<Picture>Sheila Florance enjoying the sights on her way to a civic reception in Derby
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COLETTE MANN is one of the few Prisoner actresses who'd really been to gaol - to teach and coach inmates in drama. Fair-haired, far slimmer, infinitely more intelligent and lower-voiced than her squeaking, teddy-bear-clutching character Doreen, Colette used to visit Pentridge prison in Melbourne to help men in A Division with movement, dance and acting instruction. Her career had started in 1971 with a role in Godspell and she has varied her work to include singing, dancing, choreography, radio broadcasting and campaigning for charities helping child victims of abuse. She is married to a freelance cameraman, and they have a two-year-old son Sam and expect a second child this year.
Colette, a law graduate, recalls the excitement in the 'business' when news about the planned series, Prisoner, came out in March 1978. 'Casting didn't start until the following October, but word had spread. There were about twelve women's roles and two men's - it's usually the other way around. Every actress in Australia was auditioning for it; there was quite a buzz, because it was obviously going to be a benchmark series. Women had never played strong roles before, roles which said: "I'm me, on me own." We'd always been someone's wife or girlfriend.
'I was well known for stage and musicals in those days, and it was a bit of a jump to go to television. I was approached first to play Lyn Wamer or Marilyn, the prostitute.
'I read the scripts and asked to test for
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Doreen instead because she seemed safe and I really wanted to play scenes with Sheila Florance, who was a highly respected actress. In the end I tested with Val Lehman and got the part. We made eight episodes before it went out. I thought Doreen was very low key, but as soon as people started watching, Doreen and Lizzie were the dills of the piece and we began getting fan mail - far more than any of the other people in the cast. I liked old Doreen.. she grew on me and grew up in her years there. She'd been raped, shot at; she'd escaped, got herself a boyfriend, married him, divorced, got another boyfriend and was a lesbian at other times depending on how the writers felt about
it. Oh, and I also remember trying to hang myself in the laundry over an abortion. The focus shifted quite a bit over the years; we had several different producers it was inevitable. Doreen even lost the teddy bear she used to clutch. As far as I recall, Noelene pulled its head off and then it was left in a tunnel. Lizzie and Doreen were in a tunnel for days after it collapsed. In reality we would have died but the viewers suspended their disbelief.
'I left after about four hundred episodes because I felt Doreen was repeating herself and it was hard-going. There was a feeling of camaraderie among the cast; you get to know people pretty well when you work that closely for so long.
'To relieve some of the strain I used to sing in a trio with two of the other actresses, Jane Clifton and Betty Bobbitt. We used to dress up to look very sophisticated in black sequins and we'd be introduced as inmates of Wentworth but we wouldn't do Prisoner jokes. We sang in clubs in Sydney on and off for about two and a half years. And in one of my breaks "when Doreen was sent to The Third Floor" - that was always the sign the actress wanted time off to do a play or something - I did a film, Kitty and the Bagman with two other Prisoner people, Val Lehman and Gerald Maguire.'
Although Colette, now 40, has done so many different things since leaving the series, including commentating on sports events and a two-year stint in a comedy show, she is still remembered for Doreen by people in the street.
Colette is, however, grateful to her British fans. 'Three of Doreen's goofs have been shown a couple of times on It'll Be Alright on the Night,' she said. 'So far they have earned me a thousand dollars.'
SHEILA FLORANCE couldn't get her teeth into the role of I-Lizzie Birdsworth at first. The producers had asked her to take them out at the audition. The actress, who had 45 years' of experience behind her, didn't mess around. Anyway, she's a self-confessed exhibitionist. She slipped her dentures out and got the job. Soon it was impossible to think of anyone but little Sheila as raspy-voiced, leathery old Lizzie, Wentworth's oldest inmate. But the two women couldn't sound more different. Sheila has a cultured voice with little trace of her St Kilda, Melbourne, birth. Her mother was a dentist, her father a teacher, and she recalls she would be 'thumped' if she spoke 'Ocker'.
She began acting in Australia at the age of 16 but in 1935, aged 19, she came to England and appeared in many West End plays. She also travelled, and recalls a trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where she happened to sit a few rows behind Adolf Hitler. Married and the mother of two young sons and pregnant with a third, she received news that her husband serving in France had been killed in the 1944 Normandy landings. That tragedy was followed by another - the devastating death of the new child, a girl aged only 10 months, dragged from her arms by the force of a bomb.
