PRISONER

Australian Prison Melodrama

Prisoner, aired from 1979 to1986 in Australia and sometimes known in other countries as Cell Block H, is a triumph of the Australian television industry, a classic of serial melodrama. Prisoner was conceived by the Grundy Organisation for Network Ten. Reg Watson, in the senior ranks of Grundys, had just returned from Britain, where he had been one of the originators of the long-running serial Crossroads. In 1978 Watson set out to devise a serial set in a women's prison, in the context of considerable public attention being given in Australia to prison issues generally and to the position of female prisoners in particular. Women Behind Bars had been founded in 1975, and had successfully campaigned for the eventual release of Sandra Willson, Australia's longest-serving female prisoner. The combination of an active women's movement, prisoner action groups, and an atmosphere of public inquiry and media attention stimulated by gaol riots and a royal commission, together laid a basis for an interest in the lives of women in prison. Watson and his team at Grundys, in their extensive research for the new drama, interviewed women in prison as well as prison officers (the "screws", as they're always called in Prisoner), and later some of the actors also visited women's prisons. Notice was taken of prison reform groups, whose desire for a halfway house for women was incorporated into the program. The result was a very popular longrunning serial, shown at night from 8:30 to 10:30, which only in its eighth year revealed signs of falling ratings.

Prisoner became as controversial as it was popular. In its frequent grimness, pathos, sadness, toughness of address, occasional violence, and atmosphere of threat, it appeared very decidedly to be adult drama, its "look" spare, hard, dynamic. Yet ethnographic research pointed to Prisoner's consistent appeal to schoolchildren, not least schoolgirls, perhaps identifying the harsher screws with cordially disliked teachers. It was not the favourite text of school principals, and was the subject of complaint by them.

With Prisoner the audience is invited to sympathise and empathise with a particular group of prisoners, in particular, mother figure Bea Smith, aunt figure Judy Bryant, grandmother figure Lizzie Birdsworth, as well as some young prisoners, the in effect daughters and grandaughters, Doreen and Maxie and Bobby. Often we see this group at work in the prison laundry, where Bea rules as "top dog," having the right to press the clothes. Here Bea and her "family" resist the oppression of a labour process the prison management forces on them by taking smokes, having fun, exercising cheek and wit, chatting, planning rituals like birthday celebrations, or being involved in dramas of various kinds that distract them from the boredom of work.

Such "kinship" relationships, often remembered rather wistfully by ex-prisoners who are having a hard time of it alone on the outside, offer the possibility of close friendship, fierce loyalty, cooperation, genuine concern for each other: an image of communitas, inversionary since it is this community of "good" prisoners, not those in authority, that the text continually invites us to sympathise and empathise with. Opposed to the powerful resourceful figure of Bea are various other women, also powerful personalities, like Kate or Nola MacKenzie or Marie Winters, individualistic and ruthlessly selfish, manipulative and wily, who scheme and plot (sometimes with harsh screws like Joan Ferguson, known as the Freak, who is also corrupt, or Vera Bennett, known as Vinegar Tits) to topple Bea and destroy her authority and influence.

Yet relationships in Prisoner of all kinds are always complicated, shifting, and often uncertain. Not all screws are harsh; there is for example Meg, more a social worker, though still suspected by the women. The struggle between a more permissive, helping approach, as with Meg, and the advocates of rigid discipline like Ferguson and Bennett and to a lesser degree Colleen Powell, goes on and on and is never resolved, as each approach is alternately seen to result in further tension, restlessness, and disorder. As the women's leader, Bea is particularly ambivalent. Bea possesses impressive wisdom about human relations which she shrewdly uses for the benefit of the prisoners as a whole. She dislikes and tries to counter and sometimes punishes actions that are self-seeking and competitive at the expense of what she perceives as a family group. But if Bea is a kind of moral centre in Prisoner, she's an unusual and complex one, drawn as she is to exerting her control through violence or the threat of it: after killing her, she brands "K"--for Killer--on Nola MacKenzie's chest with a soldering iron (Nola had tried to drive Bea insane over the memory of her dead daughter Debbie).

Prisoner relies very little on conventional definitions of masculinity and femininity, beyond the basic point that sympathy generated for the women rests on the perception that women are not usually violent or physically dangerous. Many of the women are very strong characters indeed, active and independent. Bea, Nola, Marie Winters, the Freak, are most unusual in the gallery of characters of television drama. They are not substitute men, but active strong women. Strength and gentleness are not distributed in Prisoner on male-female lines. The binary image of the powerful man and the weak or decorative woman is simply not there. Nor are the women in Prisoner in the least glamourised. They are usually dressed in crummy prison uniforms, or for those on remand usually in fairly ordinary clothes. Their faces suggest no make-up, and they range in bodily shape from skinny wizened old Lizzie (loving, concerned and kind, yet also a mischievous old lag rather like a child, liable to get herself into trouble) to the big girls like Bea, Doreen, and Judy. Their faces, luminously featured as in so much serial melodrama, are shown as grainy and interesting, faces full of character, of signs of hardship and suffering, alternately soft and hard, happy and depressed, angry or bored. The women are not held up voyeuristically as sexual objects, but present themselves as human, female, subjects.

