1981 - 26 x 60 minute episodes - Produced
by the Reg Grundy Organisation for the Ten Network
By 1980 Australian soap opera producers had begun to eye the United States as a potential market for their shows. That year Prisoner had begun screening on Los Angeles station KTLA to great success. The women's prison drama was soon attracting decent audiences in several other stations across America.
This led to attendance by Reg Grundy Organisation executives at the National Association of Television Program Executives, a United States television selling conference held in San Francisco in 1980. There, they attempted to peddle an American made version of The Restless Years to American producers, along with the pilot idea for an Australian made men's prison serial drama titled Punishment. [i]
The pilot episode of Punishment was shot in Sydney over twenty days in early 1980. The Ten Network in Australia soon ordered an ongoing series, production of which commenced in June 1980. [ii]
Early reports continued to suggest Los Angeles station KTLA were interested in the new serial, which had been in its planning stages almost a year due to the overseas success of Prisoner. Location footage of the fictional prison's exercise yard was shot at East Sydney Technical College, whose buildings had served as a prison decades before and where 74 men had been hanged. [iii]
The pilot, directed by Rod Hardy and Bruce Best and written by Reg Watson and Alan Coleman, introduces the prison and several of the lead characters. The main setting is the fictional Longridge Prison, a men's jail about 145 kilometres from a state capital.
The series was devised explicitly to examine the lives of people trapped either side of the prison system, thereby placing greater emphasis on the outside than Prisoner did. Bruce Best, also the show's Executive Producer, reported that the story was based on fact.
"Our researchers have spent months talking to prisoners and former prisoners, prison psychiatrists and psychologists and prison authorities to ensure authenticity. We're attempting to take an overview of the prison system and we're asking the public to think about it. Punishment won't be a son of Prisoner. But it has been inspired by that program's success. It will be more of a character serial than an adventure as we look at the prisoners' codes of behaviour. The remarkable thing we've discovered in our research is that there is a tremendous amount of humour inside." [iv]
Unfortunately, there was little humour on display in the program itself. Even worse, the pace and rhythm of the opening episode is clumsy and fails to sufficiently engage the viewer in the story or the characters. Rather than presenting a gripping cohesive tale that introduces the premise and characters (like the premiere of Prisoner had), the episode's narrative seems muddled with flashbacks and premature forays into prisoners' backgrounds and the travails of their family left on the outside.
Opening shots of the pilot episode feature moody images of prison architecture and a dripping tap, which suggests time drifting away as the incarcerated men sit abandoned in their cells. The story then lurches into a flashback to a (very) violent fist fight at a wharf. Here an intervening Good Samaritan sailor, Tim Jarratt (David Spencer), is knocked unconscious and framed for a bashing death. A voice over informs viewers this man has been found guilty and sentenced to a long term and we cut to a sequence of Tim entering prison.
After this the prison Governor is introduced. He is the rather stiff and straight Alan Smith, played by actor and variety singer Barry Crocker with a short, neat haircut and glasses. Smith has a rather depressed manner but is an idealistic and thoughtful man with an academic background who can't understand why his progressive approach is not working.
Smith argues aggressively with the chief Officer Jack Hudson (Ken Wayne), who insistently rejects the newly introduced "C Block model", constantly presenting union rules and staff objections that serve to make the new style cell block unworkable. In the unfolding storyline it would become clear that Smith and Hudson were in a constant battle over which of them is actually running the prison.
Then it is back to incomprehensible flashbacks. Young Paul Wells (Michael C Smith) receives a call at home from his father Sam (Brian Harrison) requesting help. Without letting his warm and devoted mother Alice (Anne Haddy) know what is going on, Paul retrieves a hidden gun and meets his father who has been cornered in a darkened amusement park by a torch carrying assailant. A panicked Paul follows his father's command to fire into the light. He does so and the figure falls - later to be revealed as a policemen who has been killed by the bullet. Cue more voice over sentencing as the vision cuts to Paul and Sam being inducted to prison. This scene also features Larry Morrison (Mike Preston) being inducted.
Intervening scenes return to the arguments between Smith and Hudson. These scenes seem to be based on the similar arguments in Prisoner between Governor Davidson and the recalcitrant and acidic Senior Officer Vera Bennett. While those scenes were tense and enjoyably bitchy, the repetitive argument scenes between Smith and Hudson that punctuate the episode just seem lifeless and pallid - no matter how much the actors loudly snipe and yell at one another in an apparent attempt to add drama. The two characters seem like clones rather than believable people.
