About Prisoner: Cell Block H
Prisoner is an Australian soap opera that is set in the Wentworth Detention Centre, a fictional women’s prison. In the United States and United Kingdom it was billed as Prisoner: Cell Block H, and in Canada as Caged Women. The series was produced by the Reg Grundy Organisation in Australia, and aired on Network Ten, running 692 episodes from 27 February 1979 to 11 December 1986, after originally only devised as a 16 part mini-series.
The series was inspired by British television drama Within These Walls, which had achieved moderate success in Australia. Prisoner producers even approached Googie Withers of Within These Walls to play the role of Prisoner’s governor, an offer that she declined. Because of an injunction brought by UK-based ATV, which considered the title too similar to their own series, The Prisoner, it was originally not possible for overseas broadcasters to screen the show under the Prisoner title, which necessitated a name change.
In March 2012, it was announced that the series would be “reimagined” on Foxtel in a new version entitled Wentworth.
Prisoner was created by Reg Watson, who had previously produced the British soap opera Crossroads from 1964 to 1973, and would go on to create such popular Australian soaps as The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters and Neighbours. Initially conceived as a sixteen episode stand-alone series, the storylines primarily concentrated on the lives of the prisoners and, to a lesser extent, the officers and other prison staff.
As the initial episodes began to air and were met with enthusiastic reception, it was felt Prisoner could be developed into an on-going soap opera, and as such, the initial storylines were developed and expanded, and new plots and characters phased in.
The themes of the show were often radical, including feminism, homosexuality and social reform. When the series launched in early 1979, the press advertising used the line “If you think prison is hell for a man, imagine what it’s like for a woman.”. The series examined in detail the way in which women dealt with incarceration and separation from their families, and also the recurring theme of released inmates often being drawn into a circle of re-offending. Within the walls of the prison, the major themes of the series were the interpersonal relationships between the prisoners, the power struggles, friendships and rivalries. To a certain extent, the misfits who found themselves within the walls of the Wentworth Detention Centre became each other’s family, with Bea Smith (see below) as a mother figure. Several lesbian characters were featured throughout the show’s run, notably prisoners Franky Doyle and Judy Bryant, along with corrupt prison officer Joan Ferguson.
The viewers’ introduction to the world of Wentworth Detention Centre involved the arrival of two new prisoners, Karen Travers (Peta Toppano) and Lynn Warner (Kerry Armstrong), later known as “Wonky Warner” as nicknamed by “Beatrice Smith” (Val Lehman). Travers had been charged for the murder of her husband, while Warner protested her innocence after being convicted of the abduction and attempted murder of a child. Both women are sent to the prison’s maximum security wing (H Block) where they are horrified by their new surroundings. Karen finds herself face-to-face with a former lover, prison doctor Greg Miller (Barry Quin), and is sexually harassed by her violent, bullying lesbian cellmate, Franky Doyle (Carol Burns). Lynn finds herself ostracised by the other prisoners because of her crime (prison populations are known for their intolerance towards criminals who commit offences against children) and is terrorised by the prison’s “top dog”, the self-styled “Queen” Bea Smith (Val Lehman), who “accidentally” burns her hand in the laundry steam press in one of the series’ most iconic scenes.
The other prisoners are rather less volatile, including the elderly, garden-loving Jeanette “Mum” Brooks (Mary Ward), a bickering comic relief double act with teddy-clutching misfit Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann) and alcoholic old lag Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance), as well as seductive prostitute Marilyn Mason (Margaret Laurence), who entices prison electrician Eddie Cook (Richard Moir) into amorous encounters around the prison. The prison officers, or “screws” as they are called by the women, comprised the firm but fair governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King), flanked by the diametrically opposed dour Deputy governor Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence), dubbed “Vinegar Tits” by the inmates, and compassionate senior officer Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne).
The early episodes are a potent cocktail of violence and mayhem; involving Lynn Warner’s punishment burning, another prisoner hanging herself in her cell, unrequited Sapphic passion, a fatal stabbing and a flashback sequence inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which Karen Travers stabs her abusive husband to death in the shower. The first major story arc-defining event in the series is the turf war for top dog status between Bea Smith and Franky Doyle, culminating in a prison riot in which Meg Jackson is held hostage, and her husband, prison psychiatrist Bill Jackson (Don Barker), is stabbed to death by inmate Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton).
Increase in production
Prisoner premiered in Australia on 27 February 1979 and instantly struck a chord with the audience, initially prompting the producers to extend the life of the series from a 16-part serial to 20-parts, and then to an ongoing concern. This decision immediately impacted on format and characterisation, and a number of changes were made to the series.
Most significantly, the series’ production schedule increased from making one hour-long episode per week to two episodes per week. This led to the departure of Franky Doyle the show’s first break-out popular character, after just 20 episodes, when actress Carol Burns chose to leave the series, feeling that she could not continue her portrayal with the increased production rate. Introduced as a borderline psychotic given to bouts of furniture-throwing violent rage, Franky’s character was explored through her unrequited love for fellow inmate Karen Travers, who warmed to her and tried to teach her to read, finally emerging as an unloved, illiterate, deeply frustrated social misfit and a tragic anti-heroine. Franky’s exit saw her escaping from Wentworth accompanied by Doreen Anderson, and shot dead by a policeman after being on the run for three weeks.
As the series began to gather momentum, new story arcs were introduced. Karen Travers decided to appeal against her sentence and was eventually released from prison, resuming her romantic relationship with Dr. Greg Miller and becoming involved in prison reform. As original characters began to leave the series (Mum Brooks, Lynn Warner, Karen and Greg all appeared beyond the initial sixteen episodes, but had made their exits by the end of the 1979 season, with Greg leaving early 1980), new characters arrived: hulking husband-basher Monica Ferguson (Lesley Baker), sneering career criminal Noeline Burke (Jude Kuring), idealistic murderess Roslyn Coulson (Sigrid Thornton) and imprisoned mother Pat O’Connell (Monica Maughan), as well as many shorter term inmates with briefer storylines. Prostitute Chrissie Latham, a minor character seen briefly in the early episodes, returned in a more central antagonistic role, and a new male Deputy governor, Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire), added a touch of testosterone to a female-dominated series.
Bea, Lizzie and Doreen
As Prisoner entered into production for a second year in 1980, the long-term format and structure to the series established the previous year was firmly in place. The characters were made up of a recognisable set of archetypes. The prison population comprised a core group of sympathetic prisoners – a top dog (who was developed from the tough, intimidating character of early episodes into a more sympathetic, reasonable if hot headed “leader”), an elderly inmate, a wayward youngster – and other characters, such as an antagonist who threatens the top dog’s control, a middle-class prisoner out of her depth in the prison, remand prisoners waiting for their trial and hired heavies used for “muscle”.
