<Picture of Vera, Bea and Lyn Warner>
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<Picture: Rita arriving at Blackmoor>
Not what you'd call a pretty sight. But different. As bright actress Glenda Linscott, who won a Best Actress award for her work in it, said: ' Prisoner was outrageous. It was outrageous that we made it and outrageous that people watched and go on and on watching.'
Yet anyone who has been to Australia knows that people there are not so unlike us. Australia is not a land teaming with antisocial women, women who break the law and are prone to violence. In 1979 there were just over 300 women in Australian gaols compared with nearly 9,500 men. That means men in custody outnumbered women by about thirty to one - roughly the same proportion as in Britain. Most of us never meet a woman who has been 'banged up' for fiddling money from her firm, let alone one who has committed a robbery or inflicted grievous bodily harm on another. That's why a television serial about such 'oddities' is likely to fascinate a fair few of us. Whether it's a voyeuristic fascination or a genuine interest in society's misfits, it's hard not to be curious.
How do women end up in prison and how do they manage when they get there? Reg Grundy was the Australian television boss who decided the late 1970s was a time to make drama about this minority. Ten years earlier, this former boxing commentator had formed the Grundy Organisation from his flat in Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, selling one show, Wheel of Fortune, which is still in production today. Thirty years later his international company can claim to have produced more hours of television than any other independent company in the world. Last year they were making over 40 hours a week and during most weeks they fill about 17 hours on British television. Reg Grundy has created and made over 80 quiz and game shows and 22 drama series of which Prisoner is one of his most spectacularly successful. But back in the 1970s the idea looked anything but promising until Reg Grundy asked Reg Watson, his vice-president in charge of drama, to make it work.
Watson, a softly spoken Queenslander, wrote his first play when he was 13 and produced it for the stage in his native Brisbane when he was 18. He acted, wrote and produced plays for the Brisbane Repertory Theatre and worked in radio until he could afford his first trip to Britain in the 1950s. Over here, he worked for the BBC as an actor, then joined Lew Grade's Birmingham-based ATV company helping Lew Grade and Val Parnell with their variety and game shows.
Drama was his first love, though, and by 1964 he had created Crossroads,
the inimitable motel saga which Lew Grade
thought would last 10 years. Reg predicted merely a few. It lasted for 24 years. He wrote, directed, produced and edited it with unflagging dedication for 10 years. Then in 1973 he suddenly yearned for the sun and the bright colours of home and booked a trip which was to alter the course of Australian television history.
Reg went to work for Reg Grundy and helped him expand from games and quizzes to drama. As an ideas man, a writer and producer he seems to have been a power-house. His long-running serials included The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters, The Restless Years and Neighbours, all great successes, and one or two flops. Then Reg Grundy explained his women's-gaol idea. Reg Watson said: 'He said he'd always wanted to do a prison one, but I thought it would be incredibly depressing - mainly because I knew nothing at all about the subject. If you just take a lot of tough women and put them behind bars, the novelty wears off quickly. So I went to the Corrective Service Department and they put me in touch with a wide cross-section of women prisoners and women warders. Someone introduced me to a woman who had spent twelve years inside. She was beautifully turned out, stately, with neat grey hair and very genteel. She didn't smoke or drink. She had been found guilty of killing three men but she hadn't done it, she told me,' he went on with a wry chuckle. 'In fact, when I started to talk to women inside, I found everyone was innocent!'
Watson and his researchers spent nine months visiting institutions, talking to people inside and outside and ploughing through Royal Commissions into prisons. A couple of women wardens were regularly consulted over story-lines. Wentworth, said Watson, is probably a combination of Silverwater women's prison in New South Wales and Fairlea gaol in Melbourne. 'We combined the rules and regulations of both places, but perhaps our security systems aren't so good. We took dramatic highlights, but in some cases we had to tone down the characters and incidents. Some of the people were just too violent and the events too shocking. But it was never in our minds to make it a knocking series. If there were warders who were sadistic bitches, that's because the people we spoke to told us there were warders like that. We've relied on advice from prison people in everything.
'We came up with episodes which shocked people when they were seen in America. It was shown at peak time in Los Angeles and at first a group of lesbians picketed the studio. I can remember frantically telexing LA, trying to explain that the scripts were not anti-lesbian. They had to watch on, see how things turned out. They did, and Franky Doyle became a figurehead. When she died they held a wake.'
Watson liked Franky very much. 'I'd based her on a real woman I'd talked to. Very tough but clearly vulnerable underneath. And the actresses really excelled. We had so many experienced performers falling over themselves to get parts, it was extraordinary. But, then, most actresses were used to serving tea on television.'
