repetitive with her childish jealousies, while Judy now seemed to have few storylines of her own.
After a memorable period dominated by obnoxious activist Andrea Hennessey's stay in Wentworth where her extreme views antagonised the other prisoners and incited the kidnapping of Erica Davidson we see another major change to the usual formula. Doreen and Judy were abruptly transferred to Barnhurst, Lizzie was transferred to another block and Bea sent off for a lengthy stay in hospital.
With these departures high-powered recent arrivals, tough career-criminal Sandy Edwards (Louise Le Nay), and Dr Kate Peterson (Olivia Hamnett), rose to the top of the prisoner pecking order. Then Marie Winter was transferred back in from Barnhurst to become chief villain. This was a welcome change from the usual formula that had dominated for so long. It also allowed such semi-regular support characters as Phyllis Hunt and Hazel Kent (Belinda Davey) to grab a bigger piece of the pie, as usually they didn't get much of a chance.
At the time the program's new producer, John McRae, made clear some of his planned changes for TV Week.
"When the show first started it had a permanent cast of about 11. But when I arrived we were down to six or seven. So I'm trying to populate the cast a bit more and try to introduce new permanent characters." [xxxi]
Shortly after her reappearance Marie started an explosive prison riot. This formed the memorable 1981 end of year cliff-hanger in which new officer Steve Fawkner (Wayne Jarratt) and Janet Conway are held hostage. In a familiar storyline seen throughout the series, two dominant prisoners, in this instance Marie and Sandy, vied for the top dog position.
The storyline featured an interesting twist in the dynamics between Sandy, Marie and Kate, with all sorts of scheming and plotting ending in a shocking murder. Judy and Lizzie returned midway through the storyline though would temporarily take a back seat to the main proceedings.
Finally Bea and then Doreen returned in time to witness the demise of Kate, Sandy, and Marie (who was shipped back to Barnhurst) and to resume their leading roles in the series. In reality actresses Val Lehman and Colette Mann (Bea and Doreen) took time off to appear in a film. Nevertheless it was a breath of fresh air to see someone else dominating Wentworth for awhile.
The riot had an alarming effect on Janet, who had been stripped and forced to don a prisoner's uniform while Sandy read the charges and inducted her for the crime of becoming an officer (having previously been a remand prisoner). Janet developed an intense hatred of the prisoners and began barking orders at them, Vera style. She also became overly possessive of Jim, and soon took to following him about and turning up at his flat unannounced at odd hours. Later, in a vengeful mood she ransacked his living room and took to openly sniping at Meg after a paranoid Janet decided that she and Jim were enjoying a secret affair and were laughing at her behind her back. Each of Jim's attempts to end the affair just resulted in more intense possessiveness and jealousy from Janet, and more bitter accusations of an affair with Meg.
In any event new producer John McRae, who had arrived some months earlier and had begun instituting changes to revamp the show, here decided to dispense with Gerard Maguire's services. [xxxii] Jim Fletcher, a good character who had possibly played out most of his possible situations by that time, was abruptly written out of the series by being given the job of Governor of a juvenile prison.
This new producer apparently also managed to patch-up the technical problems that had slowly crept into the series over the preceding months which had resulted in a spate of such on-air goofs as fluffed lines and overhead mikes in shot. While Marie Winter's riot had generated some suspense, those scenes unfortunately yielded perhaps the show's greatest concentration of on-air technical glitches ever. In contrast, the early 1982 episodes seemed to return to the more atmospheric filming style as seen in the show's first twenty episodes. Camera angles emphasised the high ceilings and long corridors of the prison set, darker and more atmospheric lighting was used, and generally more attention was paid to making the show look good.
Susie Driscoll (Jacqui Gordon) was a sympathetic new prisoner. Just sixteen years old she was finally sent to Wentworth after escaping from every other institution she had been placed in. Her innocence and tender years provoked a motherly kindness from the staff and inmates of Wentworth, yet still she staged a series of escapes and escape attempts.
With Jim gone Janet's "Fatal Attraction" style pursuit of him also ended. She settled down to become a rather ordinary officer who was romanced by printing instructor Ian Mahoney (Peter Curtin) thus paving the way for her departure when Janet was written out of the series a short time later. Having found love at last and disillusioned with prison service Janet was happy to resign from her job and go work with Ian in the business he was setting up. A happy ending is finally provided for the character: in their final scene Janet tells Ian she is pregnant and he is overjoyed.
Wayne Jarratt's nice-guy Officer Steve Fawkner enjoyed several major storylines during his eight-month stay. Initially he was only in the job for the money, and then enjoyed an illicit affair with prisoner Sandy Edwards. He later developed an intense interest in the prisoner's welfare and encouraged the women in their printing press project, and Bea in her journalism endeavours.
A subsequent change was the re-establishment of a Halfway House in the series, this time run by freshly released prisoner Judy Bryant. Named Driscoll House after its first resident Susie Driscoll (who soon after went to live in the country with Joanne Slater, a mother-figure Susie befriended in Wentworth) the house allowed a greater range of storylines to be explored by the series. The halfway house would play host to a constant stream of guest characters, as well as such regulars and semi-regulars as bikie and occasional Wentworth inhabitant Maxine Daniels (Lisa Crittenden), social worker Tony Berman (David Alan Lee), and Judy's friends Wally Wallace (Alan Hopgood) and Helen Smart (Caroline Gilmer).
Driscoll House provided opportunity to explore some softer storylines and social issues, however these scenes where decidedly less interesting than those occurring within the prison, with many new characters appearing there having no connection with Wentworth or its familiar inhabitants whatsoever. Also notable here is the show's only proper drug storyline, exploring the problems of heroin-addicted prostitute Donna Mason (Arkie Whitely) who a newly released Susie had initially turned to for support.
A big change to the popular formula began with the addition, in May 1982, episode 287, of formidable Officer Joan Ferguson, superbly portrayed by actress Maggie Kirkpatrick. The appearance of Joan Ferguson heralded far-reaching changes to the series that would remain until the end. While ostensibly a replacement for Vera's nasty screw, Joan Ferguson in fact had a much greater impact on the series quickly developing a cult following of non-Prisoner viewers and generating huge amounts of publicity.
