Another factor helping Grundy's immeasurably was Holmes and Watson's
strict edict to seek experienced stage players, but not necessarily names
or faces familiar to the television public. There was to be no general
confirmation of cast signings until all roles were settled for the start
of shooting on the initial sixteen one-hour episodes in four months' time.
And there was no divulging of the potent storyline. Cast and crew
were literally under oath not to loan, copy or circulate the scripts.
It was now mid-May 1978. Grundy's had to protect the new stars from unauthorised publicity leaks before all systems were go. And even then there would only be minimal organised publicity permitted.
The Grundy casting net was spread far and wide looking for special faces and talents. Initially, Kerry Spence's spotter teams concentrated on about forty-eight stage shows being performed in theatres in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. There were several great discoveries. 'Prisoner' brought TV stardom to theatre actresses and overdue acclaim to many veteran players. Some actresses who thought their careers had passed them by were swept into the 'Prisoner' whirlpool, swimming ashore with new energies and public recognition.
The subject material made the show potential dynamite and Grundy's couldn't disregard the powerful and inquisitive press. Still, sensational headlines before or during shooting and ahead of the release of the show could mean irresponsible and irreversible controversy about the characters and general theme. There would be official and
pressure group outbursts against 'Prisoner'. It was to be expected.
Grundy's concern could be readily gauged just by reading the character breakdown and first scripts: murder a la Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho shower scene when Anthony Perkins slashed the life out of a naked and defenceless Janet Leigh (only this time a pretty schoolteacher stabs her two-timing husband); suicide; a hanging; assault with a hot iron; an infant buried alive; a tattooed lesbian bikie ruling the roost; and a vicious, vinegary warder who regards violence and fear as the only keys to survival.
Not typical Aussie soap fare. 'Prisoner' was a far cry from its contemporaries, such as 'The Restless Years', about young folk out of school and starting adult life; 'A Country Practice', village and hospital life in a tranquil place called Wandin Valley; 'Carson's Law', the inside stories of legal eagles in the Forties.
It could have been a volatile tabloid blitzkrieg in the wrong hands. Grundy publicists and O-TEN wanted maximum media space further down the track when the series was about to première.
Franky Doyle's character was the hardest to cast. The basic outline said she was a vile, bullying, loud-mouthed' , trouble-making tattooed lesbian with a bikie gang background. Violent, destructive and unpredictable - a walking time-bomb! She had been convicted for armed robbery and given nine years in the slammer. Nobody trusted Franky. You got her special kind of message very quickly, and it was the same for the actresses who were approached for the role. They realised instantly it would be one of the most daring and nasty roles on television anywhere in the world. The character would be hated. And the lesbian elements were a major worry for almost every candidate.
Just how many actresses passed on the Franky Doyle offer (or didn't fit the demanding bill) we will never know but there were certainly several, including a couple of famous names. Franky's kinky sex-life frightened most of the potential players. They were reluctant to miss out on the notorious role, and invariably told Watson and Co. they'd be interested - but only if Franky's character was sanitised or made more acceptable.
Looking back it seems obvious only one actress could have portrayed Franky Carol Burns. Even now, ten years on, Australian audiences can clearly remember Franky. Certainly, Doyle was an oddity, even among the misfits of Wentworth, but few people could have imagined the impact she was to have on viewers in Australia and around the world.
Burns, then 31, was an experienced stage actress from Brisbane. Her biggest role to date had been in the movie The Mango Tree (1977), starring American actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Australians Sir Robert Helpmann and Christopher Pate, son of the film's director, Michael Pate. At the time, Michael Pate, a seasoned actor-writer-producer, with a wealth of Hollywood credits, had become a welcome fixture in Australian TV circles. He had starred in the series 'Matlock Police' and was a drama consultant to several aspiring producers and helped many writers to polish their scripts.
<Picture of Bea standing over Franky>Down, but not out! Frankie
Doyle (Carol Burns) tells Bea Smith (Val Lehman) she's top dog 'for now
... but you ain't seen the last or worst of me.' And she's right...
Pate has a shrewd eye for talent. He used Mel Gibson in his pre-cult days for the film of Colleen 'The Thorn Birds' McCullough's Tim (1978).
On location for The Mango Tree in Bundaberg, Queensland, Pate said of Carol: 'The lady has tenacity, commitment and a strong desire to succeed. She gets right into the character, and quickly. She'll get something big on television real soon, and there'll be no stopping her.'