Sheila had travelled to Bristol to join the Old Vic. and when she stepped off the train at Templemeads station. 'A bomb dropped near me, and my little girl was blown from my arms and
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killed,' she told a Melbourne newspaper in 1979. Again she coped, threw herself into work with repertory companies and acted with such stars as Robert Donat, Emlyn Williams and Sid James. One night, appearing in The Lisbon Story, a play about espionage in the West End, the air-raid sirens began. The cast and audience ran to the safety of cellars and Underground stations. Sheila was within 50 metres of the Underground when a shell exploded behind her. She was flung to the ground, thought herself dead but incredibly escaped with only cuts and bruises and, since the theatre was still standing, went on with the show the next night. She often said it was a good grounding for her profession. It certainly put the violent eruptions at Wentworth in perspective. Eventually she met a Polish fighter-pilot who'd seen her with friends in a pub and nagged them for her phone number. 'I was too unhappy at the time to bother much about him, but he kept calling and eventually I gave in and went out with him.'
There were more shocks as Jan was shot down three times, suffering severe injuries. But they were finally married in a spectacular ceremony at Nottingham Roman Catholic Church, although Jan had to walk down the aisle on crutches and was never completely well. With him, Sheila returned to Australia and had a child, but bad luck struck again and the girl died at the age of 18. Again there was her work in the theatre to help. A favourite role in 1962 was Lady Macbeth. Taking it fulfilled an ambition she'd had since the schoolgirl Sheila saw Dame Sybil Thorndike in the role.
For The Shadow of Heroes and The Mating Season she received two Melbourne Critics' awards. She appeared in the early soap Bellbird, in which she was 'killed off five times, and did many radio plays. But it was only with the role of Lizzie Birdsworth - a lovable old rascal', as Sheila called her - in Prisoner that the recognition began. She was tickled pink that after forty-five years' work as an actress she was being stopped in the street and children would dance around her. In America 'I Love Lizzie' T-shirts went on sale as the series became a cult. 'When I watch Lizzie I see nothing of myself,' she said, 'but she makes me laugh.'
She took time out in 1980 to film a part in Mad Max with Mel Gibson. But chasing a bikie with a double-barrelled shotgun she fell into a hole and broke a leg. But she couldn't afford to play the invalid
because by then her family had expanded. As well as three grandchildren she was bringing up a young boy who was a musical prodigy.
She left Prisoner in 1983 after 418 episodes. In the last few years life has again been hard. Jan died and Sheila herself has suffered from but beaten cancer. Determined never to retire, she looks back fondly on her Wentworth sentence. The performance won her several awards; but the real bonus, she says, was her lasting friendship with other 'inmates', notably Colette Mann and Val Lehman, alias Doreen and Bea.
CAROL BURNS spent four months playing Franky Doyle and never dreamt Wentworth's most tragic lesbian crim would be hailed as a 'sort of milestone' and haunt her for years to come. On balance she's pleased that the inmate they expected to become the most hated character on television is remembered with sympathy and even a smile. Franky didn't make Carol a big star, partly because Carol wasn't that interested in fame on television and also because she is almost unrecognisable from the spiky-haired, nicotine-stained bikie in dungarees who had a naked woman tattooed on her breasts.
Franky's voice came to Carol as she travelled on a train from Cairns soon after accepting the role. 'I listened to two little boys squabbling and one kept saying (‘Piss orf' aggressively but with no real nastiness, and I copied that. The hairdo was the nearest I could get to Elvis Presley - I imagined Franky would have him as a hero.' The mannish swagger as she walked was easy. The nicotine was from yellow food-colouring painted on her fingers, and Carol was shown how to roll a cigarette like she'd been doing it since she was ten. As she started playing the part she felt sad for the girl. 'She's a lost soul in a society where the bikie and the lesbian are misfits. I find a particular pathos in the fact that Franky has never had anyone to love or love her. She loves Karen because she represents something gentle and pure - something Franky can
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never be.' Carol left the series after only a few months. She had asked to be written out, and the first plan was to have her commit suicide by jumping off the prison roof, but the final version had her being shot while on the run. Carol left because she objected to the decision to produce and screen two episodes a week. She did not think the quality of the scripts or the acting could be maintained, and many others shared her fears. 'Franky was a splendid, energetic character. I tried to bring out the vulnerability in her which I felt went with her youth. The lesbianism was almost incidental. They're just human beings, after all. I hoped social workers could use her in discussions because the series had such a wide appeal. I know it was watched by all sorts of people from a solicitor I knew to the lady in the launderette.
'I didn't tire of Franky, but I wanted her to go out with a bang and
at the right time. Often producers try to over-extend the viable
life of a character. The situations can become absurd, and we had
a little of that with the women dressing up as nuns on one occasion.
But Franky died rather well, and I was interested to see that she was referred
to in the scripts for the next three years. I was in Los Angeles
the night they showed her dying, and there was a huge wake and a parade
down the street.
We celebrated her death in a gay club.'