Joan was initially a Jock Stewart-type corrupt officer, a type of character never to last too long in the series, however ensuing changes in the show would see Joan Ferguson emerge as its brightest light. Coming when she did, just as the gradual departure of core cast members began and as the series was undergoing a natural renewal, Joan Ferguson found a snug niche in the series and slowly began to dominate the storylines, in particular with her long-running battle with Bea Smith.
With Joan Ferguson's introduction came another new character, Hannah Simpson (Julieanne Newbould), and the welcome return of Chrissie Latham, who could always be relied upon to generate plenty of interesting plot developments. Just as she had done earlier with Sharon Gilmour, Chrissie entered into an unwise partnership with Hannah, plotting an escape, while Joan Ferguson unwisely developed an attraction of her own towards Hannah.
Chrissie went on to form a dangerous friendship with prison nurse Neil Murray (Adrian Wright), again planning an escape. She quickly found herself as one of Joan Ferguson's least favourite prisoners, though had by this time become friends with Bea Smith. Another new character Paddy Lawson (Anna Hruby), who arrived a little later, also ran foul of Joan Ferguson, largely due to Paddy's friendship with Bea. Joan did not fare so well trying to heavy new inmate Barbara Fields (Susan Guerin) who managed to blackmail her, but of course, in the end, Joan would come up trumps.
Bea was granted work-release at a printing company, and befriended Cookie (Judi Connelli), a married woman with a troubled teenage daughter and womanising husband; much like Bea Smith herself fifteen years earlier. In a well-handled storyline we see Cookie deal with her problems with Bea's help, and Bea explores what could have been handled differently in her own past. Then in one of the show's most irritating and badly handled storylines ever, we meet Sally Dempster (Liz Harris), a shrill middle-class housewife who can't cope so turns to alcohol and abuses her child.
The Dempsters are initially introduced when Maxine Daniels gets a job helping Sally around the house, though she is eventually fired by Sally's husband Peter (Peter Carmody). Sally later runs him down in her car after an argument, ending up in Wentworth where the other prisoners ostracise her. She eventually attempts suicide after Peter files for divorce. While the earlier Alison Page and her family troubles failed to impress the show's fans the writers here tried a similar storyline exploring the ongoing dramas of Sally's family life and ultimate incarceration. If the Page family were unpopular, here we have an even less appealing bunch of characters; few fans cared for them and were glad that the storyline was quickly resolved.
Meanwhile Chrissie, Margo, Paddy and Lizzie are among the Wentworth women allowed to go put on a concert at men's prison Woodridge. In one of the sillier storylines, Joan pressures Margo into ruining the concert hoping that the failure will reflect badly upon her rival, supervising officer Colleen Powell (since when was Joan so subtle?) Meanwhile Chrissie gets into strife when reunited with former criminal associates, Colleen is reunited with an old friend: Deputy Governor of Woodridge Geoff Carlson (Danny Adcock), and Paddy befriends shy male prisoner Andy Hudson (Ric Herbert).
Finally, in a culmination to the brewing hostility between Bea Smith and Joan Ferguson was reached with the big Wentworth fire of November 1982, another well-remembered highlight in the series.
After a switch of locale where Wentworth's prisoners are shifted to a wing of Woodridge (well, they built all those new sets and introduced some of Woodridge's inhabitants in the concert storyline, so why not get two storylines out of it?) we return to Wentworth to find some of the Wentworth sets rebuilt giving the show a more modern and more spacious look (though the cells, corridors and the laundry sets remain unaltered). It was at this point it became clear that Joan Ferguson would be a permanent fixture in the series rather than a passing villain.
A new character, the frighteningly ruthless double murderer and prison escaper Nola MacKenzie was introduced when she turned up at the halfway house calling herself Jean Carter. When her true identity was learned Nola was arrested and sent straight to h block. There she became Bea's despised enemy by running various rackets designed to fleece the other prisoners and through her devious dealings with Joan Ferguson. Chillingly portrayed by actress Carole Skinner, Nola seemed likely to become part of the new guard, quickly finding herself central to many of the storylines. It therefore came as quite a surprise when such a popular character suddenly exited the series only six months later. It really seemed Nola was being groomed to fill the gap when Bea Smith's imminent departure occurred.
The period after the fire is marked by a high turnover of various quite disparate and often outrageous guest characters, and some bizarre and frequently under-developed and rushed plot-lines. Chrissie Latham has by this time left the series for the final time, while Margo Gaffney and Erica Davidson also departed rather abruptly (though they would both briefly return the following year.) Many storylines seemed to be trying to explore an interesting social-conscience perspective, including the dramas of paraplegic prisoner Tracey Belman (Alyson Best); the incredible Laura Gardiner/Brandy Carter (Roslyn Gentle) multiple personality case; "Drug granny" Maggie May Kennedy (Davinia Whitehouse); Litza and Mikki Wallace at the Halfway House; abused wife Carol Coulson (Merrin Canning); and Judy and Helen rescuing Helen's sister Sharon (Liddy Clark) from a cult.
Unfortunately these storylines were rushed to a clichéd and abrupt conclusion (for example the sudden suicide of a character, or the miraculous and instant recovery or absolution of others) after the interesting expository scenes.
Possibly the most outrageous story was that of Alan "Ellen" Farmer (Michael Cormick), a man inducted into Wentworth with his girlfriend Lainie Dobson (Marina Findlay) on shoplifting charges having been mistaken for a woman. How realistic! And the associated plotline involving the heavily tattooed Lainie having the tattoos removed was then rushed to an abrupt conclusion having shown promise as a thoughtful and realistic story. These under-developed storylines seem somehow connected to Nola's untimely demise; seems her departure may have been unplanned leaving the writers to hurriedly come up with some new and unexpected characters and plot-lines at short notice.
Some earlier plotlines were also rehashed, most obviously the romance between remand prisoner Petra Roberts (Penny Maegraith) and Dr Scott Collins (Tim Elston); a shameless rip-off of the earlier (and superior) Karen Travers - Dr Greg Miller story, while the Lassa Fever outbreak was a retread of the memorable Evelyn Randall quarantine crisis of 1981.
It is was during this period of turmoil that the consistently evil Joan Ferguson character became a key figure in the show's popularity.
