1979-1986 - 692 x 60 minute episodes - Produced by The
Reg Grundy Organisation for Network Ten
Prisoner, the soap about women in prison, is one of Australia's most well-known series and has become a cult classic around the world still popular after 20 years. The show began life as a serious, 16 part self-contained drama series with hard-hitting scripts and a certain degree of realism. The first episode of the Grundy's produced series screened in Australia in February 1979 and the series was an instant hit. Soon 16 episodes became 20 and then the series became an indefinitely running serial.
Set in modern, maximum security Wentworth Detention Centre the opening sequences were seen through the eyes of two terrified new women inmates, Karen Travers and Lynn Warner (Peta Toppano and Kerry Armstrong), ordinary women and key audience identification figures. Opening storylines depicted their difficult adjustment to the horrors of prison life and presented a frightening band of prison denizens; including tough lesbian bikie Franky Doyle (Carol Burns) who became infatuated with the refined Karen, unsympathetic inmate boss Bea Smith (Val Lehman), wicked elderly inmate Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance) and aimless youngster Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann). Also on hand were sadistic officer Vera 'Vinegar Tits' Bennett (Fiona Spence), caring officer Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne) and supercilious Governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King.)
The progression through the first year of the series saw the opening realism give way to more typical soap opera style plots, such as the romance between Karen and prison doctor Greg Miller (Barry Quin), though Prisoner always maintained a level of quality much higher than its peers. The highly popular Franky Doyle was one of several characters who did not continue much further than the originally planned 16 episodes (actress Carol Burns who played Franky did not want a continuing role and left the series.)
Lynn, and then Karen were both ultimately revealed to be innocent of their original charges and were released from the series as the storyline dictated. Indeed it seemed viewers turned away from these terrified innocents and instead found allegiance with the rougher element in Wentworth. Bea, Lizzie and Doreen gleefully thumbed their nose at authority and quickly became the central characters in the series.
Various plots would also include the staff, Vera, Meg and Erica, who were joined early on by stern Deputy Governor and token bloke Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire). They were seen in their day to day dealing with the inmates and with one another, and occasionally shown in their personal lives away from the prison.
Built around the general formula of tough leader Bea, and her friends the faithful though often troublesome old mate Lizzie and dim Doreen and their interaction with assorted other inmates serving sentences of varying lengths the series became compulsive viewing, and violence and drama aside, there were many humorous moments to keep fans amused.
Several other memorable characters emerged after the first year on air; unscrupulous prison bookie Margo Gaffney (Jane Clifton), impetuous and single-minded tart Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton) and sensitive but assertive older lesbian Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbit) all played long running roles in the series. Short-term villains were also a constant cause of trouble; sly schemer Kay White (Sandy Gore), menacing drug dealer Marie Winter (Maggie Millar), and later the sneering and ruthless murderer Nola MacKenzie (Carole Skinner.)
These challengers to Queen Bea helped keep the prisoners and their keepers busy and kept the storylines jumping. The tough and seemingly invincible Bea always managed to fight off these challengers... eventually, and also continued to keep Wentworth drug free (Bea's daughter had died of a drug overdose before the series began).
After three years on top the storylines inevitably started to get that familiar ring to them and some of the performers decided to leave the series, or were asked to leave. Fiona Spence (Vera) and Gerard Maguire (Jim) permanently departed while others asked for time off to appear in other productions. The producers complied and Val Lehman (Bea), Colette Mann (Doreen), Betty Bobbit (Judy) and Sheila Florance (Lizzie) all took a temporary leave of absence. In their places Marie Winter, Sandy Edwards (Louise Le Nay) and Kate Peterson (Olivia Hamnett) appeared in major roles that provided a great highlight in the series and a welcome break from the usual formula. After several months on top however, they reached the end of the line and as Bea, Doreen, Judy and Lizzie returned each of the newcomers departed the series. The series again settled into its familiar formula and introduced new guest characters with naive and loveable youngster Susie Driscoll (Jacqui Gordon) appearing to some success while prostitute and heroin addict Donna Mason (Arkie Whitely) provided the show's first proper drug storyline.
