Prisoner Cell Block H first aired in 1979. It ran for seven years and racked up a grand total of 692 episodes.
These were released in what was possibly the largest DVD boxset in November 2008, following extensive campaigning by fans and one of the shows stars, Val Lehman (the great Bea Smith).
The Australian drama, created by Reg Watson (Neighbours, The Young Doctors, Crossroads), focused on life within the walls of Wentworth Detention Centre. Throughout its entire run, Prisoner brought us tales of kidnapping, rape, and murder, managing to do so without taking itself too seriously. Remembered for (supposed) wobbly sets, suspect acting and its late night slot on British television, Prisoner was no stranger to controversy.
Perhaps one of the more infamous of the story arcs was the Edna Pearson Story. The character, played by Vivean Grey (perhaps better known as Mrs Mangel from Neighbours), appeared in only six episodes in 1984. When the episodes first aired, an Australian woman, Emily Perry, claimed that the story was based upon her life and so, to avoid a potential lawsuit, Grundy decided to cut the storyline from future broadcasts. The story has also been excluded from any DVDs that have been released, so, 25 years on, many of the fans will never have seen the story as it was originally intended.
The storyline begins in episode 463 with the prison officer Mrs Barry (Joy Westmore) performing Edna’s induction. She’s been sentenced to eighteen months for allegedly poisoning her husband, Harry. Naturally, she claims complete innocence.
The inmates all take pity on Edna and believe her, but Mrs O’Reagan, the prison cook, runs straight to the governor to have her taken off kitchen duty as soon as she finds out Edna’s crime.
The episodes follow the adventures of Edna in prison as she gets to know the other women.
Whilst on the inside, Edna gets caught up in the riot started by inmate Marie Winter (Maggie Miller) and Officer Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick) in an attempt to overthrow the governor. Luckily, Harry is busy campaigning towards her appeal. Edna tries to fit into the prison community but, tellingly, you get a sense that something is not quite right; the suspense music and Edna’s shifty expressions are a dead give-away!
Prisoner Cell Block H: The Edna Pearson Story is a two disc set containing eight episodes of the cult show, 463 to 470. There are four episodes on each DVD, but no extras on either. Perhaps this is due to many cast interviews and episode commentaries being included in the Complete Collection. An interview or commentary from Vivean Gray would have been a nice addition.
The quality of the footage is good, considering the age of the original tapes. And, I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, but the special release episodes might even be clearer than the other DVDs.
I have to admit that, following a re-watch of the first few edited episodes, I didn’t expect to gain much from viewing the missing footage. There was a lot going on – the usual power struggles in the prison, Myra Desmond hiding out in the mountain in order to help get her teenage daughter off drugs, Meg Morris being held at gun point (again), a fashion show, a riot… What could one woman bring to an already great show?
It was only after watching the episodes in their entirety that I realised how badly some of the scenes had been cut in order to remove references to Edna and her crimes. It’s a wonder anyone knew what was going on!
I was also surprised at the choices for some of the cuts – scenes in which no direct reference to the crime were removed, seemingly because Edna mentioned food – while other scenes, like the majority of the visits between Edna and her husband, remained intact.
As with all long running soap style shows, the episodes run into each other and do not function well as stand alone episodes. There is always a bit of a cliffhanger at the end to lure the viewer into tuning in the following week. As a result, the DVDs are really more for the die-hard fans. Certainly, those that haven’t seen the episodes leading up to those on the DVDs may be a little confused at what is going on. Being one of those die-hard fans with, not only the original VHS cassettes of episodes 1 to 12 and the Great Fire, the first DVD boxset released in 2001 and the Complete Collection, I think that Prisoner Cell Block H: The Edna Pearson Story will be a welcome addition to my shelves.
Now, I’m off to dig out my checked shirt and dust of my denims so, in the words of Marlene “Rabbit” Warren, see you round like a rissole!
Prisoner Cell Block H: The Edna Pearson Episodes is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.