In the midst of Joan Ferguson's rise to power, the new Governor Ann Reynolds joined. She proved a stabilising and popular character and stayed until the end of the series. Ann Reynolds gave the series great strength with the two excellent actresses Maggie Kirkpatrick (Joan Ferguson) and Gerda Nicolson (Ann) regularly battling it out to the delight of fans. This interplay also brought the previously unseen Department of Corrections into the fore, with political power-plays and repeated phone calls and surprise visits by Departmental personnel, often stemming from Joan Ferguson's typically underhanded treachery.
Another good character to join during this period was the vivacious and dreamy romantic, Pixie Mason (played by former The Young Doctors favourite Judy McBurney), while long-time semi-regular thug Phyllis Hunt found herself upgraded to a regular character. Meanwhile Bea Smith seemed increasingly less prominent, and the extent to which she was side-lined during her final period suggests the writers may well have been trying to punish her for wanting to leave by giving her next-to-nothing to do!
During Joan Ferguson's first eighteen months in the series long-established characters Steve Fawkner, Doreen, Mouse, Margo, Chrissie, Erica, Hazel, Bea and finally Lizzie all left the series. With each departure Joan Ferguson got that little bit more important, picking up the slack left by the missing character as the scripts increasingly relied upon the show's infamous new villain.
By 1983 Joan Ferguson's increasing importance had completely changed the general storylines. Though there had been strict screws stirring prisoners and causing resentment never before had there been such a major officer character that planned and plotted with the prisoners or who tried to control the prison much the same way the top dog would. Joan used the prisoner's pecking order and codes to her own advantage.
Storylines throughout Joan Ferguson's run in the series seemed dominated by plots concerning Joan in an uneasy partnership with a villainous prisoner and battling the top dog, the other staff, and the Department of Corrections. Sadly by mid-1983 it seemed the all-powerful Joan had the increasingly apathetic Bea beat, and in quick succession we saw various catastrophes befall the great Bea Smith, each threatening to remove our favourite top dog for good...
In episode number 400 originally broadcast September 1983, the highly popular and pivotal character Bea Smith departed the series when her portrayer Val Lehman decided to leave. This was a great loss for the series; Bea was a well-crafted and charismatic character and Val Lehman extremely appealing in the role. Bea's absence was strongly felt and the character difficult to replace. The end of a truly great character.
Another great loss, almost as devastating, was the loss of another favourite, Lizzie, which came a couple of months later in episode 418. Over the years other characters had come and gone but viewers could always rely on the Bea and Lizzie team. Sadly this era was now over and the earlier loss of Bea had resulted in little for Lizzie to do. She slipped into a slightly less prominent role, before finally being released from Wentworth once and for all at the wish of actress Sheila Florance who had decided to leave the series.
After Bea's departure a new group of prisoners including Pixie Mason, Cass Parker (Babs MacMillan), Minnie Donovan (Wendy Playfair) and Bobbie Mitchell (Maxine Klibingaitus) emerged as the leading characters of the series. To lead them, old favourite Judy Bryant was returned to Wentworth, thus ending the halfway house which had outlived its storyline potential by this stage anyway. Fortunately the bizarre and outrageous plots were toned down with the series becoming more down-to-earth.
The departure of Bea Smith could easily have spelt the end of the series but fortunately the new cast was largely accepted by hard-core fans of the series. However it was felt a strong central figure was required amongst the prisoners to fill the gap left by Bea's departure.
With this in mind the writers introduced cool and sinister new prisoner Sonia Stevens, a sly and powerful criminal mastermind. Played by actress Tina Bursill, who had become Australia's quintessential cool blonde bitch after her role in Skyways, villainous Sonia immediately teamed with Joan Ferguson, initially helping to remove Bea Smith, and then to run all manner of money making scams within Wentworth thus reinforcing Joan's power and involvement in storylines regarding the prisoners.
This retraces some of the earlier concepts that had been explored with the Nola MacKenzie character and was quite a change in that while the earlier storylines had mostly been more simplistic and character or event driven we now had lengthy and involved plots regarding the interaction between Joan and Sonia. Also new was the degree of interaction between an officer character and a prisoner character, as any officer character previously found to be involved in illegal plots and practices had always been quickly written out of the series.
For the viewers to cheer on in the fight against such a powerful front we had the somewhat comical Minnie Donovan (Wendy Playfair), a tiny, middle-aged and squeaky voiced woman who teamed with the dim-witted but tough Cass Parker to become top dog. Like Bea, Minnie stood for the masses against the screws and the crooked deals of Sonia Stevens, and she had a cheeky disregard for authority.
The 1983 season came to a close with a reappearance by Meg's son Marty (now played by Andrew McKaige) who while on leave from the navy visited Meg and introduced his new fiancé Jenny Gleason (played by former The Restless Years favourite Zoe Bertram).
Soon after, Meg was horrified to discover that Jenny was in fact a high-class prostitute known professionally as Randi Goodlove. Randi admitted to targeting an unsuspecting Marty for a marriage of convenience.
Randi soon wound-up in Wentworth where she befriended the recently arrived nice-guy officer David Bridges (David Waters). David was a kindly officer with somewhat a mother fixation, and he had a devious habit of arranging mysterious escapes for favourite prisoners. These secret escapes were so clever that prisoners simply went missing: no sign of any escape was ever uncovered, and viewers never saw how they were pulled-off.
In the cliff-hanger for 1983 viewers learned the truth as the fate of most recent escaper Randi was revealed. As David waited in the boiler room for a planned absconder who never arrived the camera pulled-out to reveal Randi's corpse draped across the top of a boiler with blood streaming down the sides.
Meanwhile awaiting her release Lizzie made a horrifying discovery in the prison garden: David's other victims in a shallow grave. David confronted Lizzie with the revelation that when he "set the women free" he was actually murdering them. We learned that David's mother was also in fact dead, and in the final cliffhanger he pulled a knife on Lizzie as she collapsed in shock.
As the series resumed for 1984 Cass came to Lizzie's rescue. Cornered by a knife wielding David in the garden shed, poor Cass had no choice but to decapitate him with a handy spade: a grisly end to an enjoyable and effective bit of hokum. Meanwhile Lizzie had merely fainted, and was quietly released from prison for the final time, leaving Elspeth Ballantyne (Meg) as the only remaining original cast member.