Reg Watson never claimed that Prisoner
<Picture of Nola McKenzie threatening Maxine Daniels> Prisoner presented life in Wentworth with no holds barred
was the whole truth about prison life. 'The most important thing is to entertain. We weren't trying to preach; it wasn't meant to be a documentary. Anyway, it would have been deadly dull if we'd tried to make it absolutely realistic,' he said. 'There would have been rows of women sitting around doped and depressed. We made it like a girls' boarding school gone wrong with lots of practical jokes which sometimes led to violence. We suggested tension and occasionally dealt with sexual relationships.'
Former teacher Peita Lechford was one of the researchers who helped
Reg Watson and his writers. Not only did she observe and talk to
a wide range of women inmates of gaols, to learn personal
stories, understand how the Queen Beas were selected, pecking orders formed and followed, and what happened when they weren't., she was also able to draw diagrams for the set-designers and describe the insides of cells.
She confirmed that women had chances to vary what they wore, to work
outside, have contact with the outside world and to interact with male
prisoners. In one gaol, she said, 'men do the cooking and there's
a ritual as a procession of a group of male prisoners escorted by guards
walk up to the women's kitchen and one by one dump the food. The
women catcall, whistle and make sexual comments about the guys.' She also
noted that a high proportion of women prisoners were fat because boredom
seemed an inescapable problem and it was hard not to count the minutes
In the grounds - which had once been an orchard and were still tended by the former owner - a vegetable garden was laid out. Real vegetables began to grow, though no thanks to Doreen and Lizzie and the other inmates soon to be seen working there. (In fact one critic pointed out that she had yet to see more feeble rows of plants. The answer must be that, because Wentworth's lack of exercise facilities made Strangeways look luxurious, this garden doubled as a recreation spot and the vegetation was trampled underfoot.)
Back to the start. An old gate that used to fence off a piece
of land became the gate that fenced off the prison farm and another patch
of lawn became the prison barbecue area. Mostly, though, the famous
Melbourne sun,- which seems to have the strength of a 40-watt bulb, made
outdoor meals fairly grim affairs. Inside studio B a $1.5 million
computerised lighting system was installed for use exclusively on this
series. At first twelve permanent sets were made, but later, according
to director then producer Philip East, sets doubled. 'The dining-room
and the recreation-room were one and the same with bookcases put in and
taken out,' he said. The cells were never a problem. What was
a headache were the corridors. The long, echoing walkways viewers
see so often were a sham. He said: 'We had only one L-shaped section
with wooden walls which we dressed and re-dressed, putting
in and taking out door units and bar units. The actresses had to walk through, stop while we changed things, then start again. It was a bind and a bit of a joke when we had to do it so many times.'
The look of Wentworth Detention Centre has been mocked by some British viewers, who insist that they can see all the walls wobble and that there is no glass in the windows. Actress Patsy King jokes that all the tunnels dug by the prisoners must have weakened the foundations. Producer Phil East says the critics need their eyes tested. East, who took over from Ian Bradley to become the second producer of the series, went on: 'When they started the series they decided it should be set in a modern prison and, yes, the sets did lack the character of an older building. This was emphasised by the British prison drama Within These Walls which was running here at the same time. But the sliding gates were metal and very heavy, many of the walls were the solid walls of the studio buildings and only the cell doors were wooden. When they were slammed the sound wasn't authentic, so we added sound effects on. We were working 48 weeks of the year, making two hours of drama a week and on a limited budget, so at times the appearance may not have been brilliant; it wasn't easy, but I think it was adequate.'
What had been easy was the casting. In place of the offers, turn-downs, new offers to new people, the delays, headaches, bargaining and changes which usually occur with major television productions, almost every actress offered a part accepted. The reason was that this was a long-awaited chance for actresses. All the leading roles were for women, and women of all ages, all shapes and sizes. Australian actresses who weren't young, whose faces weren't their fortunes, fell over themselves to be part of it, so rare was it that a soap's scripts did not require most of the characters to 'get their gear off' and prance around a swimming-pool. And the roles of murderers, armed robbers, poisoners or con-women were obviously more meaty than those they were usually offered: housewives and mums.
Ian Bradley, first producer of Prisoner, recalls: 'It was International Year for Women, women were beginning then to examine their roles in society, and the basic idea behind the series was that many women were prisoners of the system whether in gaol or not. Reg Watson had written it as a 16-part self-contained series. But when we started screening we realised we were on to a winner.' One sign of this was that the Network bosses, having seen a few episodes, immediately ordered a further forty-two. The show's first 12-month stretch was assured.