After these clumsy introductory scenes there is still no real storyline emerging, but at least there are some scenes amongst the prisoners. Morrison is put in to share with the young and flippant Rick Munro (Mel Gibson). Rick is a friendly but apparently dim young man who wears a cigarette pack stuffed in the sleeve of his tight white T-Shirt while smoking only roll-your-owns. He misses his sexy girlfriend Kate Randall (Kris McQuade) and has a picture of her in his cell.
Kate was introduced entertaining a male friend in her bedroom. Kate provides a topless nude glimpse while ushering her beau out so she can go visit her main squeeze Rick, who she playfully implied worked in hospitality (he spends a lot of time working "behind bars"). Kate arrives to visit him wearing a low cut red dress causing Rick to lust over her cleavage in the visiting booth. Unfortunately the fragmented narrative soon seems to side track again as the story bogs down in the visiting room and time is spent introducing the various wives and girlfriends of several of the prisoners.
Larry's wife Susan (Michelle Fawdon) visits and while he tries to advise her of an important key he has hidden at home, she quickly disowns him and storms out. Alice Wells also visits and we learn she supports and pities Paul while holding the despised Sam responsible for their predicament.
Later as the various women ride the bus away from the prison, Susan Morrison is so perturbed by Kate's incessantly flippant and cheerful chatter that she runs from the bus in a panic. Kate helps herself to the handbag Susan has left behind and is intrigued by the security box key it contains. Abandoned by the bus Susan is about to throw herself from an ocean side cliff when at the last moment she is rescued by a friendly stranger.
As viewers wonder where all this might be heading Susan awakes that night in a strange bed in a darkened house as moody library music is heard. She is soon met by the friendly stranger played by Robert Coleby, who introduces himself as Christopher Lang, a medical doctor. While she doesn't seem at all perturbed when he casually reports he has sedated her, she is rather taken aback when his throwaway comment reveals he works as a doctor at a nearby prison. Soon she returns to her old rooming house to collect her possessions; however she has been followed there by vicious criminal Hopgood (Robin Stewart). Meanwhile Kate has managed to gain access to Larry Morrison's security vault where she finds a large suitcase filled with cash and a large supply of heroin.
Finally the story returns to prison where foundations for some ongoing situations seem to be being established. Vicious Officer Jack Hudson hits young and innocent inmate Paul Wells. Hudson and Smith discuss the imminent hanging of pretty boy bit part prisoner Christos - the apparent lover of briefly glimpsed inmate Arthur Willets (Jon Ewing).
Smith also asks Hudson to remove Munro from his post of gardener around the home of Smith and his as yet unseen wife. Hudson seems to be taunting an embarrassed Smith when he asks why he has asked for the transfer. It seems clear there is some sort of friendly relationship, or perhaps even a sexual attraction, between Mrs Smith and the handsome young prisoner. In any event Hudson soon proposes an abrupt and unannounced transfer for Munro - they can quickly grab him from the next morning's lineup and whisk him away before any of the other prisoners realise. In fact this quick transfer was conducted to explain the abrupt departure of Mel Gibson's character from the story when the actor wisely decided to not participate in the ongoing series.
For the show's first cliff-hanger, a telephone call to Smith announces that Christos has received a stay of execution just as other news comes through from the cell block that he has been found dead in his cell.
Overall the debut episode's story seems fragmented and rather than present one clear and contained story it instead introduces a range of disparate story threads that side track away from the prison before the viewer has been properly introduced to it or its inhabitants. Indeed several prisoners seem to be little more than cameos. There's Christos' angry friend Arthur Willets being dragged out of his cell to be taken to solitary. Then there's an endlessly guitar strumming older prisoner Andy "Pop" Epstein (Arthur Sherman). However, we barely get to know them.
The technical standard seems uneven. There are some nice shots in the prison building, but much of the episode looks gloomy rather than atmospheric. The show overall has a cheap, videotaped look.
The titles sequence begins with a street scene - just like the original Prisoner opener that was phased out after four episodes in 1979 - which freeze frames on the one stationary man. After this a rather effective series of animated illustrations seem to depict the lost denizens lined up in a male prison and torn-from-the-newspaper-headlines tales of crime as grim theme music trumpets.
End credits roll over abstract black and white images of prison imagery: shots of stone walls, wire fences and barbed wire are shown as the downbeat theme song plays. This song, with its highly literal lyrics ("They call it Punishment! They call it Punishment!"), was composed by Paul O'Gorman and Doug Trevor and sung by O'Gorman. The lettering is a striking crimson and the regular cast members are credited in alphabetical order.