After the departures of early leads such as Franky Doyle, Karen Travers and Lynn Warner, the trio of Bea Smith, Doreen Burns (nee Anderson) and Lizzie Birdsworth emerged as the front-line prisoners. Bea was the tough, ambivalent yet maternal leader, softened after being a mostly unsympathetic character in the 1979 episodes. The death of Bea’s teenage daughter Debbie (Cassandra Lehman) from a heroin overdose not only explained her motivation for killing her husband on her release early in the series, but also explained Bea’s uncompromising hatred of drug offenders and clouded judgement whenever children were involved. Doreen was a well-meaning but inept tragi-comic figure, who was often easily influenced by others, and Lizzie was a mischievous elderly rascal with a “dicky ticker” [cardiac weeakness] and unquenchable taste for alcohol that saw her employed in comedy storylines, whilst also maintaining a more serious dimension, sometimes contemplating dying in prison. The Bea-Lizzie-Doreen dynamic was joined early in the 1980 run by Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbitt), an American ex-pat lesbian who deliberately gets herself imprisoned to be with her girlfriend, scheming drug dealer Sharon Gilmour (Margot Knight). Initially introduced solely for the storyline concerning Sharon (and serving as an opponent for Bea during her stay), Judy was received well enough by viewers for her to remain in the series as a regular, and stayed as part of the core group of prisoners (and becoming Bea’s unofficial “second in command” in the process), and eventually became the show’s longest serving inmate (with a few spells on the outside), and the second longest running character behind Elspeth Ballantyne’s portrayal of Meg Jackson, later Morris.
The mix of officers also established a template of character types. The progressive governor Erica Davidson, whose approach to the job was to the right of warm-hearted warder Meg Jackson, but to the left of the acidic Vera Bennett, with firm but fair Deputy governor Jim Fletcher often switching sides between Vera and Meg. Erica herself would face an uphill struggle with untenable directives from her superiors at the Department of Corrective Services, represented by bigwig Ted Douglas (Ian Smith; who was also the show’s script editor for most of its run and often contributed scripts). As such, the storylines dealing with the prisoners’ everyday lives were somewhat cyclical – depicting harsh treatment leading to organised prisoner resistance remedied by concessions and greater freedom which the women would take advantage of, thus requiring a tightening of the prison regime.
As well as capitalising on the obvious voyeuristic appeal of showcasing life in prison, the storylines which drove the series used familiar elements – smuggling, personality clashes between the prisoners, staff politics between the officers, organised prisoner resistance such as strikes and riots, a range of issue-based storylines, court cases and police investigations and escape plots. The series also made good use of cliffhangers, often involving dramatic escapes, crimes, and catastrophes befalling the prison and its inhabitants. The stories also ventured outside Wentworth with episodes featuring the private lives of the officers and the struggles of newly released prisoners to adjust to life on the outside, including the forces that unfortunately led to recidivism. Bea Smith is released during the opening episodes, and with nothing and no-one on the outside since the drug-related death of her daughter Debbie, shoots her estranged husband dead to get revenge, thus ensuring her imprisonment for life. Elderly Lizzie Birdsworth is released when new evidence in her case reveals that she is in fact innocent of the poisoning charge she had already served twenty years for. However, realising that there is no place for her on the outside, the institutionalised Lizzie deliberately commits a petty offence in order to return to Wentworth which, as with many long-serving inmates for whom the prison environment and rules turns into a way of life, had become home. Whilst the series did offer upbeat storylines, where some characters, such as Karen Travers during the 1979 run, made it, it also made clear that for some, like Bea and Lizzie, prison life was the only option.
Notable storylines during the “Bea, Lizzie and Doreen” era of the show (late-1979 – late-1981) included the 1979 cliffhanger involving a terrorist raid on the prison in which governor Erica Davidson was shot and wounded. A long-running story arc involved Judy Bryant’s vendetta against corrupt male warder Jock Stewart (Tommy Dysart) after he had murdered her lover Sharon Gilmour by pushing her down a prison staircase. Angry at the way the incident had been covered up by the authorities (a verdict of accidental death was recorded and Jock was suspended), the women rioted and held a rooftop protest in which Leanne Bourke (Tracey-Jo Riley), the daughter of Noeline Bourke, fell to her death from the roof. The subsequent efforts of Judy to avenge Sharon’s death and exact vengeance against Jock involved her escaping and working as a prostitute to track down Jock and kill him, and a final confrontation when Judy was out on parole that ended with the poetic justice of Jock falling down the stairs and being left permanently paralysed. Incidentally, just before Bryant begins work as a prostitute, she admits to Helen Smart that she is a 40-something virgin (having also told Tracey Morris in episode 154 that she has NEVER slept with a man) – towards the end of the same season, her adult daughter arrives searching for her birth mother. The 1980 cliffhanger saw Bea, Lizzie and Doreen trapped in an underground tunnel after a mass escape plan staged during a performance of the pantomime Cinderella went somewhat awry.
As Prisoner reached its 200th episode, Bea Smith suffered amnesia, with no memory of ever having been imprisoned, after a car crash during a prison transfer from Barnhurst.
Leading to Bea tracking down “Mum”, after going from house to house in search of her at her old addresses. Eventually, Bea found Mum and who offered assistance to her “sick friend”. Parole Officer Meg was informed by Mum that Bea had sought her help the night before. Meg was obliged to inform the police of this as Mum was still on parole. The police busted in on Mum, Meg and Bea, who only just had reappeared asking for help again and Mum was passing her money. Bea and Mum were re-arrested and returned to Wentworth.
End of an era
After a lengthy break over the festive period, Prisoner was then moved to an earlier slot in the Melbourne area of 19:30 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. With a recap of the events of 1980 on Tuesday, 3 February 1981, the series resumed with episode 166 in its new slot the following evening. From episode 205 onwards, the series continued in its original 20:30 slot. During the latter half of the 1981 season, Prisoner seemed to be moving into its next phase. Central to this shift was the exit of original character Vera “Vinegar Tits” Bennett, the unpleasant yet tragic warder whom viewers loved to hate, in the most high profile cast departure since the death of Franky Doyle. Vera resigned from Wentworth, having won the job of governor of Barnhurst.
It is at this point in the show that the steady stream of supporting characters, written into the series to complement the leading ensemble, gained in importance. The officers’ ranks were augmented by the sarcastic, militant union representative Colleen Powell (Judith McGrath), and the bespectacled and somewhat ineffectual Joyce Barry (Joy Westmore). The character of Colleen was poised to gain from the departure of Vera and then of Jim Fletcher a few months later, eventually taking over as Deputy governor when Meg Morris turned down the offer. Amongst the prisoners, Chrissie Latham and Margo Gaffney, often written as antagonists of Bea Smith, had emerged as strong central recurring characters, as had prostitute Helen Smart (Caroline Gillmer).
Towards the end of the 1981 run, the old gang of Bea, Lizzie, Doreen and Judy took a back seat to the proceedings. Bea was hospitalised for a kidney transplant operation, Lizzie was briefly paroled and Doreen and Judy were temporarily transferred to Barnhurst. The main narrative focus of the late-1981 storylines was on three new characters introduced as major players: cocky gangster’s moll Sandy Edwards (Louise Le Nay) and the highly intelligent and enigmatic Dr. Kate Peterson (Olivia Hamnett) were both convicted of murder while the cunning, villainous long-term criminal Marie Winter (Maggie Millar) was transferred from Barnhurst. The cliffhanger to the 1981 run involved the newly arrived Marie manipulating Sandy into starting an explosive prison riot to protest the increasingly oppressive prison conditions following new directives from the Department. With a copy of the prison keys and improvised weapons, Sandy leads the marauding women through the prison, and in the subsequent siege situation, new rookie officers Janet Conway (Kate Sheil) and Steve Faulkner (Wayne Jarratt) are taken hostage.