During the first half of 1984, the much changed cast was enlivened by the welcome guest appearances of such departed favourites as Erica Davidson, Helen Smart, Doreen Burns and Margo Gaffney (though this also marked the final appearance of all these characters). The Minnie and Cass top dog partnership soon tumbled and Myra Desmond (Anne Phelan), a character who had earlier made a few brief appearances as a member of the Prison Reform Group, found herself returned to Wentworth where she quickly took over the reigns as top dog. Myra was basically a successful character, well-acted by Anne Phelan, though as the first major top dog after Bea Smith she had a difficult role to fill.
With Myra in charge the series took another turn. Myra was missing Bea's uncompromising toughness and cocky disregard for authority, and with the increasingly soft Judy Bryant becoming Myra's pacifist off-sider, Wentworth seemed less violent and volatile as it had during Bea's reign. However Anne Phelan was excellent in the role of Myra creating an extremely real and complex character. Myra felt greater remorse than Bea when her plans failed or when risky gambles failed to pay off. Myra was less selfish than Bea, frequently putting everything on the line for others, and she faced many tough decisions and was forced to make many sacrifices in fighting her battles.
Another big plus of this period was the hugely popular character Reb Kean (Janet Andrewartha), who proved quite an adversary for Myra and Judy (and Joan) and generated all manner of exciting developments. In fact, it was the more thoughtful and egalitarian leadership of Myra Desmond that allowed such popular young punks as Reb and Bobbie to flourish during this period, as it seems unlikely they would have been so illustrious had Bea Smith still been in charge.
The new characters to fill the ranks after Bea's departure were all actually quite good and it is a tribute to all involved that coming so soon after the recent big-star departures these episodes were so very good and very enjoyable, even though many viewers still missed the presence of Bea and Lizzie. Many of the characters to appear during this period are still well remembered, even today, and the compelling nature of the series was successfully maintained.
Stan Dobson (Brian James) was a new officer introduced during the first half of 1984. A popular character, Stan was transferred to Wentworth to serve his last few weeks before retirement. He quickly befriended many of the women, particularly Bobbie Mitchell. A positive viewer reaction to the character prompted the writers to bring him back after his retirement. Rather improbably, he returned as the Wentworth handyman, but in this new role he encountered as many dramas as he had as an officer, which included being blackmailed by a criminal associate of Lou Kelly. Eventually Bobbie would be released into his care at the beginning of the 1985 episodes.
In mid-1984 the series suffered a jarring cast exodus as several key characters abruptly departed within a few episodes of each other. Here successful characters Sonia Stevens, Pixie Mason, Phyllis Hunt, and Cass Parker (Cass, brilliantly portrayed by Babs MacMillan, was a particular favourite) all departed. Another big blow came with the loss of long-time screw Colleen Powell, a great character whose contribution to the series is largely underrated.
The recently arrived male officer, Rick Manning (Andy Anderson) abruptly left and was replaced by the irritating Officer Dennis Cruikshank (Nigel Bradshaw), who was from Yorkshire in case you couldn't pick it from his heavy accent. Short-term characters of this period include two under-utilised remand prisoners: Rachel Milson (Kim Trentgrove) and glamorous model Leigh Templar (Virginia Hey), both given comparatively little to do during their stay.
After the loss of Bea and Lizzie and these subsequent cast changes old fans returning to the show may well have thought they were watching a spin-off what with so few of the show's established cast favourites remaining. It was at this point that those second-rate thugs Lou Kelly (Louise Siversen) and Alice Jenkins (Lois Collinder) emerged.
Obviously concerned about the high cast turnover the writers had Lou and Alice suddenly appear one day having supposedly been in Wentworth for years. Though both actors had been prison extras for some time before becoming main characters, they had not been around for nearly as long as the scripts implied. Nevertheless Lou and Alice would emerge as durable and quite effective characters.
They were joined by annoying and immature new prisoner Marlene Warren (Genevieve Lemon), a less-successful re-tread of the Doreen Burns character, and a moderately interesting new trainee officer Heather Rodgers portrayed by well-known television personality Victoria Nicholls. And to ensure things don't get too grim Marie Winter returns to liven things up with another big riot, just the thing to smooth over a bumpy cast shake-up.
Marie wasn't around too long, quickly making her exit via an incredible helicopter escape sequence, typical of the more extreme measures now being employed to try and out-do the major stunts and catastrophes that had gone on before. While Marie's return was welcomed her departure highlighted the need for more exciting characters behind bars; which is exactly what we got in the form of Bev Baker. A mass murderer and thrill-killer, Bev took gleeful enjoyment in inflicting pain and suffering on the hapless inmates. Chillingly portrayed by Maggie Dence, the villainous character remains a popular favourite with many fans despite her relatively short time in the series.
Other new characters were the deceitful young prisoner 'Angel' Adams (Kylie Foster) who managed to stir substantial trouble for the other characters during a brief but eventful stay, and elderly Dot Farrah (Alethea MacGrath), who was just too close a Lizzie clone for our liking. Dot was another character who had supposedly been in Wentworth for years, but in another block. Like Lizzie she was an institutionalised old lag spouting comic malapropism and sometimes used in scenes trying for pathos. Unlike Lizzie she was not kept on to be a permanent feature of Wentworth, instead lasting only a couple of months.
Sadly around this time the makers of the show decided to include a few inane guest appearances by people such as shuffling runner Cliff Young. Young enjoyed fleeting popular culture celebrity in Australia but a guest spot in Prisoner was a big mistake. Also included were silly storylines such as the fund raising Waltz-a-thon, and cockroach races devised by Marlene to raise funds for herself. The return of Pixie was a plus though.
With some patchy storylines concerning the prisoners, viewers during this period could nonetheless enjoy the further attempts to open up the action with strong characters Joan Ferguson and Ann Reynolds utilised in outside Wentworth storylines. For once, journeys into the prison staff's personal lives provided interesting viewing and some very good stories resulted.
While the writers (unlike Marie, as it turns out) successfully pulled off the helicopter stunt, a subsequent storyline featuring three male Woodridge prisoners being housed at Wentworth required a major suspension of disbelief - particularly as one of the prisoners, Frank Burke (Trevor Kent), was a convicted rapist!
