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'She bumped into me…'

These are the opening words of an Australian television show that would become to be loved, loathed, embraced and ridiculed in equal measure.

Depictions of life in prisons on television before the mid-70s were more idealistic than anything—the belief that reformation and servitude could go hand-in-hand and weave their magic upon an offender and have them leave a institution of correction a new, law-abiding individual was quite heavily emphasised.

Prisoner: Cell Block H - Volume 1
It could be argued that the show that began the change toward tougher depictions of prison life was Britain’s Within These Walls, which ran between 1974 and 1978 and starred Googie Withers as a genteel governor of a women’s prison.

Within These Walls achieved a moderate degree of success when screened in Australia and producer Reg Grundy (who had helmed Crossroads in the UK between 1964 & 1976) decided to make an Australasian version of the show. Like numerous long-running shows, Prisoner was only supposed to be on air for a few weeks before being cancelled, but Prisoner lasted beyond its intended sixteen episodes and eventually ran for a staggering six hundred and ninety two instalments.

Let’s get our confession out of the way first—we’re big Prisoner fans. We started watching it our mid-teens when it used to play late at night in the late eighties. At first, we tuned it to mock the show, as its reputation proceeded it, but we gradually found ourselves drawn into the show and eventually developed a great affection for it. Over the years, we watched Prisoner on various channels (it was treated fairly appallingly by ITV, but Channel 5 screened it in its entirety when it launched in 1997) and by our reckoning, we only missed two episodes. We also caught Prisoner when it toured as a stage-play in the late eighties-early 90s (not the campy musical with Paul O’Grady that followed a few years later) and have met several members of the cast—but we digress…

The show literally gets off and running, with an iconic reveal of Carol Burns as Frankie Doyle, bringing the desperate flight of a hapless inmate to a very swift halt with the perfectly-timed intervention of her fist. Prisoner also wisely begins by introducing two new inmates to the confines of Wentworth Detention Centre—husband murderer Karen Travers (Peita Toppano) and alleged child abductor Lynn Warner (Kerry Armstrong). This was a smart move, as it allowed the viewers to identify with two characters as they (and the audience) are exposed to the various characters and social hierarchy that exists within the prison.

Ruling the roost is Bea Smith (Val Lehman), who is the Top Dog and takes an instant dislike to Lynn Warner, as has been convicted of kidnapping the child of a wealthy couple and trying to bury it alive (it’s revealed in the first episode that all is not what it seems with this case). ‘Queen’ Bea burns Lynn’s hand in the laundry press—a fate that would befall numerous undesirables during the show’s run—and she is persona non grata in Wentworth.

Existing somewhat outside of the hierarchy is Frankie Doyle, a lesbian biker and has naive young petty crook Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann) as her main squeeze. Doyle exudes an air of violent unpredictability and manages to single-handedly destroy the recreation room in a fit of rage in the first episode alone. Doyle’s unpredictability means that she would be completely unstable as Top Dog, but when an opportunity arises, she jumps upon it and the consequences are fatal…

Critics might argue that some of the prison inmates are caricatures—the raging lesbian, tarty nymphomaniac hooker, ‘good’ warder, ‘bad’ warder, etc—but if there is any truth to this, it is merely because when the show began they needed certain characters to be reasonably clearly defined so audiences knew who was who; once the show settled into the run, new aspects of characters began to emerge and they became more well-rounded, some of them even ended up becoming loveable.

Prisoner: Cell Block H - Volume 1
Revisiting the early episodes of Prisoner is a strange experience—seeing some of the cast looking almost astonishingly young (we were quite thrown by how youthful Colette Mann was when she came onboard) takes you back somewhat—long-term viewers will find the opening shot of a thin Val Lehman rather alarming.  Another aspect is that it seems fresher and more vibrant than later episodes—the show was in its infancy and was trying out various ideas and aspects that would either be discarded or augmented as the show went on; the best example of this is the character of “Mum” Brookes (Mary Ward)—she eventually became something of a redundancy, initially put into the show to add a little humanity by producers who weren’t sure which direction it was going to go in. There is a nice juxtaposition on the original credits, hitting the audience with a the images of normal Melbourne suburbanites suddenly being incarcerated by a clanging metal gate, which makes a an interesting change from the minimalist opening titles that most people remember. Also, in the days before an accumulated ‘bible’ for the show was around, there existed the curious fact that early episodes had a head-scratching contradiction in the way the prison-warders acted—they addressed all prisoners by their first names, and were not above swearing, even the meek Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne) would let slip the odd expletive.

Prisoner developed a certain amount of infamy during (and after) the show’s production—most of this is unfair, as the show was certainly better written and acted than most other dramas of the time; have you ever tried to sit through an episode of 70s or 80s Crossroads? Yeesh! The standard complaints about wobbly sets are pretty much unfounded—we watched all but two of the episodes produced and we only spotted the scenery moving once or twice in all that time—there were certain British soaps where walls and banisters used to move like a manual gear-stick whenever the slightest pressure was applied to them.