Before Prisoner, Brisbane-born Carol had worked in the theatre and had lectured in drama at a college of advanced education in Queensland. 'I always believed actors should be international people and I always liked to move on, to travel. I'd done about ten years in the theatre and had taken roles in a few miniseries and films and I thought it was time I tried a part in a commercial soap, since they form such a large part of my country's entertainment industry. And it has been fun to find Prisoner surfacing all over the world.'
Since Wentworth, Carol has appeared in several films, notably Bad Blood with Jack 'Thompson, starred in the television film Eureka Stockade and played Anastasia Hayes in Strikebound. 'I love playing women who stand up for their rights, perhaps because I'm not brave enough in my own life - I'm a middle-class coward,' she laughed. She has visited Britain many times, and settled in London with her composer husband Alan Lawrence three years ago. 'I had reached a height in my career in Australia but I had to start again from square one here. I turned down the offer of playing Franky in the Prisoner: Cell Block H stage play. I didn't want to go back. I'm determined to do work of quality now, even if that means rather too much free time digging my vegetables in the garden or listening to Radio Four.'
ELSPETH BALLANTYNE is the sort of woman who 'shrivels at the merest hint of violence' ' who practically passes out with shock when a drunk swears in the street and who hates wearing any kind of uniform. Yet the timid Adelaide-born actress not only volunteered for what was probably Australia's most chaotic gaol with some of the most violent characters ever
imagined; she was also one of the few to do the full stretch, staying till it ended seven years later. Her television life of crime and punishment as warder Meg Jackson may have been completely against her nature but, she said, it fitted in well with her home life at the time. It was a regular and well-paid 'day job', one which enabled her to bring up her schoolboy sons Matthew and Toby following her divorce from actor Denis Miller. She also liked Meg, although she never let her sons watch her in the show. It wasn't suitable, she said.
Coming from a theatrical family - her mother was an actress, her father a director - she'd made her stage debut in Macbeth aged eight but decided to train for a 'proper job' as a lab technician before taking the plunge, winning a top scholarship for drama school. After several years in the theatre, she'd starred in many popular Australian television series and was well-known as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Lori Chandler in Australia's Bellbird which was a television country story similar to 'The Archers'. Meg was also a 'goodie', but tough, too.
'I saw her as a warm compassionate mediator between the governor and the prisoners,' she told me, 'somebody who because of her attitude would arouse the ire of Vera Bennett. Vera's outlook was that the prisoners were animals, while Meg thought there was hope for everyone.' Elspeth had been to a couple of real Melbourne prisons: to Pentridge men's prison, as part of the cast of prisoner Jim McNeil's play about prison life How Is
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Your Garden Growing? to entertain the inmates; and to Fairlea for some research for her role.
'But what I actually enjoyed most were the laughs. There was always someone in the show who was really dotty. There were many great comics among the actresses - Sheila and Colette were very funny people. I was always giggling in my scenes with Fiona Spence, who played Vera. Once it took me about twelve times to get through a brief conversation with her. The director was sick of me - he threatened that if I didn't pull myself together he'd punish me by making me do the scene after everything else at the
end of the day. And it may sound silly but it was always a great relief when one of the inmates got over the wall or hid something from the warders.'
Meg had her difficult moments, of course. She was robbed, gang-raped, shot, beaten, held at knife- and fork- point. She lost a husband and had another prospective husband change his mind about marrying her after having his kneecaps shot off.
'She was blown up in a brick factory with Erica, the governor, once,' said Elspeth chuckling. 'In reality we would now be in tiny fragments but Meg suffered a damaged spleen and Erica a broken arm, I think.' And at one stage she had to be poisoned and then given given an antidote by some of the prisoners. The antidote was a bright green liquid, supposedly herbal, so they'd shredded lettuce into it. I had to lie motionless on the floor while they poured it into my mouth, so there I lay with a bit of lettuce across my top lip. Inevitably I started to quiver with the giggles and in the end I just exploded, splattering everyone with this vast gale of green lettuce liquid. It was awful.'
There was worse. A stunt-woman had been hired to stand in for Elspeth in a scene where her legs were tied and rats crawled up them. But as soon as the cameras were rolling and the first rat clambered on to the stunt-woman's foot she began yelling hysterically to the rat-handler to get them off, and as soon as her legs were untied she ran from the studio. No one else was available, so Elspeth herself agreed to the torture. 'I felt the rats' clawed feet crawling on to my legs, clenched my teeth and tried not to panic. After about twenty seconds I could bear it no longer and said in a very high-pitched voice: "Get them off!" I was never so delighted to finish a scene.'