Frank's cell-mates Geoff McCrae (Les Dayman) and Matt Delaney (Peter Bensley) embarked on their romantic escapades with prisoners Myra Desmond and Marlene Warren respectively. Though the arrangement seems implausible, it was reportedly based on the real-life situation of three male Pentridge prisoners being housed at women's prison Fairlea. The storyline benefitted at least from an excellent performance from Trevor Kent as the despicable Frank.
Also beefing up the male ranks was well-known actor and comedian Maurie Fields playing evil Officer Len Murphy, a male version of The Freak.
Long-time semi-regular Officer Joyce Barry (Joy Westmore) gradually made larger and more frequent appearances in the series and by 1984 had become one of the leads. Joyce has her introduction to the forefront proceedings while stalwarts Meg Morris and Ann Reynolds are temporarily away from Wentworth and being held hostage in a crumbling warehouse laden with bombs and booby-traps - a chilling and suspenseful storyline that has become one of the most remembered sequences in the series.
The final episode of 1984 had seen the loss of popular trouble stirrer Reb Kean. Though fans were sad to see the end of such a great character, in many ways the departure was apt, coming after Reb had had a satisfying run in the series with an interesting character development. An enjoyable new prisoner character introduced as the 1985 episodes commenced was the temperamental young Lexie Patterson (Pepe Trevor) who dressed as the then-popular singing star Boy George of the band Culture Club.
Unfortunately Lexie's Boy George gear badly dated the series. Prisoner was filmed months in advance of the episodes being screened and Lexie was undoubtedly devised during Culture Club's Australian concert tour in mid-1984 where the devotion of Australian fans and the country's overall favourable reception took even George himself by surprise. After this tour and the accompanying flood of publicity where reports on the minutia of George's activities reached dangerous levels of overexposure, fans quickly grew tired of George. After the tour George went on holiday with pop-star pal/rival Marilyn and during a stop-over en route to the holiday destination of Jamaica, George had chopped off his dreadlocks and subjected the remaining hair to a platinum bleach. The paparazzi pics of a returning George with snapped-off white straw for hair and a five day growth were not flattering, and his band's subsequent popularity was not helped by a notoriously lacklustre third album and the high-profile failure - gleefully reported by a vengeful press and publicly rejoiced by rival pop stars - of such singles as The Medal Song.
Back on Prisoner, with the six-month lag between taping and broadcast Lexie didn't appear on-air until after Boy George had become suddenly passé, the media backlash in full swing. The supposedly with-it Lexie wore hats, with rags, ribbons and dreadlocks tied in her long dark hair: the look that George had by now famously ditched. Luckily Lexie soon abandoned that look as well, switching to a more original punk/new wave look. Overall her character turned out to be very vibrant and a lot of fun, giving the series quite a lift.
Early 1985 saw the departures of Bobbie Mitchell and Pixie Mason. Bobbie had a happy ending: she was released from prison and went to live with former officer Stan Dobson. Pixie's departure was much darker. After being brutally raped by Frank Burke, Pixie went into shock and was transferred to a mental asylum. Much to Judy's anguish Myra framed hated officer Len Murphy for the crime, which led to his sacking. Myra subsequently exacted her own revenge on Frank, branding him on the forehead with a soldering iron.
Through the first half of 1985 we saw the usual array of guest prisoners appear and disappear. New characters of the period included the quiet university student Samantha Greenway who once in Wentworth continued her quest to find her estranged natural mother who had given her up for adoption, alcoholic solicitor/prisoner Janice Grant (Jennifer Ludlum), and Ettie Parslow (portrayed by former The Box actor Lois Ramsey) who like Lizzie was an elderly institutionalised inmate. Ettie had recently been transferred from Barnhurst where she had spent much of her life. When it was learned she had never actually stood trial, solicitor Janice worked on having her freed, whilst battling her own problems of alcoholism. Like Lizzie, Ettie would be pardoned and awarded compensation, but finding herself unable to cope on the outside would intentionally have herself re-imprisoned, before regretting her self-imposed return to prison. While the battle-axe characterisation of Ettie initially seemed forced she did gain a degree of popularity after settling into the role, and would return to the series several times after her initial stint had finished. Finally activist Anita Selby (Diane Craig) appeared behind bars having been arrested at a protest. It was later learned she was actually a nun.
By mid-1985 the three male prisoners were to be transferred from Wentworth, with Geoff and Myra saying a sad goodbye while feverish plans are made for Marlene's wedding to Matt. Marlene had received news she would soon be released as well, and wanted her wedding in Wentworth with all her friends. The wedding of Marlene and Matt turned out to be a highly popular storyline with fans, resulting in strong ratings and Grundy's being flooded with requests for a transcript of the wedding vows. Meanwhile a violent attack had left Joan Ferguson suffering mental blackouts. Myra used these blackouts to frame Joan for the bashing of Lou which had purportedly been committed by Joan during a moment of rage she could not remember. Plagued with guilt Anita finally confessed to Ann Reynolds that the bashing was a set-up engineered by Myra to secure Joan's sacking, permanently damaging to co-operative relationship between Ann and Myra. Anita was released from prison and visited Joan in hospital as she recovered from the resultant brain surgery.
Along with the departure of the male prisoners and Marlene Warren came the loss of Judy Bryant when actress Betty Bobbit finally decided to leave the series. Then we learned that Bea Smith had been killed in a big fire at Barnhurst. This was an unsatisfying attempt to tie up the loose ends regarding Bea's open ended departure of some eighteen months earlier. After Lehman left the producers of the series had on three different occasions asked her to reprise the role of Bea, but Lehman had rejected all these offers to return. [xxxiii]
With a mass exodus of cast members at this point, a special flashback episode where Myra, Lou and Alice recount famous moments from the show's past was staged. This gave new viewers a chance to see old clips from the show, gave the news of Bea's death greater impact, and on a practical level it solved the problem of filling an episode what with so few contracted cast members on board. Though most viewers loved seeing the old clips, die-hard fans knew that Alice and Lou had not been around for nearly as long as suggested, making the premise whereby the flashbacks were staged somewhat unsatisfying. Worse still was the fact that the sudden departure of many cast members, the loss of long-running favourite Judy, and news of Bea's death all at the same time seemed very jarring. Seeing clips filled with long-ago cast favourites only emphasised these unfortunate cast losses.