The first few months of the 1982 run concentrated on the power struggles, scheming and double-crossing between the characters of Sandy, Marie and Kate, which involved a number of murder attempts. As Sandy and Marie clashed for the top dog position, Kate plotted to secure her release from Wentworth, revealing her true manipulative colours and playing different sides against each other for her own advantage. When all three were written out of the series once their projected storylines had run their course, the focus returned once more to Bea and company. However, by this point after so many dramatic events in the prison and the Bea-Lizzie-Doreen-Judy quartet still cosily ensconced as the leading characters, the series had started to show its age. In many subtle, not immediately apparent ways, it was the end of an era and it was clear that a radical shake-up was needed to give the series a new lease of life.
Introduction of The Freak
That new lease of life was provided by the arrival of a formidable new officer – Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick). Enforcing her will through her black leather-gloved fists, molesting prisoners during unofficial “body searches” and taking her cut on all the prison rackets, Ferguson was just as cold, calculating and sinister as some of the worst prisoners, but was on the other side of the bars and therefore untouchable. The addition of Joan Ferguson had also, by necessity, along with the arrival of another prisoner, softened formerly hard nosed Colleen. Despite her softening, she maintained her sarcastic sense of humour.
Bea Smith was soon awake to Joan’s villainy, and the two became deadly enemies. Joan schemed to beat Bea, while Bea plotted to oust Joan, thus beginning a new standard story arc for the series – in which the women of Wentworth try to “get rid of the Freak”. The officers, particularly Meg Morris, also seemed to realize that Ferguson was a crooked officer and tried to expose her as well but thanks to Ferguson’s interference, the attempt failed, leading to officer Steve Faulkner’s resignation. Joan Ferguson was not going anywhere, having swiftly become an integral presence in the show, and increasingly its most iconic character, much like J.R. Ewing in Dallas or Alexis Colby in Dynasty.
Other developments during this period were the return of Chrissie Latham and Margo Gaffney to the show to bolster the ranks of the now somewhat empty-looking cellblock as Doreen and Judy were released from Wentworth. Doreen left the series, while Judy took charge of a new halfway house for ex-prisoners, named Driscoll House, after its first resident, young Susie Driscoll (Jacqui Gordon). The action was then split between the prison and the halfway house, which allowed the series to explore more issue-based storylines through the Driscoll House residents. Doomed heroin addict Donna Mason (Arkie Whiteley) featured prominently both as a remand prisoner and as a temporary resident of Driscoll House. Young biker Maxine Daniels (Lisa Crittenden) also joined as a regular cast member, flitting between Driscoll and Wentworth.
The main driver of this period however remained the ongoing animosity between Bea Smith and Joan Ferguson. Their conflict peaked in time for the 1982 season cliffhanger, in a showdown which brought the prison, literally, to the ground. Smith decided to finish Ferguson once and for all, so, she lured The Freak into a trap by falsely claiming that Ferguson’s incriminating secret diaries had been hidden in isolation by another prisoner, white-collar thief Barbara Fields (Susan Guerin) (in reality, Fields had hidden them in the governor’s office.). As a diversion, Chrissie Latham was to light a small fire in the prison library. A recalcitrant Margo Gaffney had angrily criticised the decoy fire idea as weak and predictable, claiming that for anyone to be fooled it had better be a pretty big fire. She refused to co-operate further with the scheme, but as the plan got underway, Margo secretly went and set a much larger fire in a storeroom. Unfortunately, a large stock of mineral turpentine was being temporarily stored there.
The fire spread out of control while Bea Smith and Joan Ferguson battled it out in the isolation wing. In the confusion of the prison evacuation, Barbara Fields made her way to the governor’s office to retrieve the diaries. The fire overloaded the prison’s security system, engaging the riot alarm, which caused all the prison gates to automatically slam shut and lock, leaving prisoners and staff trapped in the burning prison. Fields was overcome by smoke and collapsed in the governor’s office as the flames surrounded her (and the diaries) while two other inmates, “Mouse” Trapp (Jentah Sobott) and Paddy Lawson (Anna Hruby), found themselves trapped. Paddy managed to escape through the air ducts, while a panicking Mouse ran through the corridor trying each door in turn. She then found the source of the fire in one of the doors, but the mineral turpentine exploded in her face sending her running down the corridor screaming with the top half of her body on fire; her body was later recovered. Meanwhile, governor Erica Davidson valiantly ran back inside the prison to try to unlock the security gates.
Ferguson had beaten Smith unconscious, but when the gates slammed shut, she was trapped in the cell block with Smith – along with Ferguson’s dropped keys – lying just out of reach on the other side of the locked gate. In the final scene of the episode, a vengeful Smith regained consciousness, and, realising that having beaten Ferguson, she would now be ineligible for parole, vowed she would not pass the key to Ferguson and that the two would die right there in the fire. Both survived when Paddy, having crawled through the ducting system, found them and gave Ferguson the keys – on the condition she carry the unconscious Bea to safety. The Great Fire episode ranks as the fan favourite among Prisoner fans.
Prisoner returned in 1983 with everyone wanting to know if Paddy, Bea & Joan had survived the fire. Paddy crawled through the air ducts and found Bea and Joan. They made their way to the roof and escaped. The 1983 season was mainly characterised by a high turnover of short-term characters and storylines, but continued the rivalry between Bea and the Freak. More core cast departures took place as Chrissie Latham, Margo Gaffney and Erica Davidson all left the series, and a major new player, the callous, menacing and brutal double murderess Nola McKenzie (Carole Skinner), entered the fray as a new adversary for Bea and a partner in crime for Joan, becoming the first prisoner to actively collude with the Freak, running contraband rackets and plotting to seize power from the “good” top dog. Bea Smith briefly escaped from Wentworth and contacted Doreen Burns, (Colette Mann) returning for a brief cameo.