Elspeth wore out four uniforms during the series and never imagined she would step into the dreadful grey suit again. But after several successful theatre tours, a children's television series and making several commercials Elspeth was delighted to be asked to appear as Meg in the first Prisoner: Cell Block H stage-tour in Britain in the autumn of 1989. There was no problem about leaving her now grown sons, one at university and one in horticultural college. 'It was a fabulous adventure coming to Britain. I couldn't get over the devotion of the fans,' she said.
PATSY KING received a telephone call from Reg Watson: 'How tall are
you, Patsy?' Like any bright actress she answered: 'How tall do you want
me to be?' Finally she admitted she was only five feet three, hardly an
imposing height for Wentworth's supposedly superior head officer.
They had a solution: high heels and a piled-up hairstyle. It got
her the part of the remote and not very efficient Erica Davidson but also
made her the most dolled-up governor in the history of the prison services.
'But it has meant that every time I meet fans of the series they say, "Oh, aren't you short!",' said Patsy. But the classically trained actress, who'd played a host of serious heroines, had no hesitation about taking on the austere 'Davo' role when she read the scripts. 'I liked her, she
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developed a lot. She was a bit of a mystery but told Lizzie something of her background which helped me understand her. She said she'd been a rebel at university but became a barrister; and her father, who was a judge, had fixed things for her, so she hadn't come up through the ranks. She didn't have that experience of dealing with people, which is why she made mistakes.' Patsy didn't need to be asked if there were funny moments inside Wentworth.
'Erica had a husband, played by Michael Cole. We saw him sitting in a restaurant, and he must still be there, covered in cobwebs,' she laughed. 'And there was a niece who came into prison on drugs charges. Erica's life was certainly action-packed. She was almost sacked twice, she almost resigned twice, she was kidnapped and they threatened to cut off her fingers but luckily only got so far as cutting off her hair. In fact that sequence was a hoot. I was supposed to be being chased but we had to do the scenes again and again. I kept running too fast and the kidnappers couldn't catch me.'
But that wasn't Patsy's stickiest moment. Being shot was desperately uncomfortable. It was the scene which was to be the end-of-the-year cliff-hanger: gun-fire, then Erica falling in slow motion, cutting to a close-up of her on the ground with blood running down from one arm.
'It meant I had to lie on the ground for about half an hour while they filmed me absolutely still,' she said. 'They gave me a pillow, so I wasn't in pain, but the "blood" was a mixture of raspberry and chocolate sauce which looked very realistic and dripped at the right speed. The trouble was that all the ants in the area smelt this wonderful sweet smell and came charging, attacking my arm.'
A scene where Davo was almost burnt alive, apparently stuck in a broom-cupboard, unable to unlock the door when fire broke out, was also tricky - and hilarious. 'I was supposed to tug at the door-handle to discover that the door wouldn't open. It wouldn't - because the handle came away in my hand. The cupboard was full of smoke - because we had an ice-machine in there. But we had to clear it and try again - and again the handle came off. I was really in hysterics, but of laughter not of terror.'
Patsy, who is single and lives in her home town of Melbourne, had had as
wide a variety of roles as could be before Prisoner. She played Kate Andrews in the old soap Bellbird with Elspeth Ballantyne. Sheila Florance had played her mother in Romanoff and Juliet on stage, she'd toured Australia as Bubba in Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and she'd played Miss Behaviour in the children's television series Adventure Island as well as being much in demand on radio for Young girl' voices because of her light voice. She left Prisoner after four and a half years because she felt she need a change, but came back towards the end of the series when the script had the replacement governor, Anne Reynolds, in difficulty with the tough warder nicknamed 'The Freak'.
'Erica stands out as a high-spot in my career,' she reflected. 'After Prisoner, I played the Mother Superior in Agnes of God, a role that was also very important to me. But I suppose the two couldn't be more different.' When the chance came to' re-create the role for the British stage- tour, Patsy was delighted to accept. 'It was very exciting to be in England in all those beautiful theatres,' she said. But the trip was marred by a health scare, she revealed. Patsy had to borrow some of Erica's courage and self-control. For a while she wondered if she'd played her last role. 'I discovered a tumour in my tummy while I was here, which was very worrying,' she said. 'I didn't want to do anything until I was home. Luckily when I got back I went to hospital and had an operation and the lump was benign. I'm absolutely fine now.'
VAL LEHMAN admits to such crimes as leaving one of her babies in a supermarket and on another occasion leaving her elder daughter in a public toilet and not noticing for ten minutes. She still feels guilty about it, but never, as her character Bea Smith felt about her kids, murderous. In fact Val hopes that the only thing the two women have in common is red hair and a throaty voice.
'Bea was tough but very motherly,' she said. 'She may have been a baddie, but the audience thought she was a goodie because she bucked the system and had a strong sense of justice. Everybody would like to punch authority in the nose and, because Bea did, people liked her.'