Following this Wentworth was suddenly overrun by a group of total strangers who were transferred in from the now destroyed Barnhurst Prison. These newcomers were Nora Flynn (Sonja Tallis), May Collins (Billie Hammerberg), Willie Beecham (Kirsty Child), Daphne Graham (Debra Lawrance) and Julie Egbert (Jackie Woodburne). Arriving the night of the fire they were quickly marched into Wentworth reception where they had the audacity to casually talk about long departed characters Bea Smith and Vera Bennett in an unconvincing attempt to link these new characters with the show's glory days. The situation was not helped when Alice and Lou later joined their discussions of events from the show's classic period.
Clearly significant work had gone into creating an interesting new range of characters. Nora Flynn had been willingly and heavily involved in the "thrill killer" murders of three hitchhikers incited by her boyfriend decades before, and there seemed little chance of her ever being released. Nora's back story seems based on the real-life "thrill-killer" Archie "Mad Dog" McCafferty who terrorised Sydney in 1973. In a drug fuelled killing spree assisted by gang members, the Scottish-born McCafferty killed three people in a scheme to murder a total of seven. He believed that his deceased baby son would be reincarnated if he killed seven people, and he was dubbed "Australia's Charles Manson" by the press.
Mirroring the much publicised situation of the real-life members of the Manson Family, Nora was an easily led young woman incited to participate in multiple murder. Like them, Nora's repeated parole applications were routinely rejected out of hand. She remained a notorious prisoner and her reputation as a cruel thrill killer persisted. Nora herself longed to have a child of her own but cruel and untrue rumours that she had murdered a baby while working in the maternity wing at Barnhurst meant she was prevented from even nursing other women's babies. It was too bad that as portrayed she hardly recalled the feared Manson Family members and seemed overwhelmingly sensible and thoughtful rather than chilling or feared. She seemed to possess not a hint of being in any way sinister or even slightly eccentric.
May and Willie were long time criminal associates: the tough and no-nonsense May was once a famous cat burglar and the flighty and fussy Willie her eager fence. Having been imprisoned at Barnhurst they had always shared a cell and upon arrival at Wentworth insisted that this arrangement be continued, while Willie continued her scrounging, trading and selling of trash and treasure. Though never explicitly confirmed many fans assumed that the constantly squabbling Willie and May represented a long-term lesbian couple.
Daphne was a socially inept young girl who lovingly tended a menagerie of potted plants. The plants had names and were the beneficiaries of Daphne's pep talks. We learned that Daphne's violent outbursts and self-harming was due to a particularly severe case of pre-menstrual tension, which was controversially mooted as grounds for her release if it could be proved the true reason she committed her original crime.
Finally Julie was a meek, quiet and bookish young girl denied the opportunities to develop her intellect. Julie was forced to leave school and obtain work to support her ill mother, and had eventually embezzled money from her employer to send her dying mother on a dream holiday. In prison Julie masked her talents and while her clumsy social style initially irritated Lexie the two eventually became best friends.
In addition to these Barnhurst imports there was a new officer, Terri Malone (Margot Knight), and a terrified new prisoner in the Lynn Warner mold, naïve rich-girl Jenny Hartley (Jenny Lovell). Ettie Parslow was also returned to Wentworth. Though her first introduction had in fact only been a short time before, it was nice to see a familiar face return in this time of great change.
Prisoner then developed Dynasty type pretensions and added wealthy super-bitch Ruth Ballinger to the cast. Played with sinister perfection by actress Lindy Davies, Ruth helped ease viewers into the new cast of prisoners with a strong presence and a diverting storyline, though the hardened crims comprising the new Wentworth gang largely gave her the benefit of the doubt, something Bea would never have done.
The new characters were quickly inducted into the Wentworth hall of fame when subjected to yet another major catastrophe: a terrifying siege with heavily armed and dangerous intruders (two of whom were played by recognisable Australian actors Robert Hughes, and Gerard Kennedy) holding most of the cast hostage in the prison. Here the writers proved that it was still possible come up with new situations that could shock viewers after so many previous disasters and also proved that much mileage can be had from ending a major character on a high note rather than a whimper.
Unfortunately, after a reasonable start with these new characters some regrettable patterns emerged. Overall there seems to be a pervading sense of sober reflection, kindness and co-operation amongst the Barnhurst prisoners who dominate the second half of the 1985 season. The tensions between them are resolved quickly and smoothly: not something audiences of Prisoner are tuning in to see. Also they are such a closely bonded and almost cliquey bunch that even the viewer sometimes feels excluded. With the unfortunate loss of Myra Desmond shortly after the Barnhust prisoners arrived (a departure that left Alice and Lou as the longest serving characters amongst the inmates) came Nora's appointment as the series' least popular top dog, while it seemed too much time was devoted to showing the prisoners gossiping amongst themselves and airing their petty grievances.
Some storylines during this period also seemed pale and insipid compared to earlier dramas seen in the series. Nora's rule by Council had a representative group of prisoners holding an official court-room where prisoner grievances were heard and infractions would be punished. The storyline featured the likes of Nora Flynn, May Collins and Willie Beecham assessing improper prison etiquette and issuing smug lectures to fellow prisoners in sequences that would seem more at home in a series set in a convent-school than a prison. It certainly was a big contrast to the infinitely more entertaining antics of the all-powerful Bea Smith who could be self-centered and stubborn at times, and who frequently managed to get her own selfish way, usually through force but sometimes through deviousness and cunning.
Another unpopular and ineffective storyline features four female teenagers sent inside so they could be "scared straight". This scaring largely consisted of stern lectures provided by prisoners, though the toughest nut Nikki Lennox (Vicki Mathios) seemed unreachable. This led to one of the silliest storylines ever with recently introduced prostitute Queenie Marshall (Marilyn Rodgers), who had just completed a short stint in H block, called upon to fake a bold crime that would illustrate the realities of the criminal life to Nikki. Prisoners Nora, May and Willie set-up the crime scenario with Nikki during her daytime visits to Wentworth and when released each afternoon she is coerced into attending night-time meetings where Queenie and her criminal pals plan a supposed mass escape from Wentworth. In her criminal tasks for Queenie, Nikki is endlessly inconvenienced, challenged, and then asked to commit a murder. This finally has the desired effect of convincing Nikki that she is not cut out for a life of crime. Though their motives remained unclear, this false crime was gleefully enacted with Queenie and her colourful friends - already gross stereotypes to begin with - putting on their campiest film-noir gangster personas for Nikki's benefit.
