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Freemantle, in association with Shock Entertainment, bring you the second instalment of the wildly successful series of life behind bars in Australia’s fictional Wentworth Detention Centre.

Terror in the showers - and not a dropped bar of soap in sight
With the explosion in its popularity being almost entirely due to the work of Carol Burns as Frankie Doyle, her departure from the series left a gaping wound which was predicted to leave Prisoner slowly bleeding to death. While the programme was never the same, as to many to fans who watched it from the very beginning, Frankie was the show, but after a long while, an enduring antihero took found her place.

This second volume of Prisoner: Cell Block H is the chronicle of the uphill struggle producers had trying to find a way of filling the void left by the departure of Carol Burns, and characters were created to embark upon short-lived reigns of terror that usually ended with violent outcomes. We witness the—almost convenient—transmogrification of Monica Ferguson (Lesley Baker) from genial rough-houser into a mini-Hitler when she becomes top dog and whilst augmenting Noeline Burke (Jude Kerning) to official antagonist status.

Picking up from the end of the first volume, changes are afoot and the consequences of the actions of some are about to be realised. Bea Smith is still on the run after escaping from hospital, with things not looking good for ex-jailbird “Mum” Brookes, who harboured Smith at her flat. Vera Bennett has paid $3000 dollars in bail to spring her drug-dealing beau and he has returned the favour by been tying Vera up and gagging in her apartment whilst he skips the country.

The episodes in this set really indicate the way the show would eventually go for the rest of the run; there would be serious breaches in security at the prison, with the Governor all prepared to hand in her resignation; there would be attempts to get rid of the obligatory bad screw “once and for all”, but this almost invariably meant that it would fail and for the next few episodes after this, things would be tougher and more oppressive for those on the wrong side of the bars.

Val Lehman is not enamoured of Gerard McGuire's moustache...
Also seen in this volume is the introduction of male Deputy Governor Jim Fletcher (Gerard McGuire), who was obviously introduced as a way of providing more eye-candy for the female viewers. With his rugged good looks, smooth charm and fetching moustache, Fletcher ended up staying with the show for more than two hundred episodes. During his time on the show, Fletch would be put through the emotional wringer, including having his family wiped out by a crazed Vietnam vet (many of the officer characters in Prisoner would have family members killed, kidnapped or generally put in jeopardy because of their profession), but Fletch would become one of the most popular characters of the programme and started a trend for having male officers in the show (even if many of the ones that follows were nutters - we're sure fans remember the name Jock Stewart with a sly grin on their faces...).

Just for the record, our review of the first volume covers the background of the show and can be found here.

The whole storyline about Bea Smith escaping from prison was pretty contrived; she was stabbed in a fight and after surgery, she was able to accumulate enough sedatives to knock out the policewoman guarding her and slip away. OK, that might be a little far-fetched, but this is a television drama—the thing that really shattered suspension of disbelief was the fact that the audience was asked to believe that Smith would endanger the parole of one of her closest friends, “Mum” Brookes, by hiding out at her flat. Brookes is an elderly woman who had spent much of her life inside and was now living a happy life with her expectant granddaughter—to have Smith turn up and start acting almost intimidating and out-of-character stretches credibility considerably.

Fiona Spence continues to provide one of the most layered performances out of the cast—the writers decided to make the character of Vera Bennett fairly complex from the outset; in the first volume, she was seen taking care of her bitter and twisted mother and dealing with her eventual dead; she also fell in love with a drug-dealer by the name of George Lucas and had to deal with the collision of her personal and professional lives.

Collette Mann's pushy nature towards the producers finally catches up with her
In the early 90s, there was a television show, hosted by a certain Tory-turned-UKIP MP, which had several cast members of Prisoner one edition of the programme. Maggie Kirkpatrick, who would later make in indelible impression on Prisoner as The Freak, described the show as “a drama”, because it was on after 9pm, to which fellow cast member Collette Mann (Doreen Anderson/Burns) chimed in sarcastically “it was a bloody soapie, Maggie!” This exchange typifies what eventually went wrong with Prisoner—it started out as a short-run drama series (originally just sixteen episodes were planned), with focused storylines and imaginative direction.