Born in Perth, Western Australia, Val's first ambition was to be an opera singer, but her too-deep voice put paid to that. She began a fine arts course, worked in student theatre, both acting and writing but left to marry an army officer at 19 and didn't start acting seriously until she was nearly 30, the mother of two girls and a boy, and had been posted with her husband to the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham, Berkshire. There she rode with the gentry on the White Horse and Old Berkshire Hunt during the day and was roped into amateur dramatics in the evenings. Her marriage was the price she paid for her determination to succeed as an actor.
Back in Australia she began working in the theatre, in musical comedy and in television. And she worked long and hard because she had three children to support. She, too, was in Bellbird - 'I was the TV lady who gave birth in the front seat of a
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VW,' she said - and several other small roles. Then the role of Bea Smith, Wentworth's She Who Must Be Obeyed, came her way, a role which won her three 'Logie' awards and made her an internationally known star.
But the work was far from glamorous. The hours were long, often 14 hours for Val, and the scenes sometimes weird. Once, to keep the continuity correct, she had to lie for an hour early one morning in a pool of 'blood'. But there were small bonuses. Both her daughters appeared in the series. Joanne (now 24) played a young girl Bea met while on the run (and who dobbed her in) and Cassandra, 26, played Bea's daughter Debbie, drug-ridden and confused. This was a story-line Val supported wholeheartedly. Keenly aware of the drug problem in the Melbourne community at the time, she helped raise funds for a Drug Elimination Group. She also became the cast's Equity representative and worked for better pay and conditions. Val was, however, allowed 'parole' to appear as flashy Big Lil, a speakeasy operator, in the film Kitty and the Bagman and took a small part in another movie, Mad Dog Morgan.
Then, in March 1983, after four and a half years in Prisoner, she decided to 'escape'. She was offered a role in a play about a defiant girl wrestler, Trafford Tanzi, staged by Wilton Morley, son of Robert. She'd have been a fool, she said at the time, to turn the chance down. She admitted later that she feared being typecast if she'd stayed longer as tough old Bea. Several theatre and film roles followed but, although she was offered the chance to re-create Bea in the British stage-tour, she refused. She did come to Britain last year, though, and in triumph. She was mobbed and fêted during personal appearances and praised for her performance in the play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
She also married British radio journalist Charles Collins, 16 years her junior, something which did not endear her to some of the gay fans of Prisoner. Val pointed out that neither she nor Bea had been attracted to women and revealed that at one stage she had suggested a gay relationship for Bea to the producers. 'Bea had been in captivity for so long I thought something would have to give, but they said no - they wanted to keep her as a sort of mother figure. The poor woman must have been so frustrated!'
FIONA SPENCE made Vera 'Vinegar Tits' Bennett the most hated woman on the box, but the producers of Prisoner had taken a gamble casting her in the role. Unlike most of the leading performers, who had years of experience behind them, Fiona had graduated from a drama course only 18 months earlier and, apart from a role in the Aussie school soap Glenview High, had no grounding in television. But the risk paid off.
Luckily Vera's scragged-back hair - she wore it in a tight bun which
she feared would eventually drop off - meant Fiona could escape being hissed
at in the street. People never recognised her with her hair loose.
'One night I was at the movies with Elspeth Ballantyne,' she recalled.
'An avid viewer congratulated Elspeth on her performance and asked me whether
I watched the series.'
Fiona was both grateful for the-chance and delighted when Reg Watson decided to extend Vera's originally short life. 'Vera was lonely and didn't have anything in her life but prison work. When she tried to socialise it ended in disaster. I think that was part of her appeal. People can relate to loneliness. They feel sorry for her.'
Born in Kent to an Irish mother and an Australian surgeon father, she moved to Hong Kong at three and then at six to Oz. She describes her early life as not particularly serious. 'I was only interested in having a good time. I worked for a firm of architects, then decided that wasn't for me and moved to Canada to live for a year.' In her late twenties she lived in London and took a job in the casual dress department of Fortnum & Mason, the
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posh Piccadilly store noted for its food department. 'I saw some stunning plays in the West End and great performers including Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Judi Dench and Albert Finney, and this seed was planted in my mind. I thought: This is ridiculous - I can't just think about it. I have to see if I can do it. And I've been doing it ever since.'
She is particularly fond of animals and keeps three King Charles spaniels, Strumpet, Scarlet and Spencer, at her Melbourne home. It's ironic because in one Prisoner episode the women found a stray spaniel, named it Prudence, shampooed and cosseted it, only to have Vera insist it must be sent to the RSPCA where it would probably be put down.
Unlike Vera and her later soap character, gossipy Celia in Home And Away she isn't a frump. She loves buying glamorous clothes and dressing up. But, like both Vera and Celia, Fiona is unmarried. 'I was engaged twice when I was 22 and 32 but decided it wasn't quite right for me,' she told reporter Gil Martin.