The Bea-Joan-Nola conflict reaches its height in a memorable storyline which commenced shortly after Bea was returned to the prison after her escape. Joan and Nola attempt to drive Bea to suicide by evoking the memory of her dead daughter Debbie, coercing tarot reading medium and remand prisoner Zara Moonbeam (Ilona Rodgers) to assist them. But the plan backfires, and it is Nola, not Bea, whose corpse is taken away from Wentworth. A few months later however, Joan finally triumphs over Bea after a major confrontation in which the sadistic screw succeeds in having her old enemy transferred to Barnhurst. Having played Bea Smith for 400 episodes, actress Val Lehman had tired of the role, feeling that all possible storylines for the character had been exhausted, and resigned from the series. Shortly afterwards, actress Sheila Florance also decided to leave, leading to the departure of Lizzie Birdsworth. This now left actress Elspeth Ballantyne, alias officer Meg Morris (formerly Jackson), as the only original cast member still in the series. (Despite leaving the series, both Lehman and Florance were very active in the Prisoner fan community, a role which Florance continued until her death in 1991 and that Lehman still maintains today)
The 1983 cliffhanger involved Lizzie and new officer David Bridges. Lizzie was waiting to hear if she had been paroled, as Colleen came out to tell her. She found a dead body in the prison ground and David Bridges revealed himself as the killer and told Lizzie she would “be set free”…
Prisoner resumed to most screens with the picking up of the 1983 cliffhanger which involved Lizzie and evil murderer officer David Bridges. As he revealed to her he killed two inmates, she would be next. Lizzie subsequently had a heart attack. Cass then looks over towards the shed and sees Lizzie lying at Officer Bridges’ feet. She runs over to Lizzie’s aid but Bridges tells her to go away. Cass is then inexplicably led into the shed by Officer Bridges whereupon, he brandishes a small knife and tries to kill Cass. Cass Parker defends herself from his attack by taking a swipe at him with a shovel: Bridges is decapitated and Cass loses her mind.
With Prisoner heading towards the 1984 season and the recent high-profile cast departures, the series was retooled once again. New characters had been introduced during Bea Smith’s final few months on the show, and they now enjoyed prominent roles in the series. Ann Reynolds (Gerda Nicolson) replaced Erica Davidson as a spirited, no-nonsense new governor and amongst the prisoners, previous background bit player Phyllis Hunt (Reylene Pearce) was given a more expanded role amidst new arrivals, such as dreamy romantic and serial bigamist Sandra “Pixie” Mason (Judy McBurney) and cool, villainous vice queen Sonia Stevens (Tina Bursill). Judy Bryant was brought back into Wentworth as a “stop-gap” top dog – the Driscoll House plotline being phased out of the series after Judy had committed euthanasia on terminally ill former inmate Hazel Kent (Belinda Davey). Long term “Department” boss Ted Douglas was exposed as corrupt and left the series, to be replaced (albeit briefly) by Erica Davidson.
Some very dramatic storylines were introduced in this period, with “The Freak” briefly becoming governor when Ann Reynolds was recovering from breast cancer and Colleen Powell was discredited – largely thanks to “The Freak’s” interference. Erica Davison helped expose Ferguson during this time and Mrs Powell was reinstated. Shortly afterwards, Mrs Powell’s family were murdered in a bomb explosion, in a plotline very similar to the one used earlier with Jim Fletcher.
Other new additions to the cast included Cass Parker (Babs McMillan), whose slow wit and gentle nature was offset by her immense physical strength and murderous bad temper, middle-aged con artist Minnie Donovan (Wendy Playfair) and volatile but vulnerable street kid Bobbie Mitchell (Maxine Klibingaitis). The major players of the 1984 run, however, were antagonistic Reb Kean (Janet Andrewartha), a dynamic but troubled young woman who had been the brains behind an armed robbery, having turned to crime after rebelling against her wealthy family and the series’ new central top dog – Myra Desmond (Anne Phelan), a thoughtful but tough ex-prisoner of Wentworth who had previously made sporadic appearances in the show as a representative of the Prison Reform Group, now back inside for a long stretch after killing her husband (despite stating in episode 223, that she was not married!). Both Reb and Myra made enemies of the Freak – and of each other – and the series continued. During the first half of 1984, this period of transition and the storyline developments with the new cast were complemented by return appearances from departed characters such as Wally Wallace (Alan Hopgood), Helen Smart, Erica Davidson, Doreen Burns, Margo Gaffney, Tracy Morris (albeit played by a new actress) and Marie Winter (though this also marked the final appearance of all these characters).
The 1984 and 1985 seasons are characterised by a number of cast reshuffles, preventing the series from re-establishing the continuity and focus it had enjoyed in earlier years, whilst preventing the cosiness of the Bea, Lizzie, Dorren trio that the 1981 introduction of Sandy, Kate and Marie had sought to explode. Mid-1984 saw the exits of recently introduced characters such as Minnie Donovan, Sonia Stevens and Cass Parker as well as the departure of long-time Deputy governor Colleen Powell. In their place, came juvenile prankster Marlene Warren (Genevieve Lemon) and elderly inmate Dot Farrar (Alethea McGrath). More enduring inmates introduced during this period were sneering troublemaker Lou Kelly (Louise Siversen), who developed from a bit player to becoming a sociopathic wannabe top dog and the series’ main villain, dopey offsider Alice “Lurch” Jenkins (Lois Collinder) and streetwise card sharp Lexie Patterson (Pepe Trevor), who had a tendency to dress a lot like Boy George until The Freak retaliated against her insolence by cutting her hair.
The series became increasingly violent as it went on. The 1983 cliffhanger involved the revelation that recent escapes from the prison had in fact been a series of murders conducted by psychotic warder David Bridges (David Waters). Twisted psychologist Jonathan Edmonds (Bryan Marshall) arrived at Wentworth to conduct research, brainwashing Cass Parker into trying to kill her best friend Bobbie Mitchell. During her final stint in 1984, the villainous Marie Winter colluded with the Freak and organised another major riot – a scheme intended to ensure the dismissal of an already reprimanded Ann Reynolds with Ferguson to take over as governor of Wentworth – in which the H-Block was ravaged, before escaping by hanging from the landing gear of a low-flying helicopter.
Serial murderess Bev “The Beast” Baker (Maggie Dence) terrorised both staff and inmates with her thrill-seeking antics, which included almost throttling Marlene Warren, cutting open Bobbie Mitchell’s hands with a razor blade, stabbing a visiting social worker in the heart with a knitting needle and finally committing suicide by injecting herself with an empty hypodermic syringe to induce a coronary. Officer Meg Morris was brutally raped and impregnated in her own home by a masked intruder on the orders of psychopathic inmate Angel Adams (Kylie Foster). Joan “The Freak” Ferguson faced off against her murderous male counterpart Len Murphy (Maurie Fields) in a “bad” screw’s turf war. The series also introduced a trio of male inmates – Geoff McRae (Leslie Dayman), Matt Delaney (Peter Bensley) and Frank Burke (Trevor Kent) – transferred to Wentworth for their own safety after preventing an escape at their men’s prison. Towards the end of the 1984 run, as Myra Desmond and Reb Kean had a final confrontation over the top dog position, governor Ann Reynolds received poison-pen letters and death threats. This eventually led to both her and Meg Morris being kidnapped and left gagged and bound in a crumbling warehouse laden with bombs and lethal trip-wire booby-traps. But the 1984 season cliffhanger was not the possible explosive end for Meg and Ann but for Myra revealing Reb to be a fake and Yemil runs to the rec room to tell them to save Pixie as Lou, Fran and Alice are bashing Pixie in her cell.