While Prisoner talks to very contemporary, historically specific concerns, it also draws on much wider, longer, older cultural histories. Prisoner can be located in a long female tradition of inversion and inversionary figures in popular culture, from the "unruly" or "disorderly" women of early modern Europe evoked by Natalie Zemon Davis as Women on Top to the rebellious Maid Marians important in Robin Hood ballads and associated festivities of the May-games, to the witches of seventeenth century English stage comedy. In such "wise witch" figures we perhaps approach the female equivalent of the male mythological tradition of Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Rob Roy--outlaws and tricksters who, like Bea in Prisoner, inspired fear as well as admiration.

As well as such carnivalesque traditions of world upside-down, misrule, and charivari, Prisoner speaks to and takes in new directions dramas of crime on television where private passions erupt into public knowledge, debate, contestation, judgement. As dramaturgy Prisoner revels in the possibilities of the TV serial form, of cliffhangers at the end of episodes, intensifying melodrama as (in Peter Brooks' terms in The Melodramatic Imagination) an aesthetic of excess. Prisoner is already a classic of serial melodrama, yet, in world televsion, there is and has been nothing else quite like it.

-Ann Curthoys and John Docker

CAST

Doreen May Anderson/Burns...................... Colette Mann Freida "Franky" Doyle ..................................Carol Burns Vera "Vinegar Tits" Bennett ......................Fiona Spence Lizzie Birdworth..................................... Sheila Florance Monica Ferguson....................................... Lesley Baker Marilyn Mason................................... Margaret Laurence Bea Smith ..................................................Val Lehman Karen Travers.......................................... Peta Toppano Lynn Warner ........................................Kerry Armstrong Stud Wilson............................................. Peter Lindsay Jim Fletcher ..........................................Gerard Maguire Erica Davidson .............................................Patsy King Colleen Powell....................................... Judith McGrath Bob Moran........................................... Peter Adams (II) Tammy Fisher..................................... Gloria Adjenstrat Officer Green ................................................John Allen Jean Vernon.......................................... Christine Amor Camilla Wells.......................................... Annette Andre Di Hagen .............................................Christine Andrew Reb Kean .........................................Janet Andrewartha Valarie Jacobs....................................... Barbara Angell Meg Morris....................................... Elspeth Ballantyne Susan Rice............................................. Briony Behets Andrew Fry .................................................Howard Bell Sarah West ...............................................Kylie Belling Matthew "Matt" Delaney............................ Peter Bensley Lisa Snell........................................... Liza Bermingham Randi Goodlove.......................................... Zoe Bertram Tracy Belman............................................. Alyson Best Harry Grovesnor......................................... Mike Bishop Toni McNally................................................ Pat Bishop Evy Randel ..................................................Julia Blake Judy Bryant ...............................................Betty Bobbit Mervin "Merv" Pringle................................. Ernie Bourne Dennis Cruckshank............................... Nigel Bradshaw Jill Clarke................................................. Katy Brinson Merle Jones ....................................Rosanne Hull Brown Ida Brown ................................................Paddy Burnet Sonya Stevens............................................. Tina Bursill Sandra Williams.................................... Andrea Butcher Barbara Davidson........................................ Sally Cahill Deirdre Kean ........................................Anne Charleston Linda Gorman ..................................Mary Charleston (II) Anne Yates................................................. Kirsty Child Fay Donnally............................................... Maud Clark Bella Abrecht............................................ Liddy Clarke Edie Warren........................................... Collene Clifford Margo Gaffney............................................. Jane Clifton Alice Jenkins/'Lurch' .................................Lois Collinder Head of Department: James Dwyer........... James Condon Bongo Connors ......................................Shane Connors Jenny Armstrong....................................... Sally Cooper Alan Farmer ........................................Michael Cormick Anita Selby .................................................Diana Craig Diane Henley.......................................... Ellen Cressley Maxine Daniels....................................... Lisa Crittenden Carol Lewis.................................................. Liz Crosby Glynis Ladd .........................................Debs Cummings Ian Marhoney.............................................. Peter Curtin Pat Slattery.............................................. Dorothy Cuts Roxanne Bradshaw...................................... Peppie D'Or Hazel Kent ..............................................Belinda Davey Frances Harvey................................... Wanda Davidson Ruth Ballinger............................................ Lindy Davies Wendy Stone ...........................................Vivean Davies Geoff McCrae ............................................Les Dayman Bev Baker.............................................. Maggie Dence Peter ......................................................Stefan Dennis Tracy Morris................................................ Sue Devine Andrea Radcliff.................................... Marrian Dimmick Vicki McPherson ....................................Rebecca Dines Joanna Jones ..........................................Nichole Dixon Lorili Wilkinson........................................ Paula Duncan Jock Stewart ..........................................Tommy Dysart Janet Williams .........................................Christine Earl Scott Collins ................................................Tim Elston Jessie Wyndem ............................................Pat Evison Len Murphy.............................................. Maurie Fields Lainie Dobson........................................ Marina Findley