GLENDA LINSCOTT wanted to learn about prison life before she took on the role of unmarried mum Rita Connors who became Wentworth's top dog - or should that be bitch? - thorn in the side of Joan 'The Freak' Ferguson for the final 15 months of Prisoner: Cell Block H. The prisoners she visited were aggressively determined to tell her nothing but in fact revealed a great deal about their suspicions and anger. Without knowing, they must have helped, because Glenda won the 1986 Best Actress prize in the Penguin Awards. These tend to be rated more highly than the Logie Awards, because they are chosen by people inside the television industry.
Glenda told the Weekly News: 'I was granted permission to visit a prison and toured with the deputy governess. But in those circumstances the prisoners were on their best behaviour - which wasn't what I'd come to see.' She wanted to speak to the inmates without a figure of authority looming over them.
'To achieve this I offered to conduct a drama workshop in the prison. Around fifteen women attended, but unknown to me the workshop had been offered to them as some kind of reward for good behaviour. When I walked in the women
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had their arms folded and were glaring at me with real loathing. They were convinced I was a screw and demanded to know why I was pretending to be an actress and what I'd been sent to find out. Their faces were set like concrete - it was really quite frightening.'
Glenda revealed that Prisoner had given her career the boost it needed. When she left drama school she discovered that her height - six feet one inch - was a handicap at auditions. But for this soap women didn't have to fit into a 'Barbie Doll' mould.
When Glenda was living in Britain last year - her radio-director husband was completing an assignment for the BBC Prisoner again rescued her career from a
quiet patch. She'd feared she would not find work, but the first Prisoner: Cell Block H stage-tour was being mounted and the organisers heard from Australia that she was in Britain. She was thrilled to join the cast.
Interviewed about the appeal of the series, Glenda told The Guardian:
'Every story-line is around women incarcerated within four walls and not
wanting to be there. I think that becomes a metaphor for all sorts
of situations. It could be a housewife trapped at home, it could
be gay people feeling trapped within their own sexuality. People
identify with the metaphor.'
If BETTY BOBBITT had been able to look and sound a bit tougher, Bea Smith wouldn't have been a redhead and would have yelled with a Philadelphia accent. For American-born Betty, who'd gone Down Under in the sixties on a whim and had worked doing comedy on the fledgling Channel Seven television station, tested for the Bea role but was told she was too nice to be beastly Bea. Val Lehman won the role and, undaunted, Betty went back to work in the Australian theatre believing she'd heard the last of Wentworth Detention Centre. A year later, however, Grundy's producers called her again and asked her to test for one Judy Bryant, helpfully an American by birth, an inmate with an unhappy gay relationship in her past and one unlikely to serve a long sentence as she had a weak heart and would probably conk out after a few appearances.
Four years later Betty was still playing the snappy but soft-centred crim who was so well liked the scriptwriters gave her a pacemaker and pronounced her fit to suffer another unhappy affair - this time with Sharon Gilmore for whom she had deliberately gone to gaol.
Betty was told that Judy was a very tough 'bull-dyke', but the actress decided to add an edge of vulnerability which she thought fitted with Judy’s self-sacrificing nature. 'I loved her; she was a victim of her love,' she said. But Betty revealed in an interview for Gay Times that the censors stepped in to 'play down Judy’s lesbianism.
'When they put my character in they specifically wanted her to be a lesbian but still fit within the censor's rules, although Australia's very much more liberal than England or America. So in the beginning she was allowed to be obviously in love and allowed to talk about it. Then the show was sold to America. At one point Judy had to kiss another character, and the Americans said, "No way! She can talk about it, but we don't want to see her kiss someone" . So from that moment on they decided to give Judy’s gayness a low profile. We also had a new producer around that time, and he was very nervous about it, so I had to do more with looks!'
Betty is full of praise for the Prisoner production team, especially many of the extras who decided they would act gay and would stand in the background holding hands, half-jokingly ad-libbing such lines as 'You were great last night, honey!' Viewers never heard them, but the
remarks served to support the actresses who were trying to make lesbian scenes work. But she was concerned at times that there was too much violence in the show. She told Gay Times: 'I was often upset because, you know, one week you'd be raped and the next you'd be at someone with a bit of lead pipe. And you'd think, "God, life is too hard".' Betty was one of the actresses Ian Smith mentioned who visited schools talking to teenagers who identified with Prisoner characters and were sometimes convinced that prison life was about cosy companionship. 'I had to tell them that we were just actors and that people who beat each other up go to gaol or lead horrible lives or raise miserable children.'
Betty now devotes her time to writing and directing for the stage and the cinema.