When called in by Kerry Spence and Reg Watson to discuss the Doyle role, Burns went straight lit to the point. 'Great role, folks. But she's a dog, too nasty, too evil. I can see the hate mail pouring in already. Now, justify her behaviour, pull her back a little, and I'll do it.' Watson assured her that that was already done and provided several advance scripts which provided some key insights into Franky's background. It was a big day for Watson when he knew he had Franky Doyle sitting next to him. Franky was based on a real person, 'but I toned her down for the show. The original would have been too shocking'.
Many actresses fought tooth and nail for the part of dual-killer Bea Smith. Agents knew this would be a sensational dramatic role for the right player and the word was out that Bea Smith would be the nemesis of Franky Doyle, if such a thing was possible.
In the end, when the choice was made from the four finalists (no one's telling, but the three who missed out on Bea were to make it to Wentworth later as main players or special guests), none would argue against Grundy's having done it again.
They signed Val Lehman, a stocky, volatile player, mother of two in real life, with considerable experience in theatre and TV a familiar face but not a name. Playing Queen Bea would change all that overnight. Lehman thrust her poundage and physical strength into Bea like a concrete pile-driver under expert control. Her many confrontations with the formidable Franky Doyle, and later warder Joan Ferguson and all the bashers, killers, druggies and standover merchants that would follow were to give 'Prisoner' some of its most frightening and memorable moments for more than four years and 400 episodes.
<Picture of Bea and Lizzie in the rec room>Bosom buddies, sharing the ups and downs of Lizzie's troubled times, Val Lehman and Sheila Florance portrayed two of the most enduring characters in Australian TV - the bustling top dog Bea Smith and the eccentric chain-smoker Lizzie Birdsworth
Bea had killed twice. The first time around she murdered a co-worker caught trafficking drugs. Ten years behind bars seemed to mellow the lady, but she didn't like what she saw soon after getting out - her randy husband had taken in another bedmate. And he was part of the chain that supplied drugs to their daughter, who would later die of an overdose despite Bea's vigilance and devotion.
So, Bea got hold of a gun and shot him. For this, she got life in Wentworth. Now, no man or woman, including Doyle, will tell her what to do. The constant promise of a fatal showdown between Bea and Franky would be an early strength of 'Prisoner'.
Val, 36 when she signed in at Wentworth, was born in Perth, Western Australia, city of millionaires and once home to the America's Cup, Val chuckles when recalling the highlight of her acting career prior to 'Prisoner'. 'I played a woman in "Bellbird". I was having a baby in the back seat of a Volkswagen. I kid you not.'
When news leaked in Melbourne that Elspeth Ballantyne would play a key role as warder Meg Morris, the press couldn't be kept at bay. The engaging blonde actress, one of Australian television's earliest soap darlings as the winsome Lori Grey in the long-running 'Bellbird' (1963-72), had captured the hearts of viewers not only with her poignant portrayals on screen, but with a real-life, front-page romance and 1968 marriage to 'Bellbird' co-actor Dennis Miller (who played the town cop Des Davies). It was the stuff the best soaps are made of - an at-work romance which led to off-screen wedding bells.
Adelaide-born Elspeth, daughter of actor-playwright Colin Ballantyne (the former boss of the South Australian Theatre Company) and sister of well-known film producer Jane Ballantyne (Man Of Flowers, My First Wife), started her working life cutting up rats in the Royal Adelaide Hospital. 'I was a laboratory technician, and loved it,' she adds. But she caught the acting bug and was in the first intake of students for NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) in 1959. NIDA is Australia's most revered training ground for actors and actresses (Judy Davis and Helen Morse are two of their celebrated graduates).
After graduating, Elspeth worked in many stage productions in Perth,
Adelaide and Melbourne before getting the 'Bellbird' role and parts in
two movies End Play (1975) and Blue Fin (1978).
The Meg Morris role in 'Prisoner' would allow Elspeth to play someone her own age (39). Although Meg had a fairly firm grip on life there was plenty of turmoil ahead. She hadn't got seniority stripes for Wentworth the easy way. Her life was turned upside town with the killing of her social worker husband in a prison riot. Her teenage son can't handle the death of his dad and undergoes a remarkable personality change. So, likeable Meg has her family problems.
For the important role of Erica Davidson, Governor of Wentworth, the producers signed Patsy King, who had trained as a Shakespearean actress at the National Theatre in Melbourne. She had guested in man TV shows and was in demand for TV
commercial voice-overs. Erica is an authoritative, well-coiffured
lady with an open mind about how to run a prison, but she often finds herself
quarrelling with ignorant or stubborn jail authorities.