Several of the cast members took their roles seriously, spending time researching their roles and examining their characters. Michael C Smith made several visits to Parramatta Jail to visit prisoners and officers.
"It was nothing like I imagined but as frightening - although not in the sense the media has built up. The mental picture of prisons now is of people being beaten up and hysterical images of caged animals but it's not so. There are just a lot of lonely men out there just trying to get on with their lives." [v]
Smith later reported that:
"We could never be given an accurate report by the media of what things are really like in there. I felt it was important to go into the jail if I was going to play the part of a prisoner for real." [vi]
Indeed Smith took the research so seriously he was soon attending weekly meetings at the prison. He formed personal associations with prisoners who communicated with him by mail and sometimes even used their allocated telephone calls to speak to him at home. [vii]
Barry Crocker who was known as a singer and variety performer and for playing Barry McKenzie in two feature films, told TV Week that "I'll be pleased if people don't recognise me. As an actor I'd like people to believe the character I'm playing." Compared to the Barry McKenzie character Crocker said that Alan Smith would be "quite the opposite. He's a quiet, depressed sort of person." [viii]
Of the ongoing tension between his character Smith and officer Hudson, Crocker explained that "Smith believes in rehabilitation, giving the prisoners a bit of leeway and improved conditions. Hudson is one of the old school - keep them in cages and disciplined." Crocker researched the role by visiting Sydney's Parramatta prison where he spent four hours talking to prisoners, warders, and the superintendent. "The atmosphere there was awful. The tension in the air was like electricity. As soon as I arrived I could hear the whisper pass from person to person: 'Barry Crocker's here, Barry Crocker, Barry Crocker'. It was eerie." [ix]
Ken Wayne who took the role of thuggish officer Jack Hudson explained the character to TV Week.
"In the old days Hudson would have become superintendent one day. Now, with the appointment of an outsider and an academic as superintendent, he sees that it will never happen. He's of the old school that believes prisoners are in jail to be punished, not reformed,and that brings him into conflict with the new superintendent." [x]
Wayne had researched his role by speaking to former prisoners and prison officers.
"Discussing it, the ex-prisoners say they prefer my man. They know how far they can push him. He's predictable. They're suspicious of the new type. They have a grudging respect for the Hudson type, no matter how hard he is, if he's straight." [xi]
While this is all well and good, the question remains as to whether such seriousness was the best approach for an ongoing serial? The well-researched realistic angle seems better suited to a feature film. For a weekly soap opera drama it seems much too heavy handed, wearying and intense. In any event much the same theme of tensions between the progressive governor and the old school deputy had been explored in Prisoner with Erica Davidson and Vera Bennett - but in an engaging and entertaining way.
Meanwhile the role of Hopgood was more your stereotypical villain. English actor Robin Stewart, previously the son of Sid Abbott (Sid James) in UK comedy series Bless This House, was signed up for four weeks of Punishment. Stewart described Hopgood as:
"A verbal muscleman. He's the one who says, 'If you don't do this and this I'll cut your ears off'. And then sends in the boys to do the dirty work. Hopgood is a good character to play. There are lots of things you can do with that sort of character. He's not a one-dimensional, cardboard figure." [xii]
By episode three several changes were already apparent. Several actors - Mel Gibson (prisoner Rick Munro), Michelle Fawdon (Larry's earnest wife Susan Morrison), Robert Coleby (the friendly prison doctor who had not even been seen inside the prison) - had disappeared.
New characters included officer Mike Rogers (Ross Thomson), an idealistic teacher forced of economic necessity to take the unwanted job of prison officer. His home life with wife Heather (Penne Hackforth-Jones) is examined in great depth. She soon befriends Alice Wells and ignores her husband's warnings that as an officer's wife it could be seen as breaking rules to fraternise with a relative of the Wells prisoners. Much time is spent on Heather and Alice sipping cocktails in the hotel lounge and planning shopping expeditions in the small and unfriendly town that has become their new home. While the friendship between Heather and Alice seemed sincere and was well played, this was hardly riveting drama.
Also introduced is Governor's wife Julie Smith (Julie McGregor). The apparently prim and class conscious Julie resents being locked up in her prison grounds quarters and having to advise guards of her movements: usually trips into town for hair appointments and shopping excursions. Julie McGregor went on to a level of fame as the ditzy Betty in long running Australian situation comedy series Hey Dad..!