When big actress LESLEY BAKER came into Wentworth to play morose Monica Ferguson, the new 'standover' inmate when Bea Smith was temporarily off the premises, Australian viewers waited for the laughs. For Lesley was well known as one of television's popular comedy performers, a resident singer-comedienne on the In Melbourne Tonight show, a favourite on 'The Paul Hogan Show' and many other light entertainment series. She also had her own morning show for a time. She had been trying to move into straight drama and had taken several small roles. 'I started off as a nymphomaniac lady garage mechanic, then graduated to junior prostitutes and madams. The gangster's wife has been one of my specialities, too,'
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she said. She was thrilled to be offered the Big Monnie role in Prisoner - she joked that she felt Monnie really loved little Fred but he had to be bashed because he kept putting his hand in the till - and moved into Wentworth on a short-term contract that was extended when the character became popular.
But her 'sentence' was to be cut short by a personal tragedy. Behind Monnie's aggression was the actress's worry about her toddler son Benjamin whom she was bringing up alone following a separation from her husband. She had suspected there could be a problem, but it was only when he was examined by doctors at 10 months that brain damage, suffered at birth, was diagnosed. Lesley felt the child needed her constant attention and dedication and consequently gave up her Prisoner role.
Some years later the producers tried to
tempt her back, offering her the role of a new character, Tinkerbell, a tough bikie who sheltered an escapee. But Lesley declined. These days Ben is able to go to school and Lesley is able to take on stage work, and this year performed at a theatre restaurant owned by actor Terry Gill who played Inspector Grace in Prisoner.
ANNE HADDY now plays soap's nicest and wisest granny, Helen Daniels in Neighbours, and it's hard to think of her as a snobbish old baggage. But she was certainly unpleasant in her role as Alice Hemmings, Doreen's terminally ill mother in Prisoner. When Alice went into a coma and died few tears must have been shed. In fact Alice's last weeks were an anxious time for everyone who knew Anne. Previously healthy, she'd suffered a heart attack in March 1979 - ironically after completing a season in a play called Bodies - and had planned major surgery, four bypass operations to relieve blocked arteries, later in the year. She was well enough, though, to undertake the Prisoner role before the operation and welcomed the not-too-strenuous work as a way of taking her mind off her heart. But a technicians' dispute delayed work at the Melbourne studios, and Anne flew back to her Sydney home. By the time the dispute was settled Anne was only days away from the scheduled operation. She had to fly back to Melbourne to complete her scenes with Colette Mann, who played her daughter. 'The cast and crew were marvellous,' Anne recalled. 'The wardrobe ladies would fuss over me and keep me well rugged up while I was on location to make sure I didn't suffer any bad chest-pains. And, as the role called for Alice's cancer to become more serious and for her to slow down through weakness, I was slowing down myself By then I was feeling the need.' A couple of years later Anne, too, suffered cancer, of the stomach, underwent more surgery, completed her role as Rosie in Sons and Daughters and, to round things off, went back to hospital for surgery for a broken hip. When her Neighbours character Helen Daniels collapsed with a stroke on television this year no one could have doubted she'd fight back and recover!
PEITA TOPPANO- was getting tired of the way actresses tended to be treated - usually cast in passive roles - and photographed looking sweet, in bikinis or in 'girlie' poses, when along came the offer to play Karen Travers, a woman who'd murdered her husband after he forced her to have an abortion. It sounded 'gutsy', she said, and the fact that most of the roles were for women was exciting. But there were to be a few token men, she discovered when rehearsals began and she chatted to the show's creator, Reg Watson. One role was the Wentworth doctor, and she suggested English actor Barry Quin whom she'd met when he'd toured Australia with a production of Othello and she was on stage in A Chorus Line. Barry, who'd returned to England, sent a cassette of his work to Watson and later flew back to take the role. The couple, unhappily in love in the series,, married a few weeks after the series went to air. In Prisoner Karen and Dr Miller's uni-
versity romance was slowly rekindled. Sadly Peita and Barry's marriage is now over.
Born in London, Peita came from a musical family and hoped to be a classical dancer. A fall down some steps which broke a bone in a foot put paid to that, so she concentrated on singing, appearing in most of Australia's musical television shows as well as in The Young Doctors in which she played Dr Gail Henderson. Her role as the black-hearted villainess in Return to Eden and the vamp in Fields of Fire II brought her further success in Britain. Later in 1990 she appears in the ITV mini-series The Paper Man.
MAGGIE KIRKPATRICK has no regrets about her time as Joan 'The Freak' Ferguson, the 'nasty' who came in when 'Vinegar' Vera left. 'It sounds odd to say I enjoyed Joan - she was hideous, a sadistic, corrupt lesbian,' she told me. 'But I did, for nearly five hundred episodes. I certainly didn't mind playing a lesbian, because I felt quite safe in my own sexuality. Also I saw her as a shy, ugly woman, not the predatory monster who'd attack 16-year-old girls. When she fell in love, it weakened her, and the younger woman, who'd been attracted to her toughness, promptly went off her.
