Prisoner: Cell Block H – looking back at the show

Remember Queen Bea, the Freak, and, er 'Vinegar Tits'? We revisit the joys of Aussie women’s prison drama, Prisoner: Cell Block H…

Britain, you sent Australia your convicts. In return, we sent you a TV show celebrating them.

Strap on your nostalgia goggles, it’s time to revisit one of the most bizarre, violent, lesbian-fetishy-heart-warming dramas ever created.

Prisoner: Cell Block H (known simply as Prisoner in Australia) was a daring, one-hour show set in Wentworth Detention Centre, a fictional women’s prison that provides the one-word title of the original show’s modern-day revival. It ran for 692 episodes from February 1979 until December 1986. It hitched a ride on the coat-tails of the successful British show Within These Walls, with a notable difference. The focus of Prisoner was mostly on the inmates, not the wardens.

The opening was short and punchy – a quick recap of the previous episode; the clicks of black and white mugshots; then the rattle and clang of the prison gate of doom slamming shut.

Ad – content continues below

Prisoner became an instant victim of early success, as Australian viewers took to the show like a limpet to the hull of a ship. The initial 13-episode run was quickly expanded to 20, then into full-time production of two one-hour episodes a week.

Understandably, some of the cast (not to mention the staff) struggled with the doubled workload, which saw 79 episodes broadcast in the first year, peaking at 104 episodes in 1986.

With this such a demanding production rate, crew turnover was high. This wasn’t such a problem as Australia, as everyone knows, is peopled with criminals, so there were plenty of fresh murderers, drug dealers and thieves to take their place.

It was the kind of show children weren’t allowed to see, because it dealt with so much violence it would give kids nightmares. Naturally I was desperate to see it. I recall sneaking out of bed and hiding under a table (a very stupid hiding place in retrospect) to catch the show. Yes, it gave me instant nightmares, but if I confessed to my parents they’d know that I’d Done The Wrong Thing, so I had to live with myself. Then again, I’ve never been to prison so perhaps it scared me straight?

The heart of the show was undoubtedly the core triangle of Bea Smith (Val Lehman), Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance), and Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann). Bea Smith was the top dog of the prison, controlling her fellow inmates with alternating subtlety and brute force, just like the way she used the steam press. Lizzie was her gin-soaked comrade and Doreen was the ditzy sidekick who’d retreated into the safety of childhood to cope with adult life.  Doreen was dim but loyal, when she wasn’t being so easily lead. Lizzie was an excellent wingman, even if she’d get sozzled from drinking home brew made from potato peelings.

Ad – content continues below

Lizzie got some of the best lines in the show, which she delivered with all the class of a dying alley cat. One of the standouts was when she was told the parole board would be meeting with her the next day.

“Ohhhh . . . I’m wearing me last pair a’ clean undies for the week! What’ll I do?” She was also fond of using the expletive, “Bugger!”

Not that Bea had a clear run of things. She had to fight off Frankie Doyle’s (Carol Burns) attempts to crown herself top dog the moment Queen Bea’s back was turned. Then she had to teach Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton) a lesson with a pair of scissors.

The heavy workload took its toll on many of the cast, with many of the originals gone by season three. Stern warden Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence), nicknamed ‘Vinegar Tits’, was gone, so were many of the prisoners. A fair few of them came back too – after finding life ‘on the outside’ too confusing and alienating. The inmates were their family; it’s where many of them belonged.

Ad – content continues below

But the biggest Baddie came a few seasons in, with the arrival of Joan Ferguson, aka The Freak (Maggie Kirkpatrick) a new prison guard (or ‘screw’ as the inmates called them). As lauded as Kirkpatrick’s performance at the time was, it’s hard to rewatch it in the knowledge of her conviction this year for sexually abusing a fan (the full details of the story are here). 

The Freak took a cut of all shifty deals, like illegal booze operations and betting rings. She terrorised the inmates better than Bea or Frankie ever could. As mean as Queen Bea had been, she had a nurturing side and put her fellow crims’ needs first. The Freak was only in it for herself, and the sadistic joy of pulling on her black leather gloves for ‘surprise’ body searches.

Still, Ferguson’s uppance did come when a biker gang burned her house down. She used threats and blackmail to climb all the way to the top of the corporate ladder, becoming Wentworth’s governor. In classic fictional style, the higher The Freak rose, the further she fell. When she fell, it was hard and horrible and oh-so perfect, outsmarted by the inmates she’d treated so badly. Set up big time, she next arrived back at Wentworth as an inmate. In the final episode, she is transferred to a Western Australian prison for her safety, with the taunts of Wentworth’s prison population ringing in her ears.

In the UK, the show began its run in some regions as early as the mid-80s. Just like some of the inmates, it didn’t always get a fair trial. It had to have a name change so viewers didn’t confuse it with The Prisoner written by and starring Patrick McGoohan. Some stations broadcast seasons in their entirety, while others claimed the show was coming back after the summer, only to leave fans in the lurch.

The good news is, we can now buy and watch every episode – in order – on DVD. Or you can cheat and buy the ‘best of’ episodes. Less expensive, but less satisfying.

Ad – content continues below

Other thoroughly enjoyable moments include:

* A riot in the opening episodes in which social worker Bill Jackson (Don Barker) is stabbed with a pair of scissors. In the same storyline, another prisoner was in premature labour and a third prisoner was up in the roof cavity shagging the visiting electrician.

* Another riot which resulted in Leanne Burke (Tracey-Jo Riley) falling (or was she pushed?) off the roof.

* ‘Vinegar Tits’ Bennett losing her prison keys, panicking, and seeking solace in booze.

* Meg Jackson/ Morris’s (Elspeth Ballantyne) entire story arc. Born in a prison herself, Meg initially treats the inmates with empathy until her hubby is stabbed, then she goes bonkers and refers to them as ‘animals’. She ends up locked up herself, for contempt of court. But she’s only behind bars because she refused to rat on a prisoner, because Meg was a good egg.

* Frankie and Doreen on the run, having a shootout with a police officer, then Frankie dying in Doreen’s arms. Frankie’s dying words: “Bloody Bastards!”

Ad – content continues below

* Margo (Jane Clifton) getting tarred and feathered by Bea and Chrissie in retaliation for attacking Meg. (Bea and Chrissie had teamed up by this stage.)

Prisoner was filmed mostly within the halls of the Channel 10 studios in a suburb of Melbourne called Nunawading. It’s now owned by Global Television, and their studios are still in use – behind a tall wire fence, retaining some of its prison aesthetic.  Just like a real jail, there are security guards ready to move unauthorised visitors away.

The surrounding area used to be fields, now it’s expensive housing and sought-after school zones. The iconic red-brick Wentworth Detention Centre is a short car ride from another well-known real-life TV set, Ramsay Street from Neighbours. It’s actually Pin Oak Court, Vermont. (It’s right near Billabong Park. It’s like we knew the tourists would come!) Without fail, every visitor to Casa McKenna gets a trip to the Neighbours street. Oddly enough they don’t want to visit the prison.

Many devoted fans have dedicated years to spreading the love of Prisoner: Cell Block H. To read more on the show, you could do worse than trying here, here or here.

Now it’s over to you, have I been respectful to the show, or have I not given it a fair trial?

Ebony McKenna is the award-winning author of the 4-part Young Adult series of novels Ondine. Find out more at: ebonymckenna.com.