By this stage many more attempts are made to depict the oppressive prison atmosphere on screen. The much discussed and purportedly flawed new "C Block" of the pilot episode (a small corner of large and open cage-like barred cells) seems to have been dispensed with. It seems convenient that this block's simple and spare cell design was in the first episode described as an innovative experiment but a resounding failure. For the ongoing series it has been replaced by a two storey, older style stone cell block of small enclosed cells and iron work stairways and balcony walkways that looks far more effective and foreboding on screen. This new set had been based on the real life Parramatta prison. [xiii]
In an apparent bid to build the sense of dread and oppression in the prison there's an omnipresent voice issuing commands over the prison public address system. Cell block and prison garden scenes are constantly overlaid with monotone "42798, Jones to the kitchen"-type announcements from a never seen announcer. Unfortunately these voice overs seem cloying and obvious rather than inspired or effective. Like several elements in the series you can see what they are trying to achieve, but it doesn't quite come off. They also have the unfortunate effect of recalling the UK cult spy drama series The Prisoner. In a series already battling to avert unavoidable comparisons with the similar - and similarly titled - Prisoner, evoking comparisons with THE Prisoner as well is just too much.
Some new characters enliven the proceedings. George Spartels is the rebellious young inmate David "Robbo" Roberts, apparently now filling the role of cocky and "appealing" prisoner previously taken by Gibson. Rostered on to garden duty, Robbo fancies himself as someone the Governor's wife might enjoy communing with. Teaming up with Larry Morrison he plans to escape while on garden duty; they will secretly hide in the spacious boot of Mrs Smith's Leyland P76 when she drives into town.
The escape attempts are played for comedy which is mildly funny. With a double cross story twist emerging in Robbo's plan, these sequences are probably the liveliest element of the episode. In other story threads Sam Wells shows little concern for his son Paul. After spending his hours leaning on a broom and eavesdropping in the cell block, Sam sets himself up as Hudson's prison informant reporting on the escape plot, in return for hopefully an easier ride for himself.
More time is devoted to the snarling and unappealing inmate Arthur Willets and the wise old American prisoner "Pop" Epstein. Arthur is apparently the prison's unofficial inmate boss, or "top dog". Unfortunately, unlike Prisoner's Bea Smith, this uncompromising, flawed and deeply troubled person does not also have the characteristics of a quick wit or charismatic and irresistible appeal that Bea had. The rat faced Arthur merely seems cold, evil, and unpleasant. "Pop", like the character of "Mum" in Prisoner, was a wise, advice giving, seen-it-all old timer with pot plants in his cell.
As stories progress Paul Wells has been pushed from a high
stairway by evil officer Jack Hudson. Like Prisoner's Lynn
Warner, Paul quickly learns it is much safer to claim it was an
Outside the prison the evil villain Hopgood is still in hot pursuit of Larry Morrison's suitcase of cash which is now in the possession of Kate, who makes plans to skip the country. Hopgood is now assisted by a new stooge Howe (Terry Bader). These extended interludes away from Longridge are strictly speaking pointless diversions given their very tenuous link to the prison. After all, Kate's boyfriend is not at Longridge anymore, and while Prisoner frequently explored events leading to a woman's incarceration in prison, if Kate gets caught by police she won't be sent to the men only Longridge.
Nevertheless, given the pale and pallid nature of the events internal to the prison, Kate's activities emerge among the more lively and suspenseful sequences as we hope she succeeds in her quest. The characters of Kate and of Hopgood would disappear after the first few episodes.
Another new character added for the ongoing series was the
apparently calm tempered
officer Wally Webber (Brian Wenzel).
Later episodes introduced Rosalyn Rowney (Lisa Peers), the girlfriend of inmate Tim Jarrett, who finds herself in hot water while attempting to gather evidence for his retrial. Also introduced is tough new prisoner Gazza (James C. Steele) who is sentenced for six years after bashing a policeman.
Joining in episode nine of the serial was Cathy Wells (Cornelia Frances), Sam Wells' stylish sister. Cathy rushed back from America and stepped in to support the incarcerated members of her family after Alice suddenly had to leave and resume control of the family business. In reality, Alice's portrayer Anne Haddy had abruptly left the series due to illness. [xiv]
Then prisoner Tim Jarrett departed after his portrayer David Spencer opted to leave the production after his initial seven week contract. Spencer accepted the offer to act, teach and direct at the actor's studio in Montreal, Canada where he had trained. As a result, his character Tim would only feature in the serial's first ten episodes. [xv]
Production on the series had been fully completed and the twenty six episodes of Punishment were in the can by the end of 1980 - before even the pilot had gone to air. Several episodes were scripted by former prison inmate Bob Jewson who had written the script for men's prison feature film Stir (1980) [xvi] Meanwhile former Prisoner and The Young Doctors actor Anne Lucas assisted the script editor on three episodes of the show. [xvii]
Many months after production had begun Punishment was finally scheduled to begin screening, starting early 1981. A decision about further episodes would be made after the first batch had screened. [xviii] However when the series was eventually programmed by the Ten Network in early 1981 it was buried in inappropriate time slots all but guaranteed to generate lacklustre viewing figures.