Prisoner
Photo courtesy of Grundy Television

Kerryn Davies............................................... Jill Forster Angela "Angel" Adams................................ Kylie Foster Jennifer Bryant..................................... Susannah Fowle
Cindy Moran.............................................. Robyn Frank Brandy Carter.......................................... Roslyn Gentle Mo Maquire ..............................................Browyn Gibbs Samantha "Sam" Greenway ........................Robyn Gibbs Vivienne Williams.............................. Bernadette Gibson Detective Inspector Grace ................................Terry Gill Helen Smart .........................................Caroline Gillmer Kevin Burns................................................ Ian Gilmour Gloria Payne............................................ Tot Goldsmith Suzy Driscoll........................................... Jacqui Gordon Kay White ..................................................Sandy Gore Edna Preston............................................. Vivean Grey Barbara Fields........................................... Susan Gurin 'Auntie' May Collins............................ Billie Hammerberg Dr Kate Peterson.................................... Olivia Hamnett Terry Harrison.......................................... Brian Hannan Pippa Reynolds..................................... Christine Harris Sally Dempster.............................................. Liz Harris Roach Walters.......................................... Linda Hartley Bob Morris......................................... Anthony Hawkins Gail Summers ....................................Susanne Haworth Leigh Templar ............................................Virginia Hay Jennie Baxter.............................................. Leila Hayes Steve Ryan .........................................Peter Lind Hayes Barbie Cox............................................... Jayne Healey Tina Murry ................................................Hazel Henley Syd Humphries....................................... Edward Hepple Shiela Brady........................................... Colleen Hewet Kath Maxwell................................................ Kate Hood Wally Wallace......................................... Alan Hopgood Paddy Lawson .............................................Anna Hruby Rodney Adams........................................... Philip Hyde Stan Dobson ..........................................Brian James (I) Steve Faulkner........................................ Wayne Jarrett Martha Ives .................................................Kate Jason Sarah Higgens.......................................... Nell Johnson Ros Fisher ..........................................Marinia Jonathon Kathy Hall ....................................................Sue Jones Lorna Young ......................................Barbara Jungwirth Denise Crabtree........................................ Lynda Keane Alison Page................................................. Fay Kelton Gerri Googan .....................................Deborah Kennedy Frank Burke................................................ Trevor Kent Philip Clary.................................................. Steve Khun Joan Ferguson (The Freak)................ Maggie Kirkpatrick Bobbie Mitchell................................ Maxine Klibingaitus Sharon Gilmour ........................................Margot Knight Noelene Burke ............................................Jude Kuring Michelle Parkes ..........................................Nina Landis Daphne Graham.................................... Debra Lawrence David Andrews........................................ Serge Lazareff Sandy Edwards .......................................Louise Le Nay Tony Bernum.......................................... Alan David Lee Andrea Hennesey ......................................Bethany Lee Marlene "Rabbit" Warren .....................Genevieve Lemon Rita Conners......................................... Glenda Linscott Jenny Hartley............................................. Jenny Lovell Faye Quinn .................................................Anne Lucas Clara Goddard............................................ Betty Lucas Janice Grant ............................................Jenny Ludlam Petra Roberts..................................... Penny Maegraith Debbie Pearce............................................. Dina Mann Georgie Baxter.......................................... Tracey Mann Meryl King............................................ Marilyn Maquire Jonathon Edmonds .................................Bryan Marshall Nicki Lennox........................................... Vicki Mathios Pat O'Connell..................................... Monica Maughton Pixie Mason ..........................................Judy McBurney Rosie Hudson .............................Anne Maree McDonald Dot Farrow............................................ Althea McGrath Catherine Roberts............................... Margo McLennan Cass Parker........................................... Babs McMillan Tom Lucas ............................................John McTernan Ernest Craven........................................... Ray Meagher Ray Proctor.............................................. Alex Menglet Irene Zervos......................................... Maria Mercades Yamille Bacartta................................... Maria Mercedes Marie Winter............................................. Maggie Miller Trixie Mann .................................................Anna Mizza Eddie Cooke............................................. Richard Moir Chrissie Latham ...............................Amanda Muggleton Michelle "Brumby" Tucker......................... Sheryl Munks Hannah Simpson................................. Julienna Newbold Heather Rogers.................................... Victoria Nicholls Anne Reynolds...................................... Gerda Nicolson Joyce Martin................................................. Judy Nunn Ken Pierce................................................... Tom Oliver Helen Masters............................................. Louise Pajo Sara Webster............................................... Fiona Paul Lisa Mullins................................................... Nicki Paul Philis Hunt ..................................................Ray Pearce Anna Geltschmidt.......................... Agnieska Perpeczko Myra Desmond.......................................... Anne Phelan Melinda Cross............................................. Lulu Pinkus Minnie Donovan...................................... Wendy Playfair Lucy Furgusson .............................................Yoni Prior Greg Miller.................................................. Barry Quinn Ethel May "Ettie" Parslow ...........................Lois Ramsay Agnus Forster........................................... Lois Ramsey Sandy Hamilton.................................... Candy Reymond Leone Burke ...........................................Tracy Jo Riley Zara Moonbeam....................................... Ilona Rodgers Queenie Marshall.................................. Marilyn Rodgers Spike Marsh ........................................Victoria Rowland Janet Dominguez ...............................Deidre Rubenstein Kath Deakin........................................ Michelle Sargent Pamela Madigan .................................Justine Saunders Dan Moulton............................................... Sean Scully Janet Conway ...............................................Kate Sheil Angie Dobbs............................................ Gonza Sheils Lou Kelly.............................................. Louise Siversen Nola McKenzie......................................... Carol Skinner Delia Stout.............................................. Desiree Smith Ted Douglas.................................................. Ian Smith Mighty Mouse ...........................................Jentah Sobott Caroline Simpson......................................... Ros Spiers May Worth ..................................................Adair Stagg Kath Leach .............................................Penny Stewart Eve Wilder............................................... Lynda Stoner Spider Simpson .........................................Tyra Stratton Ben Fulbright........................................ Kevin Summers Shane Monroe .....................................Robert Summers Nora Flynn.................................................. Sonja Tallis Roslyn Coulson ......................................Sigrid Thornton Mr. Hudson ................................................Bud Tingwell Rachael Millson...................................... Kim Trentgrove Lexie Patterson........................................... Pepe Trevor Lisa Mullins............................................. Terrie Waddell Anne Griffin .........................................Rowena Wallace David Bridges.......................................... David Walters Jeanette Mary "Mum" Brooks ....................Mary B. Ward Joyce Barry ............................................Joy Westmore Maggie May Kennedy........................ Davina Whitehouse Donna Mason ...........................................Arkie Whitely Janice Young...................................... Catherine Wilken Marty Jackson................................ Michael Winchester Julie "Chook" Egbert......................... Jackie Woodburne Neil Murray............................................... Adrian Wright Joanne Slater......................................... Carole Yelland Rosmary Kay ...............................................Jodi Yemm