The 1985 run was no less action-packed. In the first episode of the 1985 season, Reb Kean was transferred to Blackmoor after fighting with Myra but she promised Joan she would be back for her. Pixie Mason was raped by male inmate Frank Burke and she went into a coma from the shock, whereas, McRae had an illicit affair with Myra Desmond and Delaney married Marlene Warren. Lou Kelly tried to kill Myra Desmond on several occasions in her bid to become top dog, and even made an attempt on Joan Ferguson’s life armed with a home-made gun.
Around episode 535, the prison wedding of Delaney and Warren marked the end of a number of story strands and the mass exodus of many characters. All the male prisoners left, together with Marlene Warren and Judy Bryant. The Freak was hospitalised for emergency brain surgery after having a prison library bookcase dropped on her head by Frank Burke, which had led to her suffering blackouts. Led by Myra Desmond, the women used this in an unsuccessful scheme to get rid of her, bashing Lou Kelly and framing Joan for the assault. The plan worked and Joan was dismissed, until a penitent Nun, inmate Sister Anita Selby (Diane Craig), spilled the beans to Ann Reynolds, leading to The Freak’s reinstatement and the imposition of far stricter security. Reynolds refused to acknowledge Desmond as “Top Dog” following the incident.
Perhaps, to bridge the jarring cast changes, episode 536 was a “flashback” episode, containing clips from various points in the show’s history as the remaining women reminisced about past storylines, presumably intending to remind viewers of the show’s past characters, all of whom were now gone.
To fill the now empty cells, a mass transfer from Barnhurst after a riot there had burnt out a cellblock (and had ended in the off-screen death of Bea Smith) introduced five new inmates to the series – Nora Flynn (Sonja Tallis), a reformed triple murderess, ageing cat burglar May Collins (Billie Hammerberg) and her partner in crime, former fence Willie Beecham (Kirsty Child – who had played a corrupt prison officer who was later incarcerated and murdered in the prison in early episodes), garden-loving misfit Daphne Graham (Debra Lawrance) and shy but highly intelligent thief Julie Egbert (Jackie Woodburne).
Perhaps, the most striking story arc of this period is the infamous “Ballinger siege”. The storyline began with the introduction of the Barnhurst Five and saw both staff and inmates held hostage by armed mercenaries who had broken into the prison to spring high profile remand prisoner Ruth Ballinger (Lindy Davies) on the orders of her drug baron husband. Holed up inside Wentworth by the police, the terrorists take the women and officers Joan Ferguson and Joyce Barry captive, threatening to shoot one hostage every hour until they are given safe passage out of the country while outside the police and governor Ann Reynolds argue over sending in the local SWAT unit. The siege climaxes in an airfield shoot-out with Joan as a hostage, but not before the shocking murder of top dog Myra Desmond, who selflessly sacrifices herself to save the other women.
Other characters introduced during the 1985 season were Ann Reynolds’ daughter Pippa (Christine Harris) and her former schoolmate Jenny Hartley (Jenny Lovell), the latter ending up in H-Block on remand after being accused of murdering her wealthy grandmother. Meg Morris became engaged to fellow officer Dennis Cruickshank, but the relationship ended when escapee Frank Burke shot and paralysed Cruickshank. Fellow officer Joyce Barry left her husband (who died soon after) and moved in with prison chef Mervin Pringle; eventually marrying him in the final season. Meanwhile, Joan Ferguson began an ultimately doomed relationship with fellow officer Terri Malone (Margot Knight who had previously played inmate Sharon Gilmour). However, after yet another cast clear-out six months later, the “Barnhurst Five” was down to one, with May Collins being killed and Willie Beecham being pardoned, both after being released in order to take part in a police sting that went tragically wrong. Only Julie Egbert of the Barnhurst transferees remained in the series. At around the same time, Terri Malone, Pippa Reynolds and Jenny Hartley also departed in quick succession.
The subsequent post-siege storylines were rather more low-key with Nora Flynn’s run as a pacifist top dog following Myra’s death. By the end of the 1985 episodes, storylines began to become more lively. This included the return to Wentworth of former hard case Reb Kean, now, a timid and meek figure had gone through 27 rounds of ECT and torture at the hands of maximum security officers and inmates at Blackmoor. Meanwhile, officer Joyce Barry was beaten half to death by malevolent remand inmate Eve Wilder (Lynda Stoner) who then pinned the blame on the erratic and forgetful Reb. The death of May Collins left Ann Reynolds questioning her position and she resigned from the governor’s role. When Nora Flynn tired of the top dog power struggles in the prison and escaped, she was tracked down and murdered by a criminal-hating psychotic. Her corpse was subsequently dumped in the prison grounds. The cliffhanger for 1985 involved new evil inmate Eve Wilder and her lawyer, David Adams. As David told Eve he can no longer continue with her case, he shot himself.
The final year of Prisoner is mostly based around the conflict between the Freak and a new challenger, brash biker Rita “The Beater” Connors (Glenda Linscott) who takes over as the series’ new top dog, when previous incumbent, the vicious Lou Kelly clashed with tough temporary governor Bob Moran (Peter Adams) and over-reached herself by igniting a bloodthirsty riot that threatened the lives of both staff and inmates. After the riot (which marked the series’ 600th episode), Lou’s former stooge, Alice Jenkins, switches sides and becomes friends with Rita, who forms a new prison gang – the “Wentworth Warriors” – including Lexie Patterson, Julie Egbert, demure housewife Nancy McCormack (Julia Blake), on remand for killing her husband but actually covering up for her son, biker chick “Roach” Waters (Linda Hartley) and vivacious con-woman Lorelei Wilkinson (Paula Duncan). Having worked with former inmate Ettie Parslow, running a block of flats for wayward youngsters, Ann Reynolds returned to Wentworth and resumed her role of governor. Bob Moran was made her deputy, resulting in the demotion of Meg Morris, but this was reversed after a lightning strike organised by The Freak. Shortly after, The Freak successfully deposed Meg Morris herself and became deputy governor – against Ann Reynolds wishes. Ferguson began to plot to bring down Reynolds and began working with the Minister for Corrective Services, Julie Egbert’s soon to be mother in law and corrupt inmates in an attempt to win the governorship. She briefly got Reynolds job, but this was immediately reversed when the Minister began to realise she was not to be trusted. Rita’s gang burnt Ferguson’s (uninsured) house to the ground in retaliation, leaving Ferguson leaning on a male friend, Andrew, for support. After Ferguson refused to be blackmailed into bringing heroin into the prison, Ferguson’s friend Andrew was murdered, leading to her bringing in the police herself.
As well as the Freak, Rita’s chief adversary is Kath Maxwell (Kate Hood), a middle-class woman and friend of Bob Moran, who retaliates against Rita for her brutal initiation into prison life because of her crime – the mercy killing of her terminally ill daughter – and toughens up, becoming a serious rival for the top dog role with her new hard attitude and monopoly on contraband rackets in the prison. Kath is backed up by her comic-loving cellmate Merle Jones (Rosanne Hull-Brown). Other new inmates to arrive in 1986 include sneering racketeer Rose “Spider” Simpson (Taya Straton) and blackmailing call-girl Lisa Mullins (Nicki Paull/Terrie Waddell). Kath’s relationship with Moran leads to him resigning from Wentworth. The officers’ ranks are bolstered by the arrival of three new trainees, including Meg Morris’ son Marty Jackson (Michael Winchester), Delia Stout (Desiree Smith) and Rodney Adams (Philip Hyde) who begins to emulate Ferguson in an attempt to make a mark at Wentworth.