In Melbourne Punishment screened 8.30 pm on Saturday evenings. Saturday was Australia's least watched television evening, and in any event, a gritty, violent and realistic prison drama hardly seemed appropriate for viewers opting to stay in that night. In Sydney, Punishment screened on Friday nights, and was a ratings "disaster" there. [xix] The show was deemed a failure and taken off air after only three episodes had screened. [xx] [xxi]
The unscreened episodes were played out later that year over the summer non ratings season. In Sydney the series resumed with the as yet unscreened episode four. A compilation of events from the three episodes already broadcast was screened as a pre-credits recap. In Melbourne the series returned starting from the first episode. Other states followed either the Sydney or Melbourne arrangements. [xxii]
In Melbourne, Punishment returned Tuesday 24 November 1981 in the 8.30 pm slot, following Holiday Island. By the end of summer it moved to later timeslots, before disappearing from the schedules with little fanfare. Needless to say, the program was not picked up for a second series.
Apart from the deadly timeslot allocated to the series, its failure does not seem surprising because the program itself is simply not appealing or engaging. The prison seems neither exciting nor dangerous - rather it is relentlessly dull and miserable - and the storylines are very mundane. That may well be the reality, but that level of realism will hardly work in a weekly serial.
In addition, few of the characters seem very appealing. It seems difficult to really drum up much sympathy for Tim or Paul, no matter how innocent and polite the script suggests they are. While Prisoner's top dog Bea was ruthless and uncompromising she was also appealing. When she acted the selfish thug it would aggravate viewers. Here top dog Arthur merely seems unpleasant. It is difficult to feel much emotion about someone so blandly unappealing.
Officious and embittered Officer Vera Bennett in Prisoner could be delightfully bitchy and was sometimes the officer viewers loved to hate. Yet she was a deeply flawed and complex character who also evoked much sympathy. Here Hudson seems a colourless bully. Like the character of Arthur it seems the strongest viewer reaction that can be mustered up is one of indifference. When the storylines involving bashings, violence and implied rape were played out by these characters it was difficult to really care too much about any of it.
Originally uploaded May 2000
Last updated 12 February 2013
[i] "Our Big Guns Aim for American Sales". TV Week. 2 February 1980, page 29.
[ii] "Men Behind Bars." TV Week. 15 March 1980
[iii] "Men Behind Bars." TV Week. 15 March 1980
[iv] "Top Line-Up in New Prison Drama." TV Week. 2 August 1980, page 51.
[v] "Real-Life Escapee is Michael's Model." TV Week. 7 March 1981, page 12.
[vi] "Former T.R.Y Star Goes to Jail for Punishment." TV Week. 3 May 1980, page 34.
[vii] "Former T.R.Y Star Goes to Jail for Punishment." TV Week. 3 May 1980, page 34.
[viii] Kusko, Julie. "Bazza is Boss On The Inside." TV Week. 8 November 1980, page 23.
[ix] Kusko, Julie. "Bazza is Boss On The Inside." TV Week. 8 November 1980, page 23.
[x] "TV Warder Caused a Riot!" TV Week. 21 March 1981, page 23.
[xi] "TV Warder Caused a Riot!" TV Week. 21 March 1981, page 23.
[xii] "British Star's Tough New Role." TV Week. 24 May 1980, page 35.
[xiii] "Top Line-Up in New Prison Drama." TV Week. 2 August 1980, page 51.
[xiv] "Cancer Sidelines Actress." TV Week. 11 October 1980, page 35.
[xv] "No More Punishment for David." TV Week. 20 September 1980, page 58.
[xvi] "On the Grapevine." TV Week. 27 September 1980, page 17.
[xvii] Johnson, Jackie. "Anne to Star Behind the Scenes". TV Week. 27 September 1980, page 27.
[xviii] "They Like it Tough." TV Week, 27 December 1980, page 54.
[xix] Groves, Don and Jacqueline Lee Lewes. "Soapies down the drain?" Inside TV column, The Sun-Herald. 8 March 1981, page 51.
[xx] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 371.
[xxi] "Punishment's Back for the Silly Season." TV Week. 21 November 1981, page 43.
[xxii] "Punishment's Back for the Silly Season." TV Week. 21 November 1981, page 43.