This exchange perfectly illustrates what happened after the immediate success of Prisoner, with executives wanting to step up production into an "ongoing drama", effectively becoming a soap. The transition is at times painfully obvious during this volume, as characters change their personalities from episode to episode and the storylines become tawdrier. Carol Burns was the only cast member who wanted to leave the show when it announced that Prisoner was going to be an ongoing show, as she feared that she could not maintain the same level of performance. It's certainly true that some of the long-term cast members eventually became visibly bored during their time on the Prisoner, but in this volume, at least, you can see the cast when they were still relatively fresh in their roles and enjoying the experience.

It was the transformation of Monica Ferguson into a tyrannical would-be Top Dog that encapsulates the associated problems that would stay with the show when it became a soap—Ferguson was brought into the show as a bit of light relief and as a way of making the character of Marilyn Mason have “happy-ever-after” exit. When it was decided that Bea Smith would go on the run for a few episodes, it was decided to bring Ferguson to the fore and completely change her personality into an unpleasant tyrannical dictator. When Bea Smith was brought back to Wentworth, all it took was just a quick catfight and things were pretty much back to how they were, with all past transgressions forgotten, which is very annoying for viewers, as they feel as though the characters have been changed purposely to manipulate them.

A gratuitous shower scene
This volume also sees the departure of one of the original members of the cast. Lynn Warner (Kerry Armstrong) served as one of two characters to introduce the audience to Wentworth Detention Centre, being brought into the place (along with Karen Travers) in the first episode. Armstrong’s naïve country girl Lynn had been a hit with audiences and during her stint in Prisoner, she had been falsely accused of trying to murder a young child and eventually found not guilty; released, married, coerced into taking part in a robbery, jailed for that and widowed in the process; gotten herself pregnant and subsequently miscarrying; gone on hunger-strike; been on a work release programme and fell in love with her bosses’ son. That’s not bad going. Armstrong was one of the pillars of the show—she was essentially the central character when it started, but she seemed get sidelined a little as other characters were clutched to the bosom of the audience, but she still leaves the show on a high and lives happily ever after—quite fitting considering everything that the character had been through.

Though Peta Toppano’s Karen Travers would remain in the show for around forty episodes after Armstrong’s exit, a little bit of the show’s original appeal would be chipped away by her departure.

The standout episode in this set is episode thirty five, in which booze and guns feature prominently as a fresh batch of moonshine is brewed up and Noeline Burke’s idiotic brother Col finds himself at the centre of a siege when a routine burglary goes very wrong. It’s as though the chance to get out of the main sets gave everyone a huge shot in the arm, and the direction, staging and performances bring a touch of the old magic back to the show. Oh, and it might have been the addition of a real moron, as well…

Col Burke - "be vewy, vewy, quiet - he's hunting coppers"
To say that Col Burke (Major Burke would have been more appropriate) isn’t one of the world’s most complex and deep-thinking of individuals is something of an understatement—the character is quite possibly the biggest cretin to walk the earth, though there are some who would wonder how his mind has the capacity to process and execute this most basic of motor functions. There are native Australian terms that could be applied to poor old Col—“boofhead”, “galah” and “dill” are three such examples. Col is your typical slack-jawed simpleton who speaks… very… slowly… and does not comprehend the simplest of situations. He takes a pregnant woman hostage and from the moment he takes his gun into the joint (though his sister expressly told him not to), you know that Col Burke is going to meet a sticky end—Burke by name and indeed by nature.