A part of its instant success was the pretty theme-song, 'On the Inside',
recorded by Lynne Hamilton. Lancashire-born Lynne started singing
at 1'4 and toured England in a rock group, the Desperadoes, a supporting
act to such artists as Eric Burdon and the Animals and Freddie and the
Dreamers. She later formed the Caravelles, who had a hit with 'You
Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry', toured Europe and met superstars such
as Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. 'We made a few hit records
but the group split
up, so I came to Sydney with my family in 1975 and started again.'
In 1979 she was asked to record the Prisoner theme-song, which was a moderately successful single there. But in 1989 it was relaunched in Britain and zoomed to number three in the charts. The record company had by then lost touch with Lynne, now married to her manager Greg Dilanian and living in Melbourne. But news filtered Down Under, and Lynne made a trip home tickled pink by her born-again hit record. In the mean time, she reported, she had received thousands of letters from prisoners and their families. 'I've never been inside a prison, but now I've proved I'm not dead I'm being asked to visit gaols to give concerts. It's fantastic.' Fans were delighted when the song once blared out of a radio in one of the houses in Neighbours.
Phil East, producer of Prisoner for two years, says it was a uniquely fast-moving operation. 'The actresses did not spend the usual time in make-up or having their hair done and there were rarely any delays deciding on clothes. For one thing, the women spent 90 per cent of the time in their prison uniforms. I remember the actresses used to urge the writers to give them scenes when they could dress up or at least have a change, but those scenes were sparingly done. In many ways the story lines and scripts were the hardest area. We were also very concerned with the level of violence. We showed prisoners murdering, burning hands in the steam press, fighting. We had someone impaled on a spike - but we decided not to show it. There was a danger in becoming too graphic; that wasn't the intention.'
The writing, the acting, and producing the violence for one and then two hours a week became exhausting. Early on most of the action revolved around Franky Doyle, a nicotine-stained lesbian bikie inside for armed robbery and played by bright Brisbane actress Carol Bums, the show's first new star. In one scene Franky and her pals went berserk in the library. It terrified at least one of the extras so much she was found under a table, sobbing. Carol said she came out of the recording with hands shaking, vision blurred.
It was easy to sense the tension, and the producers made sure individual performers had breaks between such scenes. In time, according to many, the actresses became like their characters. One actress recalled how the dressing-room was for a time a tunnel which all members of the cast had to share. Amusingly the actresses playing the crims tended to use one side and those playing the screws used the other. Because the space was so cramped, they often became quite aggressive to each other, assuming the characteristics of their 'them' and 'us' roles. Marie Trevor, the producer who took over from East, said: 'It became a strain. It was hard on the writers too. Every day they had to dream up a way for one of these unsavoury women to kill or take revenge on another. We had to keep the violence down.'
But Prisoner remained a Tuesday- and Thursday-night treat for Australian
viewers. Phil East recalled: 'When the Network decided to end Prisoner
after 692 episodes in 1986, there was a huge protest.'
She said: 'When Reg Watson showed me his draft of the first two scripts I said, "It's a bit ugly, isn't it?" It seemed a bit risque for Australian television, so unlike anything that had gone before. I told him, "I don't know if the audience will stand for this. They're used to clean-livers, mother figures."
'But Reg didn't see it as that much of a departure. And later on I saw that in some ways he was right. Anyway, he was very serious about it, and we got down to work and wrote it together. Initially there were to be only sixteen to twenty episodes on the 10 Network and with an ending Karen Travers was to be proved innocent. The network then decided they wanted more, so we had to change the stories and turn it from a maxi-series into a serial. Karen had to stay a lot longer.
'We were helped in our research by a terrific woman who had been inside, and a number of the characters were based on real people. "Mum", for instance, was based on an elderly woman who had been inside, and had later set up a refuge for ex-prisoners. Others we devised to balance and contrast or for light relief.
'We wrote the characters as survivors, and I think that was the show's secret even if it wasn't obvious. The reason it took off so well at first was that people were astounded to see women who could use their fists to protect themselves, women who could be violent. Personally I loved Doreen and Lizzie. They started out as humorous characters but became firm fixtures and quite serious at times. I also gave Vera Bennett her nickname "Vinegar Tits" - Fiona Spence has never forgiven me. I liked her - she was not corrupt, she was tough on everybody including herself
'Franky was another one I adored - this boiler-suited heavy dyke who showed her softer side with her brother. I had the job of writing Franky out when Carol Burns wanted to leave. She objected to the show going out two hours a week instead of one; she feared they couldn't maintain the same standard, there'd be too many compromises.