PRODUCERS       Philip East, John McRae, Ian Smith, Marie Trevor

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

Ten Network
692 Episodes February 1979-November 1980                                       Tuesday/Wednesday 8:30-9:30
February 1981-June 1981  Tuesday/Wednesday 7:30-8:30 June 1981-November 1981
                                      Tuesday/Wednesday 8:30-9:30
February 1982-November 1982
                                      Tuesday/Wednesday 7:30-8:30
Febuary 1983-December 1986
                                      Tuesday/Wednesday 8:30-9:30

FURTHER READING

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Curry, Christine, and Christine O'Sullivan. Teaching Television in Secondary Schools. Sydney: New South Wales Institute of Technology Media Papers, 1980.

Curthoys, Ann, and John Docker. "Melodrama in Action: Prisoner, or Cell Block H." In Docker, John. Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

_______________. "In Praise of Prisoner." In, Tulloch, John, and Graeme Turner, editors.Australian Television: Programs, Pleasures and Politics. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989.

Hodge, Robert, and David Tripp. Children and Television: A Semiotic Approach. Cambridge: Polity, 1986.

Kingsley, Hilary. Prisoner: Cell Block H: The Inside Story. London: Boxtree, 1990.

Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Sydney: AFTRS/Allen and Unwin, 1993.

Palmer, Patricia. The Lively Audience: A Study of Children Around the TV Set. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1986.

Stern, Lesley. "The Australian Serial: Home Grown Television." In, Dermody, Susan, John Docker, and Drusilla Modjeska, editors. Nellie Melba, Ginger Meggs, and Friends. Melbourne: Kibble, 1982.

Thomas, Claire. "Girls and Counter-School Culture." In, McCallum, David, and Uldis Ozolins, editors. Melbourne Working Papers 1980. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 1980.

Willson, Sandra. "Prison, Prisoners and the Community." In, Mukherjee, S.K., and J. Scutt, editors. Women and Crime. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1981.

 

See also Australian Programming