Some of the acting can be called into question, but the main players were all solid thesps from stage, film and television backgrounds—Carol Burns’ portrayal of an outwardly tough yet internally fragile lesbian is utterly magnetic; her unrequited love for Karen Travers makes for some of the most moving drama in this volume. In the opening episode, Burns and Colette Mann provide the biggest laugh when there is a Waltons-like parody that’s genuinely funny. Burns imbues Doyle with a vulgarity that is hard to take your eyes off; she flicks her tongue suggestively at the women she either fancies or wants to intimidate and the dullness in her eyes just screams that she is operating on an animalistic level, rather than an intellectual one—just check out the orgasmic shudder that rips through Doyle as she gets the upper hand during a riot in an early episode. Sadly, Burns’ time in Prisoner was short—not because of the destructive nature of her character, but because she was the only main cast member not prepared to stay on the show beyond the initial sixteen episode contract.  Burns did not believe that she could maintain the quality of her performance when the show went to two episodes a week. Doyle certainly goes out in a blaze of glory, though…

Though Carol Burns was seen by many as the star, flame-haired Val Lehman would ultimately rise to become the main character and is rock-solid in her performance as the tough-but-fair Bea Smith. Lehman relatively stays in the background during the first episode, but she quickly comes to the fore and would become so popular that she would remain in the show until episode four hundred.

Veteran actress Sheila Florence is just wonderful as loveable old lag Lizzie Birdsworth, even if she is given relatively little to do in early episodes—there are many times when the only way you can tell if she is in a scene is if you can hear her inimitable hacking smoker’s laugh in the background.

Prisoner: Cell Block H - Volume 1
Over the course of the first episode, there is a burning, a suicide, a brutal stabbing flashback and various assorted odds and ends that are still pretty powerful nearly thirty years after they were first broadcast. Prisoner attracted controversy when it was in production and it’s almost refreshing to see that the violence still works its magic on a modern audience.

Episode three is where the story seriously kicks into gear, as the whole episode is leading to a situation that is going to end with somebody copping it in a very fatal manner; there are several possibilities lined up during the run-up as a riot breaks out and returning top dog Bea Smith and deluded Frankie Doyle are locked in a battle for supremacy. This stuff is seriously compelling and plays like the tense build-up to a shoot-out in a European western.

Prisoner was made at a time of social change in Australia, with the biggest being more money spent on TV shows, mainly because all of the lavish, expensive US programmes ( Charlie’s Angels, etc) were being imported and proving popular. At the other end of the spectrum was the American invasion through fast food, which was much more aggressive in nature than the UK. Many will be unsurprised at McDonalds taking first place in the campaign, but Prisoner reflected the change with a key scene set in a branch of Pizza Hut, a chain which a lot of people in the UK think only took off in the 90s. Paul Hogan did a terrific sketch on his show about a huge explosion at a branch of Pizza Hut, where the incident is revealed to be an act of terrorism perpetrated by none other than Ronald McDonald, who appears at the end almost wetting himself at the mayhem caused!  It should be mentioned that during conception, a US TV producer was brought it to ensure that Prisoner was given a glamorous look that would ape those Godawful soft-focused US soaps that were (and still are) popular at the time, but he quickly left with his tail between his legs…

Speaking of Paul Hogan—if the popularity of something is dependent upon how much it is satirised, then Prisoner must have been pretty damn popular, as Paul Hogan did a very amusing Prisoner pisstake that had him portraying Frankie Doyle(!)  His impersonation was hysterical, too. The surprise success of Prisoner in America resulted in it being lampooned by no less than Saturday Night Live, in a skit entitled Debs Behind Bars.

Those who have not experienced Prisoner before might be taken thrown by the visual flatness of it—this would be mainly because most soaps these days have decided to go for a glossy ‘movie’ feel, ditching the three camera technique that was popular up until the early part of this decade. It’s not all just ‘sausage-factory’ production—during the first few episodes there are touches of impressive cinematography, with a few frankly amazing feats of focus-pulling during the riot sequences in episode three. This sort of composition was pared down when the go-ahead was given to turn Prisoner into what was effectively a soap opera.

Prisoner: Cell Block H - Volume 1
Even in the early episodes, there are instances where actors and characters coming and going, with cast members turning up later as different characters (in this set, actress Belinda Davey appears as a prison nurse, but later turned up on the other side of the bars as the tragic Hazel Kent). As with many soaps, Prisoner carries on the grand tradition of not only bringing back previous characters, but having them played by completely different actors when they do. Take Meg Jackson/Morris’ young son Marty, here portrayed by a wee little sprite, looking barely old enough to shave. He buggers off to shack up with a chick in only the second episode, causing much grief and sorrow. He turned up about four years later and about ten years older, before nipping off again to return near the end of the series as a warder—played by yet another actor and a completely different age-range. Those facial transplants are amazing things, aren’t they?