The series had been on air three and a half years and had included almost every conceivable plot contrivance by this stage. The series was also now without a true nasty screw. Though earlier we had the acidic Vera, the stern Jim, and the spiteful and ambitious Officer Colleen Powell (Judith MacGrath), after Jim and Vera left Colleen had subsequently mellowed on finally being promoted to the much-sought-after Deputy Governor position. Meanwhile the once brutal Bea Smith had slowly softened to become more a mother figure amongst the prisoners. Things were beginning to look rather cosy in the cells, so the time was ripe for a new dose of terror. And soon enough, in episode #287 in walked Officer Joan Ferguson, portrayed by Maggie Kirkpatrick.
From her opening moments, with an air of sinister calm, fans knew that there was plenty in store with this particular officer, and they were not to be disappointed. Quickly nicknamed The Freak, the evil and corrupt Officer Ferguson quickly found her niche in the series and instantly became a huge media star thanks to her riveting portrayal. Her appearance quickly beefed up the scripts with a long running vendetta with arch enemy Bea Smith and shady dealings with other prisoners, including equally nasty Nola MacKenzie, and proved a catalyst for some of the most compelling storylines seen in the series.
By 1983 Joan Ferguson had possibly become the most infamous and most important character in the series. Also by this time several of the stars who had been largely responsible for the enormous success of the series had begun leaving. Having done as much as they could with their roles and planning the next chapter in their career, popular stars Colette Mann (Doreen), Jane Clifton (Margo), Amanda Muggleton (Chrissie), Patsy King (Erica Davidson), Val Lehman (Bea) and Sheila Florance (Lizzie) left their long running roles in the series leaving Elspeth Ballantyne (Meg) as the show's only remaining original cast member. These departures, particularly those of Bea and Lizzie, were a big blow to the series and one from which it took years to recover.
Certainly there was a gradual decline in ratings after Bea's departure. The show was taken off in Brisbane due to low ratings and many other country areas followed suit. The show's viewing figures, while remaining healthy enough in Melbourne and Sydney for several years, would never recover.
During this period, in a somewhat natural progression, the writers recognising the enormous talents they had in Maggie Kirkpatrick and Gerda Nicolson (who played Ann Reynolds, the new Governor replacing Erica Davidson in 1983) shifted slightly away from the infighting antics of the prisoners and placed greater emphasis on storylines depicting staff politics and Joan's treacherous battle with the Governor and other officials.
Joan also continued in her corrupt dealings with prisoners, this time dealing with cool villain Sonia Stevens (Tina Bursill). The series continued in this format through 1984 and 1985 though fans had to contend with several jarring cast shake-ups (mostly concerning the prisoners) in a seemingly futile attempt to recreate something resembling the popular Bea Lizzie Doreen gang of years before.
Finally by the beginning of 1986, with basically the third new cast of prisoners in only two years, a new gang emerged that indeed seemed to fit the elusive line-up that everyone had been striving so long and so hard to attain. Led by the joyously rebellious bikie Rita Connors (Glenda Linscott) the staid and sober days in the rec room were over with a new top dog who took gleeful enjoyment in giving the screws a hard time, which was, after all what we all tuned in to see. The popular Rita Connors character took the series by storm and gave it a good shake-out. Interesting scripts were back in vogue and just as the Joan Ferguson character had done more than three years earlier Rita succeeded in changing the emphasis of the storylines and re-igniting interest in a somewhat tired formula.
Rita and Joan quickly became sworn enemies and were soon battling things out in a series of explosive vendetta storylines. Rita found another adversary in despised child killer Kath Maxwell (Kate Hood) but succeeded, much like Bea Smith, in creating a character who was at once exciting, infuriating and sympathetic.
Nonetheless the end was near. Though the series was still getting quite decent ratings, often winning its time slot, the viewing figures had been steadily declining for several years. In September 1986 production ceased on the series, though luckily there had been eight weeks warning enabling the writers to craft a fitting conclusion storyline. The closing storylines neatly resolved several of the long running plot threads that had played an important role over the preceding years with many fans regarding the closing sequences amongst the best ever. Certainly a fitting end to a truly great television series.