There were some good points of this period however. The episodes were slickly written and produced and well-acted. Some storylines did work, and slowly evolving relationships such as the one between Julie and Lexie were effective. This period introduced a particularly good character in the form of the formidable May Collins, although part-way through her run she was unwisely converted from a heavy to more a comic relief vaudeville partner for the campy Willie Beecham character. Willie herself annoyed some fans but pleased others, and her comic banter and squabbling with May was frequently quite effective although in some ways it might have worked better to continue May as the heavy.
The main problem with this era was installing Nora as top dog. Nora's egalitarian, co-operative ways did not make for gripping television. Myra had been much fairer and less selfish than Bea, yet her decisions and methods were frequently met with the disapproval of other prisoners, and she frequently employed contentious problem-solving methods. Thoughtful Nora had such consistent support from so many of the prisoners it soon became quite dull. Only Lou, Alice and Lexie were a constant chorus of disapproval, yet their poorly presented complaints came across as childish whining and were usually dismissed by the other prisoners, and much as we all loved Ann Reynolds it seemed the bulk of the prisoners was just a little too co-operative during this period.
One bright spot in all this was the appearance of Ann Reynolds' spirited daughter Pippa (Christine Harris) who also took art class at Wentworth. Pippa's main energies however were taken with clashing with her patient mother and with her own romantic entanglement with Daphne's lawyer Ben Fullbright (Kevin Summers). Pippa was the sort of character who could always be relied upon, like Lexie, to open her mouth at the wrong time and get herself into all sorts of trouble, and she often stridently disagreed with the bid to have Daphne pardoned because she had suffered from PMT. Pippa and her associated dramas was an instance of an outside prison storyline that was particularly enjoyable in its own right, though few fans seem to agree with me on this point.
Another interesting twist was provided by Officer Terri Malone who resigned from Wentworth and then, for a time, became Joan Ferguson's live-in lover. This storyline was well handled, if rather brief.
The majority of these new 1985 characters where all abruptly written out of the series in the space of a few episodes, after having had a run of only six months. The only survivor was Julie Egbert who lasted until June 1986. Though their departures did come rather suddenly, the closing storylines for these characters turned out to be very good, and quite exciting. The three characters to really shine during this period were the earlier introduced Lou Kelly, Alice Jenkins and Lexie Patterson. Set up as the villains against Nora's endlessly sanctimonious gang, they provided the spark of interest during this period, and were kept on as the Barnhurst girls departed.
Finally November 1985 rolls along. Several jarring cast changeovers had left the series on somewhat unstable footing and as 1986 began a new batch of characters was introduced. These new characters seemed a bit more varied than the instant import from Barnhurst six months prior and included a mix of glamour, mystery, comedy, scheming and a six-foot trouble-stirring bikie. First we had the intriguing glamour queen Eve Wilder (former Cop Shop star Lynda Stoner), comedy stereotype dumb-blonde Barbie Cox (Jayne Healy), spirited biker Rita Connors (Glenda Linscott), working-class and rather moralistic housewife Nancy McCormack (Julia Blake in her third Prisoner role) and loveable former madam Jessie Windom (Pat Evison). Old favourite Reb Kean also makes a shocking return.
New storylines for 1986 involve prison breaks and serial killers, while Wentworth is the scene of yet another riot which leads to one prisoner being lynched. From now on, obviously there's lots of fun to be had. Long time prison toughie Lou Kelly is put in her place by the even tougher Rita. The increasingly vicious Lou was played just a little too well by actress Louise Siversen so it was nice to see her get her comeuppance.
Scripts increasingly emphasised a less serious tone. With Rita we again have the feeling that almost anything can happen and when she takes over as leader of the women we finally have a top dog who doesn't take herself too seriously. Though an appealing character, things got slightly out-of-hand as several of Rita's relatives and associates are introduced. These new characters included preacher Dan Moulton (Sean Scully) who also briefly romanced Ann Reynolds, Rita's brother 'Bongo' Connors (Shane Connor) and his girlfriend 'Roach' Waters (Linda Hartley), and cackling elderly bikie and granny-from-hell Ida Brown (Paddy Burnett). These associates were not universally liked by fans, with Ida particularly disliked.
Like Bea Smith, Rita develops an intense hatred of Joan Ferguson, which quickly escalates into an all-out war. Here Joan Ferguson returns to the tougher vendetta storylines that had been eschewed in recent years in favour of more sensitive, personal storylines. This Rita Connors/Joan Ferguson vendetta led to several explosive moments, and Rita soon became arguably the most popular and successful new character to appear during the show's last two years on air. A new prison gang develops: Rita and Nancy become a very close and oddly matched team, with Lexie and Julie entering the fold. Rita comically names her gang the Wentworth Warriors while Rita's own nickname is 'Rita the Beater'. The chief baddies are Alice and Lou though Alice soon sees sense and joins Rita's gang. A new villain Janet Williams (Christine Earle) joins Lou as trouble maker.
In early 1986 Lou Kelly succeeds in ousting Ann Reynolds from her job. Her resignation is not accepted however and she is given a couple of months off work instead, allowing further outside Wentworth storylines for Ann. Her temporary replacement is the tough Bob Moran (Peter Adams) who initially makes several enemies with his unbending ways but soon gains everyone's respect with his strength and commitment to the prisoner's welfare. After Ann's return he stays on as Officer for a couple of months while someone thoughtfully gets rid of Lou Kelly, much the relief of the other prisoners, although viewers would miss the character.
Ettie Parslow makes a welcome return appearance in early 1986. She manages to stay away from Wentworth this time and her scenes are with Ann and Bongo and Roach, outside the Prison.