Episode 692: Is this the end of the road at last for Joan Ferguson?
Rita makes several attempts to murder The Freak, including sabotaging a work release project on a boat which ends with the women stranded and The Freak temporarily lost when she goes for help. While in charge of Wentworth for the day, The Freak transfers Rita to Blackmoor where she encounters the sadistic governor Ernest Craven (Ray Meagher). After causing a major riot at the prison, during which her brother is shot dead, Rita initiates a fire that leads to the mass transfer of prisoners to Wentworth where Craven joins forces with Ferguson to oust Reynolds once and for all. He orders the brutal rape of Lorelei Wilkinson and threatens to kill her child unless she covers for him. Reynolds is thus dismissed and Ferguson made governor. Craven then tries to kill Rita, which leads to his own death at the hands of Wilkinson, who becomes catatonic and is transferred to a mental institution. A concurrent storyline featured a young aboriginal inmate, Sarah West, who was subjected to extreme racism, as was her social worker, Pamela Madigan, a friend of Ann Reynolds. When Craven arrived at Wentworth, Madigan had West transferred to Barnhurst for her own safety. With Craven dead, Ferguson dismisses Meg Morris, Joyce Pringle and Marty Jackson who then conspire to expose her corruption. Using an investigative TV show, they successfully get Reynolds reinstated, with Meg as her deputy and all return to the prison. Ferguson immediately resigned, but discovered that ex-prisoner Willie Beacham was now a successful and very powerful business woman, who managed to black ball Ferguson from all employment. After threatening the Minister with exposure, she was reinstated as an officer at Wentworth.
Despite these new developments and storylines, the programme’s viewing figures were falling. Ratings had been in decline for some time, falling to even lower levels during 1986, resulting in Network Ten deciding in July 1986 to not renew the series for another year. Production on the series finished on 5 September 1986 and the final episode aired on 11 December 1986.
The show’s producers had several weeks notice the series was ending, allowing them to craft suitable storylines leading to a strong conclusion, one which involved the final defeat of the villainous Joan “The Freak” Ferguson. The final episodes of Prisoner deal with the redemption of the misunderstood Kath Maxwell as well as concluding the ongoing dynamic between Rita Connors and Joan Ferguson. Shockingly diagnosed with terminal cancer, Rita conspires with a jaded Joan, totally disillusioned by the prison service, to rob a building society. But all was not what it seemed.
In 1979, a telemovie titled The Franky Doyle Story was produced. It was made using material edited from the first two dozen episodes of the series, with emphasis on the character of Franky Doyle (Carol Burns). It was the first of an intended series of telemovies. The plan was shelved when the cast took the matter to the industrial commission, who ruled that they were not being fairly compensated for what amounted to a “second use” of their work.
A failed television pilot for an American version of the Australian series was produced in 1980 entitled “Willow B: Women in Prison”. The all-star cast included Ruth Roman, Virginia Capers, Carol Lynley, and Sally Kirkland. Though, the pilot was not picked, it did air on ABC-TV on 29 June 1980.
After the Prisoner cliffhanger of 1981, a further TV special was screened: Prisoner in Concert. Cast members Val Lehman (Bea Smith), Sheila Florance (Lizzie Birdsworth), Colette Mann (Doreen Burns), Betty Bobbitt (Judy Bryant), Jane Clifton (Margo Gaffney), Patsy King (Erica Davidson) and Gerard Maguire (Jim Fletcher) appeared in a live stage revue at Pentridge men’s prison in Melbourne, performing various songs and sketches. Something of a curiosity piece, it has never been repeated since its original transmission, and a DVD release is unlikely due to copyright matters.
As Prisoner finished production in 1986, Grundy’s began circulating plans for a spin-off revolving around Wentworth’s sister prison Barnhurst but Channel Ten did not entertain the idea. A further idea, Inside Out, set in an open prison and featuring certain Prisoner characters a decade or so on, also came to nothing.
At one stage, the producers considered a comedy spin-off featuring Pixie Mason, but again, this idea came to nothing.
A stage musical version with songs by Peter Pinne and Don Battye was produced in 1995, and this played in the London West End and toured provincial theatres. Maggie Kirkpatrick played Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, Lily Savage played the inmate, and Linda Nolan played the governor (and sang “I’m in the mood for Dancing” during the show). Val Lehman was critical of the show, particularly the casting of a drag queen, sending the show up.
In 2013 the SoHo television channel began broadcasting the series Wentworth. Wentworth is a contemporary reimagining of Prisoner that is set in modern-day Australia and focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) when she first enters prison.
In 1980, Saturday Night Live did a parody sketch of the series called “Debs Behind Bars”. Here, the inmates – including guest host Teri Garr – are all spoiled debutantes who complain about the “icky” living conditions in prison.
In the early 1990s, a parody sketch of Prisoner was aired on Network Ten’s comedy sketch program, “Fast Forward”. In this sketch, actors Gina Riley (Bea Smith), Jane Turner (Lizzie Birdsworth) and Magda Szubanski (Doreen), along with Marg Downey (Joan Ferguson) acted out memorable scenes from the series with a comedic twist.
In March 2012 it was announced that Prisoner was to be “re-imagined” by Foxtel as a new series entitled Wentworth. The 10-part series will chart the rise of Bea Smith from remand prisoner to “top dog”.
Press releases suggest that the new series will feature contemporary versions of some of the vintage characters, as well as some new ones added to Wentworth. None of the original cast is set to return for the initial series run. The series will not use the original Nunawading, Melbourne filming studio, instead being filmed at a new, purpose-built prison set in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton.
Confirmed characters and cast members include Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), crime matriarch Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade), Liz Birdsworth (Celia Ireland), Doreen Anderson (Shareena Clanton), Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva), Sue “Boomer” Jenkins (Katrina Milosevic), social worker Erica Davidson (Leeanna Walsman), Officer Will Jackson (Robbie Magasiva), Officer Matthew Fletcher (Aaron Jeffery), Deputy Governor Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson), and Governor Meg Jackson (Catherine McClements).
On 29 November 2012 it was confirmed that actress Anne Charleston, who appeared in the original series, will make a guest appearance.
Wentworth premiered in Australia on Foxtel’s SoHo channel on 1 May 2013.
On 5 June 2013 it was announced that Foxtel had ordered a second season.
In 1981, Ten launched Punishment, a drama set in the fictional Longridge prison, a men’s prison. The new show had a similar structure and range of characters as Prisoner. The series, which was produced by Bruce Best and Alan Coleman, was a ratings and critical failure. Only 26 episodes were produced. It is noteworthy for the presence of Mel Gibson as inmate Rick Monroe in the first episode.
In 1991, the series was re-versioned for the American market as Dangerous Women. The US version borrowed heavily from the Australian original for characters, but not storylines. In Dangerous Women, the emphasis was shifted outside the prison, and focused on the prisoner relationships at a half-way house. It is remembered now mainly for the early appearance of actor Casper Van Dien in the role of Brad Morris.