'Erica felt she was running the show as a pretty tight ship, and she generally made sure things were on an even keel. She sought new ways to administer jail routines, and usually attracted loyalty from her staff,' said Patsy. 'I wanted the writers to make her a little more aggro, make her more in absolute control. She wasn't weak, though. I kept telling them she should be more of a heavy, nastier, making enemies which could cost dearly. I suppose they met me halfway by the time I took the final roll-call at Wentworth.'
Second-in-charge at Wentworth was the sadistic warder Vera Bennett,
described in the character breakdown for casting as 'the head screw (inmates'
nickname for a warder) who rules the prisoners with a hand of steel and
an acid, vinegary tongue which snaps commands like a whipcrack'.
It took only a few confrontations between Bea and tough Vera for the inmates and viewers alike to call her Vinegar Tits. The name was bandied around cell-blocks and taken up by thousands of schoolchildren who immediately transferred it to unpopular teachers.
Again Grundy's found the perfect player for 'Beat-em-to-a-pulp Vera' in Fiona Spence. Born in Somerset, England, she was only a baby when her father, a scientist-metallurgist, moved the family to Hong Kong. She later travelled on to Australia and became a schoolgirl thespian. She took a three-year acting course at the New South Wales School of Drama in Sydney. Just before she got the Vera Bennett role, Fiona had shown promise in a small part in the Grundy family series 'Glenview High'.
'I welcomed the chance to play Vera,' recalls Fiona. 'People love to have someone to hate, so 1 knew Vera would give them all that and more. And it was my first big chance to show my wares. It was quite exciting. 1 liked the way Vera always schemed, and how badly she wanted to be number one, Governor of Wentworth. The prisoners had their top dog throne, but poor Vera was a constant bridesmaid.'
|Name: Margo Gaffney
Actress: Jane Clifton
|Armed robber Margot Gaffney was a
standover merchant who could ignite explosive riots and organise prisoner
resistance. Her chilling reign as top dog ended when the authorities moved
her to Blackmore Prison, where they
hoped the strict authority and tougher conditions could control her. She was to make return visits, though, as fitted into actress Jane Clifton's busy schedule as a singer-actress.
Peta Toppano (originally Peita, but changed to Peta when she became Australia's undisputed screen goddess in Return to Eden and Fields of Fire III) was one of the first prisoners. She portrayed the beautiful, victimised Karen Travers, a schoolteacher who kills her husband when she discovers him in bed with another woman after he has forced her to have an abortion. To add to her troubles, the despicable Franky Doyle took an immediate fancy to Karen, whispering such delicacies as, 'We're going to be here night after night, for years and years and years.'
True love would finally rescue Karen from her hell-hole and Franky would transfer her affections elsewhere. But Karen had to contend with months of humiliation, abuse and prolonged court-hearings while her lawyer and lover-doctor organised a retrial and ultimate freedom.
Margaret Laurence, who had attracted plenty of attention as the over-sexed,
unfaithful wife of delicatessen manager Arnold Feather (played by Jeff
Kevin) in 'Number 96', learned her acting craft in England and America
and was the perfect choice for nymphomaniac prisoner Marilyn Mason who,
to no one's great surprise, was locked up for prostitution offences.
Marilyn and the Wentworth electrician Eddie Cook (played by Richard Moir)
made good use of a comfortable cubbyhole near the recreation room and provided
the show's few early voyeuristic moments as they unleashed their sexual
<Picture of Richard Moir>Richard Moir, as electrician Eddie Ward, was among the first of many token males in the show. He and nymphette Marilyn Mason made love in a secret cubbyhole
'Marilyn was the poor man's girly-girly, I suppose,' Margaret says a decade later. 'She was a likeable soul, trying to be good, but she just couldn't. She did what she did best, but could never find true lasting love, not even with Eddie, who adored her. She got out of Wentworth and set up home with him. It still didn't work. It was a case of a girl who couldn't help herself. I grew attached to Marilyn because of the fun side of her, the writers gave me a chance to do things to show her in a better light at times. But in the end it was futile because Marilyn had set herself certain goals which she couldn't possibly reach, and even Eddie's special kind of love couldn't give her those things.'
Doreen Anderson was something of a tubby loner when first introduced to 'Prisoner', child-like and immature for a 19-year-old convict, prone to sucking her thumb and cuddling a teddy-bear at night, she was in the nick for forgery, duped by a so-called boyfriend, yet had lesbian tendencies which made her an obvious target for randy Franky Doyle after she'd been rejected by Karen Travers.
Doreen found it hard to make friends, even in the confines of a prison. Some inmates were convinced she was mentally retarded (which she wasn't), and it would take many traumatic events to draw her into the special world of a women's prison.