1986 is set when despised child killer (actually euthanasia but try explaining that to a group of simple-minded criminals) Kath Maxwell enters Wentworth. Her crime makes instant enemies of Alice and many others while her cool and tough attitude only serves to alienate Rita. Prisoner here benefits from a great performance by Kate Hood as Kath. Kath is soon joined by gentle giant and viewer favourite Merle Jones (Roseanne Hull Brown) who conveniently gets not so gentle when her considerable temper is aroused. The 1986 cast is rounded out by sexy blackmailer Lisa Mullins (Nicola Paull, then Terrie Waddell), career con-woman Lorelei Wilkinson (Paula Duncan), wise cracking bad girl Vicki McPherson (Rebecca Dines), sneering schemer Rose 'Spider' Simpson (Taya Straton), and fiery young aboriginal inmate Sarah West (Kylie Belling). Meanwhile Lexie's and Julie's storylines are nicely concluded and the characters are written out of the series. Here the writers show the courage to let go of a character when the story-line dictates rather than drag them on indefinitely.
The Officers basically remain static, comprising Meg Morris who had appeared continually from episode one, long time trouble maker Joan Ferguson, Governor Ann Reynolds, and the venerable semi-regular cum lead character Joyce Barry. Late in 1986 this line-up was joined by three new trainee Officers: apprentice meanie Rodney Adams (Phillip Hyde), nervous new recruit Delia Stout (Desiree Smith), and Meg's son, the upstanding Marty Jackson (Michael Winchester).
Though not necessarily better written or acted than those of previous years, the more varied new characters of 1986 seemed a refreshing change from the somewhat earnest new characters introduced during the 1985 season. That said the enforced joviality - clearly a reaction to the more sober previous year - did irritate some fans.
During the later stages of 1986, the writers expanded on the successful formula with some original ideas and more outlandish storylines. On the outlandish side we had the prisoners work experience on a boat out at sea which turns into another opportunity for Rita to menace arch-enemy Joan Ferguson. The origins of this unusual storyline are unclear; perhaps it was a desperate bid for a last-minute ratings boost as the show's renewal time approached? In any event a number of fans regard this section of the storyline as the show's lowest point ever.
We then follow Rita Connors' harrowing experiences on being transferred to notorious Blackmoor prison. This turned out to be a thrilling and highly popular storyline which introduced an equally popular new character, Blackmoor's evil and corrupt Governor Ernest Craven as played by familiar actor Ray Meagher, along with the last new regular characters to join the show: Blackmoor prisoners Michelle "Brumby" Tucker (Sheryl Munks) and "Spike" Marsh (Victoria Rowland). These characters were all seen at Blackmoor, before making the move to Wentworth itself.
Prisoner ceased production in September 1986 but fortunately they still had eight weeks to write and film an impressive conclusion storyline to the series. This meant that many major plotlines and concepts that had been central to the series for many years could be convincingly resolved. As usual, Prisoner was ahead of the soapy crowd and finished with a bang - not a whimper, and many fans regard the closing storyline as their favourite.
The series has emerged as easily the best drama ever produced
by The Grundy Organisation. Remember that the more critically
acclaimed Australian dramas such as The Sullivans, Cop Shop, Carson's
Law and The Flying Doctors were all produced by
Crawford Productions. When Prisoner was launched The Grundy
Organisation had only been producing drama for five years, and the show
aired on Channel Ten, known for outwardly commercial programs geared
towards a young audience and traditionally third place in the ratings
behind Nine and Seven. Nevertheless the series frequently transcended
this, with episodes displaying solid and engaging drama.
Originally written 1996
Uploaded to this site December 2000
Last updated 9 February 2013
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[ii] Stavordale, Brett. "Prisoner: 4 Will Quit Show." TV Week. 27 March 1979, page 5.
[iii] MacSween, Prue. "Sexy? Not Me." TV Week. 21 April 1979, page 11; 38.
[iv] MacSween, Prue. "Sexy? Not Me." TV Week. 21 April 1979, page 11; 38.
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[xi] Robertson, Fred. "This Woman is a Prisoner." TV Week. 23 August 1980, page 8.
[xii] Johnson, Jackie. "I'm a Loner." TV Week. 27 June 1981, page 13.
[xiii] Johnson, Jackie. "I'm a Loner." TV Week. 27 June 1981, page 13.
[xiv] "Prisoner Stars Call 2-Day Strike." TV Week. 7 June 1980, page 33
[xv] "Here's Health, George is Back." TV Week, 1980.
[xvi] Morrow, Richard. "Doctor Orders George to Quit." TV Week. 28 June 1980, page 27.
[xvii] Morrow, Richard. "Doctor Orders George to Quit." TV Week. 28 June 1980, page 27.
[xviii] "Heart Attack Can't Stop George." TV Week. 27 December 1980, page 12.
[xix] Russell, George. "Writer's War of Words." TV Week. 2 May 1981, page 39.
[xx] Russell, George. "Writer's War of Words." TV Week. 2 May 1981, page 39.
[xxi] Livingstone, Ian. "The Box Explodes." TV Scene. 9 April-15 April 1977, page 7.
[xxii] Livingstone, Ian. "John Blasts Off." TV Scene. 21 May-27 May 1977, page 5.
[xxiii] Courtis, Brian. "Awaiting the family verdict" ["In View" column.] The Age. 3 February 1981, page 2.
[xxiv] Groves, Don and Jacqueline Lee Lewes. "Soapies down the drain?" Inside TV column, The Sun-Herald. 8 March 1981, page 51.
[xxv] Johnson, Jackie. "Candy's Behind Bars." TV Week. 7 February 1981, page 13.
[xxvi] "Wisdom Girl Joins Prisoner." TV Week. 25 April 1981, page 64.
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[xxviii] Johnson, Jackie. "Prisoner Star's Shock Decision to Quit." TV Week. 2 May 1981, page 5.
[xxix] Johnson, Jackie. "Kate's Image Turns Timid." TV Week. 24 October 1981, page 41.
[xxx] Johnson, Jackie. "Kate's Image Turns Timid." TV Week. 24 October 1981, page 41.
[xxxi] "Actors Under Arrest!" TV Week. 3 October 1981, page 39.
[xxxii] "Interview: Gerard Maguire (Jim Fletcher)" Prisoner: the Wentworth Star. Issue 12, December 1997, page 22.
[xxxiii] Fletcher, Tim. "Queen Bea is still top dog" Burton Mail. 4 November 2008. URL: http://www.burtonmail.co.uk/burtonmail-leisure/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=363649 . Accessed 25 November 2008.