In 1997, the series was re-versioned for the second time, this time for the German TV market. The German-language version of Prisoner was titled Hinter Gittern – Der Frauenknast (Behind Bars) from 1997 to 2007 and has run for 16 series and 403 episodes.
Also in 1999, ITV unveiled a British equivalent of Prisoner entitled Bad Girls, which has since garnered a considerable following on its own merits. It ran for 8 series and 107 episodes from 1999 to 2006.
In 1997, Channel 5 aired a special Prisoner night. As well as showing five back-to-back episodes (81-85, covering the failed jailbreak of terrorist Janet Dominquez), it also featured a special edition of the quiz show 100% (incidentally, also a Reg Grundy production), which featured three contestants who battled for the top prize and all 100 questions were about the Australian prison soap.
Episode 693 was a fan-made new episode of the series which was exhibited at a 1995 “Prisoner: Cell Block H” convention in Durham in the UK. The convention was organised by the editors of “The Block”, the now defunct unofficial fanzine, which ran from 1993-1998. Episode 693 featured Joan Ferguson, Dennis Cruikshank, Erica Davison, Lizzie Birdsworth, Myra Desmond, Bobbie Mitchell, Reb Kean, Frank Burke, Barbara Fields, Vera Bennett and Joyce Barry. The storylines centred around Vera Bennett’s incarceration inside Wentworth after being convicted of fraud at Barnhurst, and her attempts to escape in a hot air balloon with the help of Barbara Fields. The Freak uses Reb to sell acid pills to the women disguised as smarties and Top Dog Myra ends up being chucked into the washing machine by Reb and Frank. Bobbie and Lizzie’s booze-making hi-jinks come to a sticky end for Barbara when the whole lot explodes in a fire bomb, just as Vera is making her escape!
Prisoner: Cell Block H – Behind the Scenes was published in 1990.
There have been several tie-in books, and video and DVD releases. The show’s theme song, “On the Inside”, sung by Lynne Hamilton, reached number one in Australia in 1979, and peaked at number three in the UK Singles Chart in 1989. On the Inside was re-released as a digital download and CD Single in March 2012. The song was later featured as a B-side on punkabilly group The Living End’s breakthrough EP, Second Solution/Prisoner of Society which earned some radio play on alternative radio stations, in particular, Triple J.
In 1980, the Prisoner cast, led by Equity representative Val Lehman (Bea Smith), went on strike due to the publication of a number of tie-in paperback novels in the United States. The cast’s objection to the books was the inclusion of exploitative soft-core pornographic content incongruent with the actual series. Six books were published in total, entitled “Prisoner: Cell Block H”, “The Franky Doyle Story”, “The Karen Travers Story”, “The Frustrations of Vera”, “The Reign of Queen Bea” and “The Trials of Erica”.
Two “behind the scenes” books were published in the UK in the early 1990s. Prisoner: Cell Block H – Behind the Scenes was written by Terry Bourke and published by Angus & Robertson Publishers, who also released similar books about Neighbours and Home & Away. Bourke documents the show’s genesis and development, and is decorated with many stills and “character profiles”. Prisoner Cell Block H – The Inside Story, written by Hilary Kingsley, puts more emphasis upon the plot and characters. Both books contain many factual errors and typographical errors of names.
A limited edition book The Inside Story was published in 2007 as part of the full series DVD release in Australia. Written by TV journalists Andrew Mercado and Michael Idato, this commemorative book features a background on the series, year-by-year storylines, details of characters and a number of quotes from the cast and crew. It was only available as part of The Complete Collection DVD set.
A new book Behind the Bars was published in summer 2013 and is billed as the ultimate companion to the series.
The show created a cultural impact during its original screening, having been hugely successful in a number of country’s, particularly in the USA, where it became the first major breakthrough in the states for an Australian serial, at its height even Sammy Davis Jr was said to be a fanatic fan, the program shown in numerous reruns and relaunches continues to have a massive worldwide audience following. An official online Prisoner fan club website “On the Inside” was established in 2005, with the blessing and support from the current series distributors, FremantleMedia. The website houses a large amount of information about the show and sells official Prisoner merchandise. In December 2007, “On the Inside” launched an official online yearly subscription membership, with members having exclusive access to cast interviews, Prisoner out-takes and rare cast and production images. The website plans for the future include among other things the launch of an official Prisoner magazine. The website itself gets about 80,000 hits a week.
The show has a cult following in Sweden, where it has been shown on TV4 starting in 1994, for many years under the title Kvinnof�ngelset (The Women’s Prison). An unofficial fan club organises an annual get-together, and also gathered several thousand signatures (including that of actress Elspeth Ballantyne) to convince TV4 to continue airing the show in 2000. After this second run of the show ended, work began to persuade TV4 to air the show a third time with start in 2005. The attempts were futile and the show has since not been aired in Swedish television. TV4 originally screened the series in a late night 01:00 slot three times a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. During the repeat run, the show was accommodated in a slightly later slot around 02:15 four times a week on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. All episodes were repeated at the weekend – Friday night had the Monday and Tuesday episodes and Saturday night had the other two.
A stage version of Prisoner was produced in 1989, based on the original scripts, and enjoyed a highly successful tour in the United Kingdom. Original actors Elspeth Ballantyne (Meg Morris) and Patsy King (Erica Davidson) reprised their original characters, while Glenda Linscott (Rita Connors) played a new character, Angela Mason. A second tour followed in 1990 starring Fiona Spence (Vera Bennett) and Jane Clifton (Margo Gaffney). Jacqui Gordon (Susie Driscoll) also appeared, as new character Kath Evans.
A musical version followed starring Maggie Kirkpatrick reprising her role of Joan “The Freak” Ferguson and Lily Savage as an inmate. The new musical essentially a send-up of the purported kitsch aspects of the original show, and again, was successful during both a tour and a West End run in 1995 and 1997. Val Lehman (Bea) was very critical towards the production, in particular, why a drag queen would be in a women’s prison.
Due to the huge popularity of the show when shown in the UK in the late 1980s, the British Prisoner fan club organised successful personal appearance tours for several actresses, including Val Lehman (Bea Smith), Carol Burns (Franky Doyle), Betty Bobbitt (Judy Bryant), Sheila Florance (Lizzie Birdsworth), Amanda Muggleton (Chrissie Latham) and Judy McBurney (Pixie Mason). A one-off programme, “The Great Escape”, was produced in 1990. The programme featured Val Lehman, Sheila Florance, Amanda Muggleton and Carol Burns on their visit to the UK in 1990 and includes extensive footage of their on-stage interview with TV presenter Anna Soubry in which the cast members talk about their time “inside”. It was recorded at the Derby Assembly Rooms, Derby, UK and was made available in the UK on VHS video for a short time but has since been deleted.