Colette Mann landed the challenging role of Doreen and she was an early front-runner with fan-mail. Energetic, a former dancer, Colette had done quite a lot of social work and was often an advisor to the scriptwriters.
Monica Ferguson (no relation to the yet-to-be introduced warder Joan 'The Freak' Ferguson), was a basher, a blatant merchant of violence at Wentworth, in and out of jail usually for attacks on her hapless husband, and always scaring the living daylights out of the retinue of floosies he accumulated between Monica's appearances at home.
Muscular, with a broken nose as a legacy of her violent triumph in a
brawl over a gang stud, Monica aspired to be top dog, but had Bea Smith
and Franky Doyle to contend with, so at the outset she's number three on
the power-play list, but it's only too obvious she'll make her move when
the time is ripe. Monica adds to her woes early in the series by
going into solitary confinement on drug charges.
Grundy's cast against the grain, assigning the Monica role to Lesley Baker, who had been working mainly in comedy roles for twenty years. It was a bold move, and pal id off handsomely when Monica quickly developed into a hated and feared barbarian. A bruiser, with ample weight, she would almost pray for Bea or Franky to step in her
Actress: Susannah Fowle
|Silly country girl Jennifer Bryant is missing her mother. So she gets herself sent to jail to join long-term inmate, Judy Bryant by robbing a jewellery store. Obviously, she hasn't heard of visiting hours. . .|
<Cast group picture as credited>Early 1983 line-up at Wentworth Detention
Centre. Back row. Meg Morris (Elspeth Ballantyne), Steve Fawkner (Wayne
Jarratt), Joan Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpotrick), Colleen Powell (Judith McGrath).
Middle row: Margot Gaffney (Jane Clifton), Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbitt).
Front row. Bea Smith (Val Lehman), Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance),
Erica Davidson (Patsy King), Mouse (Jentah Sobott) and Chrissie Latham
way. Monica's ongoing problem, other than the fisticuffs and inmate reprisals for her violent ways, was that she spent far too much time in solitary confinement and away from the power base she yearned to rule once Bea and Franky got their comeuppances.
Lesley Baker's earliest claim to fame was as a nightly sidekick, to the comedy players in the top-rating 'In Melbourne Tonight' show, compered by the legendary 'King' Graham Kennedy, who dominated Australian TV for twenty years from its
introduction in the mid-Fifties. Today, the King still reigns supreme, with the hilarious oddity, 'Graham Kennedy's Funniest Home Video Show'.
Loads of variety work followed her non-stop IMT years, and Lesley seemed to be in every cop show made at Crawford's (another leading TV production company). 'I started off as a nymphomaniac garage mechanic, then graduated to junior prostitutes and madams and an endless swag of gangsters' wives,' said Lesley.
Kerry Armstrong, later to become a much-publicised guest star in the series 'Dynasty', caused the first sympathy tears at Wentworth. And they turned out to be justified. Kerry was perfect casting as winsome Lynn Warner, a seemingly inoffensive, troubled country girl convicted of kidnapping a baby and trying to bury him alive. It didn't take viewers long to realise Lynn could very well be innocent, and her jealous, psychotic employer the culprit.
Kerry had been in the headlines as a 16-year-old Melbourne schoolgirl
who left home in school uniform weekday mornings but at 6.30 each night
did a stint 'behind the isobars' as the GTV main news bulletin weather-girl.
She spent nearly two weeks making daily visits to Fairlea Prison talking
with warders and inmates to get 'proper background feelings' for her stay
|Name: Sandy Edwards
Actress: Louise Le Nay
|Sandy Edwards takes over as top dog from Bea Smith for a terror-filled period when Bea is dangerously ill in hospital (in reality when Val Lehman and cast-mates Colette Mann and Gerard Maguire were filming Kitty and the Bagman). Edwards is played by NIDA graduate Louise Le Nay who got a shock on her first day at work -- her doctor rang to say she was pregnant. There were considerable disguises used to hide the murderess's bulge until Louise left, seven months pregnant, to have her daughter Victoria.|
There was a quaint old lady called Mum Brooks, who had served fifteen years and, expecting to die in jail, made special plans for what little time she thought she had left, concentrating her energies on the small garden the prisoners cultivated outside the main building. This tiny area of hallowed turf gradually became a symbol for Mum and other inmates over the years, despite its limited size and the closeness of a confining 15-foot security fence.