'Most people hated her - that was the idea; I found it very gratifying. It showed you shouldn't underestimate the audience.' The hardest time for Maggie was when The Freak was supposed to be suffering from a brain injury after being knocked unconscious by a prisoner. 'It was difficult because every now and then Joan would be in mid-sentence and all of a sudden she would "vague -off' because she was getting these awful headaches. In the end I was getting headaches, because I had to concentrate so hard,' she said. Joan was carted off for brain surgery. Maggie took a holiday in Paris with her actor friend John Hargreaves. When she returned she recorded a song-and-dance number for an Australia Day concert. 'After a long stretch as the Freak, it was great to be a girl again,' she joked.
When Prisoner ended, Maggie went back to the theatre, and in 1988 was delighted to take on Ivy Hackett, self-styled Duchess of the short-lived soap Richmond Hill. 'She liked getting her own way, too, but that's all Ivy had in common with the Freak. I had a lot of fun with her,' said Maggie.
KERRY ARMSTRONG didn't have to act one of Lyn 'The Wonk' Warner’s wobblier moments. When Lyn was supposed to have had an accident which left her on crutches for a few days, Kerry actually needed the crutches. She had been playing tennis, partnering Barry Quin who played Dr Greg Miller against a couple of the station's newsmen. She fell and tore two tendons. At the hospital it was a case of 'Oh no, you again!' For Kerry was as prone to sporting injuries as the Wonk was prone to disasters. Kerry had countless fingers broken in softball, a spinal injury from tobogganing, and a variety of leg injuries from surfing and horse-riding. Happily it hadn't slowed her career. As a 15-year-old schoolgirl she toured with British comedy actor Sid James, then to
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a job as GTV-9's weather girl before landing roles in television series including Cop Shop and The Sullivans. For the role of Lyn, Kerry spent several weeks talking to inmates of Fairlea prison. To cry convincingly, as Lyn the Wonk did often, Kerry said she forced herself to imagine terrible accidents had befallen her family. Kerry went on to work briefly in Dynasty in America.
JAMES SMILLIE landed in Wentworth Detention Centre after being 'repatriated' to Australia, rather like one of those Victorian criminals shipped from Britain out to Oz. Unlike the convicts, James was grateful and looks back fondly to his time 'inside'. He explains that he emigrated to Perth in Western Australia as a child when his family were searching for a better life than the one they'd known in their Glasgow tenement. As a boy soprano he sang with the local symphony orchestra and gradually edged his way into show-business through radio work, news-reading and as host of the Australian version of the children's show 'Crackerjack'. 'I had to cross Leslie Crothwer’s name off the script and substitute my own,' he recalled, chuckling. In 1972 he returned to Britain and won roles in numerous television shows including Z-Cars and General Hospital, in which he played a brilliant doctor with a drink problem. But his career here was interrupted in 1979 when the deadline for those Australians wishing to retain their citizenship was drawing nigh. He and his Australian wife Kay and their two children dashed back to register in the nick of time.
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But he discovered that work opportunities there were few and far between.
'Then I landed a thirteen-week con tract with "Prisoner" playing Steve Wilson the lawyer and it was the best set I've ever worked on,' he said. 'Apart from me and Barry Quin, the rest of the cast were women and I've never been in a less bitchy atmosphere. We had many laughs and I made some true friends.'
In 1980, James came back to Britain to star in the musical about Barnardo with Fiona Fullerton and a cast of 20 youngsters playing small vagabonds. It was with his role as the miracle-working surgeon Dan Marshall, the man who rebuilt actress Rebecca Gilling's face after she was mauled by a crocodile, in the miniseries Return to Eden that James became best-known to British viewers. The series co-starred his pal Peita Toppano, the girl he loved and lost in Prisoner, who played his enemy here.
While he was back in Australia filming Eden, Prisoner was ending its run and James was surprised to be contacted with an offer to return to Wentworth in a new role. He turned it down believing it would be insulting to the show's loyal followers, who would certainly remember Steve Wilson. So it was back to London again for the Smillie family and for James the most exciting singing role so far, taking over the lead role from Denis Quilley in the musical about the comic agonies in a French gay club, La Cage Aux Folles, at the Palladium. Anti-AIDS sentiment sweeping the country at the time led to the show's early closure, but James went on to star in the prestigious production of Kiss Me Kate. Working with members of the Royal Shakespeare Company made James a strong defender of soap. 'Some of the best actors I know started out in Prisoner,' he declared.