Several Prisoner actors have also trod British stages appearing in both drama and pantomime, such as Val Lehman (Wizard of Oz /Beatrix Potter and Misery ), Peta Toppano, Fiona Spence, Maggie Dence (Bev Baker), Debra Lawrance (Daphne Graham), Linda Hartley (Roach Waters), Ian Smith (Ted Douglas) and Maggie Millar (Marie Winter).
In 1997, a video clip of Prisoner featured in the popular BBC sitcom Birds of a Feather. The clip was from the second episode of the series, in which Franky Doyle and Lynn Warner fight in the garden. Prisoner was mentioned several times during the 7-and-a-half-year run of Birds of a Feather.
The series has also been referenced in several sitcoms including 2Point4 Children, Absolutely Fabulous and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps; as well as soap operas Coronation Street and EastEnders.
ITV Regional Scheduling
Prisoner was the first Australian soap opera screened late night in the UK. As in the US, it was billed in the UK as Prisoner: Cell Block H to avoid confusion with the well-known British series, The Prisoner, although, it always remained as simply Prisoner on-screen. It was screened on ITV from the mid/late 1980s until the mid/late 1990s, depending on the region. A great many sources incorrectly state that the series did not begin being run in the UK until 1987, but in fact, the Yorkshire region had been showing it since October 1984 (with the series “going like a rocket” by June 1985), with southern region TVS following in October 1985 (in both instances while the programme was still being produced in Australia). Central, Thames, Scottish and TSW started the series in 1987, with most other regions starting to broadcast it in 1988 (nearly two years after it finished production), with it not starting in the Ulster region until late 1989. Channel Television started the series on 16 January 1986 starting from episode 10, when it aligned its schedules with TVS (previously having been aligned with TSW). (Regional alignment also meant that a few years later, some episodes would jump chunks of episodes; in 1992/1993, for example, Tyne Tees skipped episodes 293-294, while Border jumped 71 episodes from 477-547.). Due to the various scheduling patterns of different regions, different areas of the country had varying length runs of series. Some regions, with the increased pattern (two or three weekly episodes) not only finished running the series in its entirety, but began showing it a second time. Other regions, with less regular patterning, were only mid-way through their initial respective runs when the series disappeared off ITV in the late 1990s. In some cases, the series looked set to return but never did; for example, in the London region Carlton (where, the series was mid-run after beginning on predecessor Thames Television), where viewers were told, in August 1998 after episode 598, that the run would resume after a Summer break, but the series never returned. The last time an episode of Prisoner was shown on ITV was in Southern region Meridian (formerly TVS), again still on their initial run, who finished on episode 586 in July 1999.
The programme achieved enduring success in the UK despite much negative criticism from reviewers, the fact that the series never received a network screening on ITV, and with many regions often changing their slot for the series or dropping it for other programmes. Many ITV contractors, though, usually screened it twice a week in as had been the pattern in Australia. Because, the series was shown on all ITV companies late at night (just before closedown at first, then as the first programme of night-time programming with the advent of 24-hour broadcasting in the late 1980s), it became a favourite of the local continuity announcers. The announcers would often joke about characters and plots before and after the programme and during the end titles. When Border, Grampian and Granada TV screened the final episode in the UK, continuity announcer John McKenzie conducted an on-air interview via telephone with Maggie Kirkpatrick who played Joan “The Freak” Ferguson.
Yorkshire Television were very strict with cutting scenes involving hanging. Notably, the attempted hanging of Sandy Edwards, and the successful Eve Wilder hanging was cut. This was mainly due to a local prison, HMP Leeds in the Yorkshire region having an extremely high number of hangings in preceding years. Yorkshire also heavily edited the fight scene with Joan and Bea in episode 326. Several other regions also edited the odd sequence that they deemed inappropriate, on occasion (despite being shown well past the 21:00 watershed.).
As was the practice for hour-long programmes shown on terrestrial television at that time, the ITV regions inserted two commercial breaks into each episode enabling three parts per show. The breaks were usually inserted at the point of the second and fourth break as would have been seen in Australia. At the end of the show, the cliffhanger would lead straight into the end credits, unlike in Australia where (on later episodes) a sixth break was inserted. The original Australian sponsorship was also removed from the end credits – the picture would blank for a brief moment, before resuming at the Reg Grundy page, leading into the copyright page; the song continued uninterrupted. However, the time lost where the sponsorships were removed resulted in the closing credit tune very seldom being played in full. This was the case for episodes shown both on ITV and later Channel 5 (see below).
In the early hours of Monday, 31 March 1997, the newly launched Channel 5 (which had begun broadcasting at 18:00 the previous evening) began what would be a complete run of the series (while later episodes were still appearing on many ITV regions). (Bar a one-off showing of the famous “fire” episode, 326, as part of a themed soap weekend on Channel 4 in 1995), This merited the series its first ever networked UK screening (although, some areas were unable to receive the new channel at that time.). This also meant that it gave some areas their first complete run of the series. Although, the exact pattern of episodes shown a week varied over the course of Channel 5’s run, episodes were typically shown roughly five times a week in a 04:40 slot (the run did briefly move to a late night slot, with varying times but typically around 23:30, but this soon reverted to the 04:40 slot, reportedly after complaints from ITV that it clashed with their own various runs of later episodes on assorted regions.). Channel 5’s run of the series concluded on Sunday, 11 February 2001, in a double bill showing the penultimate and final episode. To date, Channel 5 have no plans to re-run the series, despite requests from viewers and several, now mostly defunct, on-line petitions.
For most of Channel 5’s run, the programme was sponsored by Pot Noodle, with humorous Prisoner-esque sequences (set in a prison cell and usually playing on the notion of supposedly wobbly scenery and props in the series) being played before and after the episodes, and in the lead in and out from commercial breaks.
Of note for the Channel 5 broadcasts, was the commentary over the closing credits, usually from chief continuity announcer Bill Buckley (but sometimes from deputy announcers like Stuart McWilliam). This began in the early 100s (at which time, the run had briefly moved to its late-night slot), where Buckley would make the odd quip about the episode before giving other continuity announcements. This quickly developed, into him (or the stand-in announcer) making light-hearted and humorous observations about the episode just shown, and before long, reading out related letters and trivia sent in by viewers (which Buckley dubbed “snippets”). Due to the early morning slot, where most viewers relied on Videocassette recorders to follow the series, relevant upcoming changes to the broadcast pattern of the series were also pointed out during these commentaries to viewers when needed so that they might adjust their video settings accordingly.
111 Hits (Foxtel Australia)
In 2010, believing Prisoner would resonate with new audiences, 111 Hits Group Programming Director Darren Chau began planning to replay the entire series on 111 Hits to combat the launch of new digital channel Eleven, and in particular Network Ten’s plans to move Neighbours from Network Ten to Eleven. Following a promotional campaign featuring a new version of the theme song by Ella Hooper, and a cast reunion, Prisoner returned to Australian screens on 7 March 2011 at 6:30pm (AEDT) on 111 Hits. Effective Monday 10 December 2012, Prisoner moved to 5:30pm (AEDT). Each episode is repeated at 2:00am (AEDT) and again the following afternoon at 1:00pm (AEDT). The series has become the number one programme on 111 Hits which has inspired plans for a modern day remake