It is 40 years ago this week that Prisoner first graced our screens, and a thankful 0-10 Network was relieved to have a ratings hit. In an era where it was almost mandatory for a commercial network to have two hit soaps on the go, the struggling network had teen drama The Restless Years and not much else. Attempts at drama like Hotel Story and Chopper Squad did little to boost its fortunes. A proposed series set at a talkback radio station didn’t get past the development stage, neither did a planned drama called The Wool Kings, set in the late 19th century.
A production from the Reg Grundy Organisation, Prisoner had the original working title Women In Prison and was commissioned for 16 episodes in 1978. Production took place at what was then the studios of ATV0 (later Ten) in Melbourne.
When the network viewed the first completed episodes they instantly saw the potential and extended the commission to 42 episodes. The show’s title was changed to Prisoner and although the series’ debut is often documented as 27 February 1979 in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, it actually first appeared the day before in Sydney.
The original cast included Val Lehman (pictured) as ‘top dog’ inmate Bea Smith, Sheila Florance, Carol Burns, Colette Mann, Patsy King, Elspeth Ballantyne, Fiona Spence, Peta Toppano, Kerry Armstrong, Mary Ward, Margaret Laurence, Richard Moir, Barry Quin and Amanda Muggleton. Former Homicide cop Don Barker played a prison counsellor but scriptwriters had his character brutally stabbed to death in a prison riot by episode three.
After a generation of cop shows, Prisoner showed viewers what goes on once the offenders are locked behind bars at the fictional Wentworth Detention Centre, based on research at a number of real-life prisons.
The inmates and prisoner officers were depicted as a mix of heroes and villains. It showed that there could be as much drama, power struggles, isolation and complex human relationships among the prison staff as there is within the cell blocks.
The series was not the first to have a major focus on female characters (ABC‘s Certain Women pre-dated it by several years) or to have strong female roles but it did mark a significant shift in providing opportunities for female actors on prime time television. The series didn’t shy away from topics like domestic violence, corruption, homosexuality, sexual assault, drug abuse, rehabilitation and terrorism.
In true soap tradition there was also a fair share of cliffhangers, including a fire that tore through the prison and killed two characters at the end of the 1982 season, and more fanciful fare, such as the prison inmates performing a pantomime which was to serve as a decoy while a number of inmates attempted an escape.
Prisoner also achieved a rare feat by cracking the competitive US market, not as a local remake but by showing the Australian original episodes (re-titled Prisoner Cell Block H). The series developed a cult following when shown across various independent stations. Its fame then extended to the United Kingdom, already accustomed to seeing Aussie soaps, and was also shown in various European countries and in other countries including Canada (where it became Caged Women)
Prisoner ended up going for 692 episodes over eight years, just shy of The Young Doctors‘ then record-breaking 698 hours (1396 half-hour episodes). The final episode provided the perfect dramatic climax as prison offer Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick) finally gets her comeuppance after four years of terrorising the inmates and ongoing hostility with fellow staff.
Over the course of its run, Prisoner employed over 6000 actors — with females making up most of that number — but the unsung star of the show was the studio premises of ATV10, with its exteriors decorated with fake signage, prison bars and windows to resemble the outside of the fictional prison.
More than thirty years after the show’s demise, Prisoner still commands a loyal fan base in Australia and the United Kingdom — where the series was even re-made as a stage musical. The series has also been released in its entirety on DVD — at the time the biggest DVD release ever undertaken in Australia and setting a precedent for selected other classic Australian dramas to follow.
An attempt by Grundy and the Ten Network in 1980 to make a male prison drama, titled Punishment, failed to gain traction. Likewise, a number of planned reinventions of Prisoner were talked about at Ten during the 1990s and even as recently as 2010, but it was Foxtel that was to run with a modern version of Prisoner, under the title Wentworth, from 2013. Wentworth has recently finished its sixth season.
As a gentle nod to Prisoner‘s 40th anniversary, some former cast members of the series are being reunited in guest roles on Neighbours — which is produced at the same studio, by the same production company and on the same network as Prisoner was — to go to air on 27 February on 10 Peach. Jane Clifton, Betty Bobbitt, Jentah Sobott and Jenny Lovell will join former Prisoner stars and current Neighbours regulars Jackie Woodburne and Colette Mann as members of a neighbourhood book club — a setting that is somewhat more genteel than the harsh cells in Wentworth!
In recent years Neighbours has also featured a number of Prisoner alumni in guest roles including Val Lehman and Kerry Armstrong.