Amidst the drama, there is certainly light relief along the way; Sheila Florence is always made use of her comic talents, faking a heart attack here, faking amnesia there; and the illicit affair between electrician Eddie Cook (Richard Moir) and tart-with-a-heart Marilyn Mason (Margaret Laurence); Marilyn’s look was obviously inspired by the 70’s Deep-Throat/Porno-chic wave which swept the world at the time. They wanted a nymphet sex-pot, so they made her up to look like an amalgam of Linda Lovelace and Georgina Spelvin.

Purely on a personal note, it’s nice to see everyman actor Reg Evans in a small role as an electrician, and will be known to many as the station manager in Mad Max, along with numerous other roles in indie Aussie cinema.

Another thing which makes this set definitely worth putting your hand in your pocket for is the introduction in episode eight of Sergeant Grace—later Inspector Grace, played by one of Australia’s coolest actors, Terry Gill. With the UK press going gaga over Gene Hunt, this guy is the real deal, not some kind of retro-cipher concocted by snickering post-modernists. Grace kicks arse, bends rules and Prisoner was made in ‘scratch & sniff’, he would reek of stale fags, scotch, Brute aftershave and mouldy tweed—and that’s just from his jacket alone. Grace goes on to lead an assault-team during a raid on the prison in the show’s best action story, and this is from a man who is probably the only guy on the planet who can make the word ‘Chihuahua’ sound tough.

Some of the music is pleasingly like Brian May’s score for Mad Max, that same year. Genre fans who have also dipped into the show might have spotted that Prisoner selected tracks from the DeWolfe library, and ended up using a few pieces found in Dawn of the Dead. During the first few episodes, some of the library music is seriously overpowering, but this settles down eventually.

On this volume—the first of many we hope—Freemantle Media present the first thirty two episodes of Prisoner, which chronicles the rise and fall of Frankie Doyle; the rise of Bea Smith and rocky relationship between Eddie Cook and nymphomaniac hooker Marilyn Mason.

Now, on to the burning question…

Prisoner: Cell Block H - Volume 1

Video


How does Prisoner look on DVD? Well, if we put our hands on our hearts, we’d say that it’s a little disappointing—the episodes certainly have vibrant colours, but boy, are some of the reds angry. OK, they’re not just angry—they’re seriously pissed off. Prisoner was shot on videotape and has the characteristic look that 70s videotaped-shows have. Presented in the correct aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the image quality is only a little better than the broadcast resolution of The Young Doctors, which as everybody knows, looked pretty lousy. While the resolution of the image might be limited to the tape used at the time, you can’t fail to notice the perkiness of Peita Toppano’s nipples in just about every shot, so it’s not all bad.  Also on the plus-side, the prints are relatively clean, save for the odd tape dropout or two during each episode, but we should point out that some episodes are worse than others for dropouts, with episode eight having a large number of such flaws.

Audio


The audio is serviceable enough, with the dialogue perfectly discernable and Lynn Hamilton’s theme song, ‘On the Inside’ sounding quite nice at the end of each episode. We would be remiss as reviewers if we didn’t mention that as well as video dropouts several times during each episode, there are also audio glitches, which sound suspiciously like they are caused due to the damage to the videotape. They only happen now and again, but they can be pretty distracting when they happen during a particularly dramatic moment.  

Extras


Audio Commentary: Producer Ian Bradley can be heard talking about the genesis of Prisoner during the first episodes. With what sounds like a Bristolian accent, Bradley gives an informative account of how the show came together and drops a few tantalising titbits about one or two members of the cast. There are a few quiet patches here and there, but generally this is an interesting listen from someone ‘on the inside’, as it were…

‘Who’s Who in Wentworth’: A series of scrolling text about the principle cast members—being aficionados of the show, there was little here that we didn’t know, but for those dipping their toes into Prisoner for the first time, it makes you appreciate just how seasoned the main cast actually were.

‘Meet the Press’: A little interactive game that uses clips from the show.

‘Wentworth Galleria’: A fairly extensive selection of publicity photographs of the show—a nice inclusion.

Prisoner: Cell Block H - Volume 1

Overall


Whilst it’s nice to see Prisoner get what we hope will be a complete release on DVD (there have been other releases, but these were effectively compilations), we are a little disappointed by the transfers—the audio-video dropouts aren’t terrifically distracting, but with a little care, they could have been removed.

This relatively minor gripe aside, we’re pleased to give Freemantle Media’s release of Prisoner: Cell Block H a hearty recommendation—dipping into this first volume is like catching up with old friends after many years; there are good performances on display and some of the violence and situations can still raise an eyebrow after nearly thirty years.


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