As mentioned earlier, this set opens with Bea Smith still on the run, allowing Val Lehman to stretch herself outside of playing the top dog inside the prison. Lehman gets to wear fetching outfits and a rather nice black wig, but you also get to see her take on the role of a surrogate mother to a teenage girl who lives next door to the place she’s hiding out. This act is driven by the fact that Smith could do nothing to prevent the drug-related death of her own teenage daughter and she wants to ensure that this neglected teen does not go down the same path. Watching Queen Bea standing up to a couple of tough-looking bikies who are partying with the aforementioned underage girl is great stuff.

A familiar face to fans of Aussie soaps comes in the form of Judy Nunn, known to most as Ailsa Stewart on Home and Away, and most will be surprised to see that 1) she did look young once and 2) there is more to her than just saying “hu-lo there” whilst occasionally popping up as a ghost. This was also before she made herself very unpopular by keeping a notebook with all her co-stars' little foibles and ploughing them into a series of fictional tell-all books. But we all know that the overriding reason to pick this set up is the return of the awesome Terry Gill as Inspector Grace. This guy makes Gene Hunt look like a Guardian-reading pretender. This guy only has to look you square in the eye and your body hair will grow a couple of centimetres.

Ian Smith in the days before he was an amnesiac Salvation Army worker
Also look out for Ian Smith as Ted Douglas from the “Department", brought in to complicate plotlines and be a general pain in the arse. For those who don't know, Smith was formerly Harold Bishop in Neighbours, and was the story editor on Prisoner for years—just to glance at the pick we have provided might shock the unprepared for how youthful he looks.

Pleasingly, the wholesale recycling of storylines hadn’t crept in at this point, so there was still freshness to the show, and the constant traffic of antagonists and instances of format-breaking keep everything interesting. With a few new—and at least one—favourite character(s) thrown into the mix, this is a lot of fun. Now, how does it all look when you pop it into the tray?

Video


Much like the first volume, the image quality is something of a mixed-bag. Due to the fact that that was shot on videotape in the late seventies, there is an expected softness to the image. The reds are just as grumpy as they were in the first volume, but this isn’t anything that is going to seriously detract from your viewing experience.
 
What is irritating is that also like the first volume, several episodes show visible tape damage, resulting in the kind of faults that you find on slightly battered VHS tapes. These could have been corrected with a little time, effort and use of Scratch-Box, but this sadly isn’t the case. There are a couple of episodes where your enjoyment is hampered by the appearances of tape drop-outs, but these are only occasional.

Elspeth Ballantyne & Barry Quin doing their bit for Anglo-Australaisian relations

Audio


Much like the first volume—what you hear on these episodes is a little sharper and better defined than you remember on the original broadcasts in the UK. Any problems with discerning dialogue would have more to do with the original recording, rather than the authoring to DVD.

Extras


A couple of extras have been included for your viewing pleasure—the first disc in the set contains another of the Wentworth Gallerias, which has a number of pictures from the show, an interesting mixture of black and white and colour images. There are some iconic portrait shots, including a couple of great pics of Carol Burns; speaking of which, the mildly frustrating thing about the Wentworth Galleria features is that they often have images which do not relate to the episodes in the set. Our favourite picture in this collection is the outtake from the portrait session with Fiona Spence and Elspeth Ballantyne, which has Spence holding up a can of Tab and smiling at the camera.

There is also a feature called ‘Inside and Out’, which gives the viewer the ability to morph the images of several main characters from how they appeared on the show, to how they looked in civvies. It's a fun little feature and some of the transformations are quite startling, most notably, how Patsy King looked away from Prisoner—she had seriously big hair!

"We're short-staffed enough as it is..."

Overall


Prisoner Cell Block H: Volume 2 sees the show settling into the format that it would remain for the rest of the series; the harder edge that the show had when it started had been softened and the soap aspects had carefully crept in, but it is still enjoyable even when credulity is stretched almost to breaking point and characters turn on a dime to fit the needs of storylines. This is an essential purchase for fans (we are certainly included), those with a taste for all-girl violence and anyone interested in the metamorphosis of a show from drama to soap-opera. Recommended.


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