Veteran Mary Ward played institutionalised Mum Brooks, a classic case of how a long-term inmate comes to depend almost entirely on the prison environment to survive and exist. True for many-real-life long-serving prisoners, the show examined this contagious facet of jail life, 'under lock and key dependence', several times, especially with Mum Brooks, and certainly Lizzie Birdsworth. Both these women would commit deliberate petty crimes after their initial release just to get back into prison with their mates. On the outside there was no place for them. Wentworth had become home.
Mum Brooks had been given eighteen years after a headlined euthanasia trial and knew she'd do full time or extra penance. There was no family waiting on the outside to look after her in the twilight years. 'She was a strange old creature in many ways, but wouldn't harm a soul,' said Mary at the time. 'It was amazing how many different people told me Mum reminded them so much of their own mother, aunt or grandmother. People warmed to Mum.'
Mary Ward was born in the bustling port of Fremantle, near Perth, Western Australia, the daughter of a pearler. She remembers vividly fleets of buggers which put out to sea, combing the Indian Ocean for more than 1,400 miles along the west coast, beyond Broome, the pearling capital of the world. 'I was only a young girl, of course. The whole port would turn out to watch the fleet leave - it was much like those rollicking South Pacific adventure films of the Forties and Fifties, with John Wayne or Burt Lancaster but without Dorothy Lamour or Rita Hayworth. Of course, my Dad was my hero.'
Mary began acting professionally soon after leaving school and studying at a Perth drama school. She worked for several years in the U.K. before returning home as one of the first female announcers to be heard regularly on ABC national radio. Widespread TV credits followed more than twenty major stage roles, including 'Skyways', 'Cop Shop', 'Homicide', 'Young Doctors', 'Rush', 'Bellbird', 'Power Without Glory', 'Starting Out' and 'I Can Jump Puddles'.
Amanda Muggleton used a little subterfuge to get into the first few episodes of 'Prisoner', leaving to meet advance stageplay commitments and then returning to Wentworth again under open invitation from the delighted producers and writers, who found a tough, durable, central character in her Chrissie Latham role. And the London-born beauty was a favourite with cast and crew. She had bluffed her way unsuccessfully into the original 'Prisoner' auditions, only to be called back a week later and given the Chrissie part.
Thirty-two-year-old Amanda had strong stage qualifications. A graduate of the
Guild Hall School of Music and Drama (London), she was a winner of the prestigious City of London Festival Players Award, and came to Australia in 1974 as a member of the English Theatre Company. When the tour ended she decided to stay on, first in Sydney, then moving south, where she became a stalwart with the Melbourne Theatre Company. So began the first of many Steaming performances - wherever the play opened in Australia, it seemed Amanda was there strutting her stuff with a brief towel as her only covering. By the time the gates finally closed at Wentworth, Chrissle Latham had been in and out five times. During that tenure she had killed the husband of a female warder, had a baby, and generally proved indestructible.
Amanda recalls that early 'Prisoner' casting session. 'My agency hadn't chased any of the roles for me because I had advance contracts for Steaming, but when I heard about a call for a women's prison show at Grundy's I sneaked in to the audition rooms. This young assistant with a clipboard said, "You're not listed for today, so I can't fit you in". Well, I got a little stroppy and told her firmly I'd been asked to be there at 4 p.m. and I'd travelled a long way to be there, and within minutes they were auditioning me. But I missed out. I thought that's the end of that, I'm not going to prison. Days later they advised my agent it had been decided I was better suited for the Chrissie Latham role. It took them another agonising four days to call again and confirm I had the job.
Chrissle Latham's background was that of a petty criminal who grew bolder and more ambitious, moving on to major crime and armed robbery. 'She's a real schemer, shyster supreme and cunning player of mind and body games,' said Amanda at the time she signed for the series. 'It's fun playing her - and I can get out every now and then to do a play or a TV show, so I'm not really locked up, am I?'
Other than Eddie Cook's electrifying pursuits of the always willing and obliging nymphette Marilyn Mason, the token male line-up in the initial episodes of 'Prisoner' was limited to prison doctor Greg Miller (Barry Quin, who later in real life would marry actress Peta Toppano, the lady playing his love interest in the series), jail psychiatrist Bill Jackson (Adelaide actor Don Barker), occasional lawyers, medical and staff cohorts. But the male strength would be increased and make a big impact on Wentworth's near all-woman world once the series was up and running.
The major roles for 'Prisoner' had been assigned, contracts drawn up and a shooting schedule readied. Rounding off a unique assembly of actresses playing the inmates was the first actress to be considered for the jail drama. She was a remarkable veteran with an astonishing true-life story that a Hollywood script-writer would be hard pressed to imagine. She was to make Lizzie Birdsworth, Wentworth's 'old chook', a household name around the world.