At the time the series ended 692 48 minute episodes had been produced over eight years (just six hours short of Australia's longest running serial at that time The Young Doctors) but things did not end there. Channel Ten immediately began repeating the series, and while they did have a few false starts with it, from 1992 they began again from the very first episode and repeated the entire series in a late night time-slot. Australian pay-TV operator Foxtel then began repeating Prisoner from the beginning in November 1997.
Notable also is the cult success the series has attained in the United Kingdom. The series became a late-night hit there in the late 1980s and continued in various regions and at different rates through until the mid-1990s. The series became so popular there, that even the theme became a hit. The Prisoner theme song that ran over the end titles of many episodes was On The Inside written by Allan Caswell, and sung by Lynne Hamilton. On 6 May 1989 the single was released in the UK and it peaked at number 3 in the charts on 3 June. In 1998 Channel Five repeated the entire series and more than 20 years after the earliest episodes were originally produced a new generation of fans could tune in for the latest comic line from Lizzie or to check out Erica's latest hairstyle - and to enjoy the fundamental storylines which frequently still worked as straight drama.
Because Prisoner is unusual as an old show resurrected in a new country many years after it was first produced, it did apparently seemed rather dated by the prevailing industry standards at the time it rocketed to success in the UK in the late 1980s early 1990s. This has unfortunately resulted in the series becoming synonymous in the UK with bad acting, wobbling sets, and generally shoddy production values. Previously it had been UK serial Crossroads that was relentlessly mocked for alleged bad acting and for wobbly sets, a rather disingenuous criticism that knockers apparently like to make when they want to ridicule a show they have never watched.
Australian critics had not unanimously praised the show however many apparently understood that though some soaps are serious (such as The Sullivans) not all of them have to be. In contrast many UK critics inexplicably placed heavy emphasis on the show's supposed lack of realism. Outrageous plotlines were mocked by the critics, who mistakenly believed that the show was intended as a serious documentary, not a Channel Ten soap.
Actually the show is typical or even above average for an early 1980s Australian soap in terms of technical quality, while the acting and writing are most definitely better-than-average. While some of the fight and action sequences were less than satisfactory - belying the rushed shooting schedule and low budget - the series ultimately is still basically a good quality production that still looks good decades on. The storylines never linger and the characters ring true. As for the alleged technical deficiencies, with many old television programs now available on DVD it seems clear Prisoner was not especially inept for its genre, or the era. Selected episodes of Prisoner had been released on VHS in the 1990s and later a different selection of episodes were released in DVD in three "Best of…" compilations. Then, starting September 2007, the entire series of Prisoner began to be released on DVD, in what will ultimately be a 174-disc box set.
In the UK, apparently as a sort of shorthand for its low budget videotaped look, the program inexplicably developed an enduring reputation for having shaky sets, the infamous "wobbling walls". (None of the critics in Australia or the US, many of whom disliked the series intensely, had ever noticed the show's supposed moving scenery.) As with practically any television series, there is the rare and occasional one second instance of a shuddering wall if you watch carefully enough. However the stereotype seems to suggest obvious moving walls in practically every episode, or at least that they were obvious or somewhat a regular occurrence. In the UK this stereotype always seems to be repeated - even by some people there who say they watched the show - and even though the DVD releases mean that anyone can now watch the series to prove for themselves that rarely will there be a wobbly wall in sight (and never an obvious wobbly wall). Overall Prisoner had about as many wobbly wall moments in its entire run of 692 one hour episodes as Fawlty Towers had in any one of its thirty minute installments.
In 2013, Prisoner inspired new series Wentworth, a reimagining of the original with new actors recreating young versions of such original series characters as Bea, Franky, Doreen, Lizzie, Meg, Vera and Erica.
There is also this more detailed overview of Prisoner, and an essay on Prisoner and the critical and fan reactions it provoked.
Page originally uploaded May 2000
Last updated 9 February 2013