'As the series progressed we introduced many subjects which were controversial, but I was always very cautious with drugs because I knew a lot of schoolkids were watching in Australia when it was seen at 8.30. Kids were mimicking the characters in school. I made Bea Smith very anti-drugs, and I tried to have pregnancy portrayed responsibly.
'I left after about 200 episodes - I feared my brain would go dead if I didn't. But I look back on Prisoner as something special and something important.'
Since leaving, Denise has written scripts for A Country Practice, The
Sullivans, An Indecent Obsession, The Flying Doctors and a new Australian
<Picture of Greg Miller helping Rosie Hudson - from episode (3)?>
IAN SMITH, now famous as funny, huffing Harold Bishop in Neighbours,
served a hard seven-year stretch as script editor of Prisoner: Cell Block
H. And for four of those he did double porridge - playing Ted Douglas,
Head of Corrective Services, as well.
'It was the only time I've ever written for myself,' said the 51-year-old star who first stepped on stage as a baritone in The Desert Song. 'I write episodes of Neighbours but I can't bear to write for Harold. If I think of any jokes for him, I feel the other actors might resent me giving myself the best lines, so the only times I tried it was very flat. Also I feel that actors should have the right to criticize the script, and I don't like to inhibit that. If, having written it, I was in the same scene, it might cause the actors to hold back about something they don't feel right with. And with Prisoner it became too much, so I had the pleasure of writing myself out - although it wasn't killing myself off. That might have been painful.
'In the early stages I had my backside kicked a few times,' he said. 'I wrote what I thought were dramatic action scenes, the producers stopped me and I disagreed violently. It was part of my learning process in production. Looking back I see that they were right, but I hated sacrificing a great piece of drama just because it might have been contentious had it gone to air. I found out that we were watched by schoolchildren who were adopting our characters' names such as Queen Bea and Vinegar Tits and emulating the people in the show. We had to send some of the actresses out to talk to children in schools to push home the message that this was not real life, it was only a piece of entertainment. Sometimes things became so serious that we had to give them little lessons - I used to hate doing this, because I think if you have a message you use Telecom; we're entertainers not educators.
'It was also a very popular show in prisons, so we knew that if we handled any matter irresponsibly we could have caused serious riots. We actually found that in one prison the top dog adopted the name Queen Bea.'
After his early wrangles with his bosses, Ian's problems switched. He had to deal with the 'deep throats' among the real prisoners and warders who fed him juicy tales from their experiences - these led to many of the stories in the series - and also with disappointed writers and some cast members who wanted to 'let go' with more daring sequences. It didn't make him popular.
'I was not liked as head editor because I had to step on so many stories,'
he said. 'It was very difficult to keep coming up with new ideas.
We went through the whole shooting library - hunger strikes, inmate revolts,
industrial action by warders, a quarantine, arson, abortion, a woman who
gave birth in her cell. We had to be very careful about using the
snippets of information people gave us because we knew they were often
biased one way or another and we had to take the middle road.'
<Picture of Lizzie and Doreen in costume for the pantomime> Amateur theatricals from Doreen Burns (Colette Mann) and Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance)
Ian can smile now at the incidents that were 'blamed' on the series, though at the time the complaints were treated seriously. 'For argument's sake, there was a fire at Fairlea women's prison when two inmates were burnt to death. Unfortunately one of our episodes which went to air two weeks later had a very similar storyline and we were accused of capitalising on the anguish of these real victims. But, for God's sake, we had made that segment almost four months before the Fairlea incident. We still copped the abuse, though.'
On another occasion the cast was filming in a building when they heard the loud sound of sirens and saw the police helicopter hovering nearby in a stakeout. 'Only later did they learn that a former prisoner who had assisted with plots for
the story-line had been shot dead in a confrontation with police. He was killed trying to hijack a security truck carrying $1.8 million.
Ian is the first to admit that life in Wentworth was not like real life 'inside'. He said: 'If we'd had to portray the real thing, we'd have lasted only a week. It's true horrific things happen, but they're over and done with in seconds. That would never do for television. The thing about prison life is that the tiniest problem is magnified. If I leant towards you and reached for your coffee-cup, you'd think nothing much of it. It wouldn't be a threat. In prison that cup, that possession, is yours - you may have done some graft for it. It may only be a plastic cup, but you'd defend it like mad.'
Ian added his admiration for the cast. The sheer drabness of the gaol surrounds and prison fatigues sparked fine performances from many of them, he believed. "They had to be great actresses,' he said. 'There weren't any props or great costumes to pull them through. It was facial expressions, feel, timing that brought Prisoner to life.'
And, of course, there were mishaps. The steam-press was not real - not surprisingly; the steam came from a steam-bottle which pumped out clouds of vapour, but the press was safely cool. But there was a lurking danger - an escaped snake.
'We used a snake in one of the stories. It was supposed to have bitten Meg; she went to hospital, and the creature was eventually caught and killed. Only it wasn't really. It was a dangerous variety a yellow something, I forget which - which had been de-fanged. It was brought in for the scene, let out of its box, and after we did the scene it vanished. They searched everywhere, but it was never found. From then on it wasn't a very comfortable feeling knowing that somewhere in your workplace a dangerous reptile is lurking. I don't believe they ever saw it again. They used a model for the dead snake, of course.'
But most of the action scenes were fun, Ian recalled. Especially one when a riot had to take place in the kitchens. 'A food fight was going at full pelt, and they had quite enough of it on film, but none of the cast heard the word "cut" so they went on slapping cream pies all over the place and at each other. It was hilarious. When they finally stopped the set was a shambles. In the end they had to take it all apart, clean everything and make it up all over again.'
When Prisoner ended, Ian did not relish his 'freedom'. 'I was
very, very upset,' he said. 'I know it sounds dumb, but I was so
wrapped up in that show. But I don't think I would ever do it again.
You can't go back. It's like going to a school reunion. You
get too much of a shock when you see these old. bald, red-nosed fellows
you once knew as callow youths.'
Wentworth 'a Hell house of appalling animalistic behaviour' where 'morality is a mockery'. The governor of Victoria's Fairlea prison, Miss Wanda Miller, objected because she thought the serial was a reflection on practices in her prison. Some prison officers took umbrage, claiming that they weren't like beastly Bennett & Co. The Festival of Light's Fred Nile railed against the 'illicit sex acts', the language and the violence, and some viewers were rather sniffy about Franky Doyle. A few prisoners chipped in, too - they protested that life in Wentworth was not realistic because it wasn't boring enough. But the viewing figures rose steadily and the show was soon a favourite in Sydney where citizens traditionally reject anything that comes from the rival city, Melbourne.
But, if critics can make or break productions on stage, they have a harder job telling people what to watch in their own home. The series was the second most popular show in the 1979 National Top Ten. (A year later it was still in the chart but at number eight.)
Perhaps the show's greatest triumph was in August 1979 when viewers on the West Coast of America were shown a two-hour introduction before the serial began in a peak-time weekly slot. Despite the fact that Americans knew none of the stars, the show captured a quarter of the viewers - and there were seven channels. Screened on the KTLA Channel 5, it stole audiences from the two big networks, NBC and CBS, and was beaten only by ABC which was showing the then well-established hit series Charlie's Angels.
No American peak-time series had featured lesbian characters. None has since, and even 'daring' British soaps such as East Enders and Brookside, which have acknowledged the existence of gay men, have shied away from the portrayal of gay women. Australian viewers had already shown an acceptance of homosexuality. In their outrageous 1972 soap Number 96, one of the main 'goodies' was a gay solicitor, Don Finlayson, whom many of the women characters tried to 'convert'. And there was hardly a ripple when another series The Box featured a bisexual character, played by Judy Nunn, who took the role of Joyce Martin in Prisoner and is now a star of Home and Away . Phil East said, 'The lesbianism was never shown as anything surprising. It was part of the possessiveness you'd expect to develop in prison.'
Reg Watson was naturally gratified when the initial hoo-ha died down and Prisoner became a solid favourite with viewers. But there were no doubts about the wisdom of ending it seven years later. We ended it not because we ran out of ideas; we never had a problem thinking of material. But we felt it had run its course. it was heavy-going for everyone. We could never do it again. We tried to do something similar a few years later; we tried a male version called Punishment. Mel Gibson was in an early episode. But it didn't work at all. There was no mystique. People knew more or less how men coped without women, they knew what they do as far as sex is concerned, and they didn't want to see unrelieved violence.'
Women teachers of Australia did not
<Picture> Rita Connors (Glenda Linscott) and Lorelei Wilkinson (Paula Duncan)
lament the ending of the series. They had inherited the nicknames of the screws, notably 'Vinegar Tits', thanks to the show's devoted younger audience. Prisoner had saved Australia's Network 10 from a downhill slide (a list of failures such as Tea Ladies, Hotel Story and The Bluestone Boys had preceded the opening of Wentworth's gates). It had renewed Reg Watson's reputation and helped make reputations for Phil East who (like Marie Trevor after him) went on to produce Neighbours.
Most important, Prisoner gave actresses who might otherwise have
been seen only pouring tea a real chance to act. The roles they played
made soap history. Here are some of them.