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Bea Smith (Val Lehman)

Thanks to Matt for the first part of this character profile.

Beatrice Alice Smith is introduced in (1) and for the next 400 episodes - through a parade of rivals covering the good, the bad and the ugly - she remains the undisputed top dog of Wentworth Detention Centre.

Her first dramatic action in the series is to burn Lyn Warner's hand in the steam press (as punishment for abducting and burying a child), firmly establishing herself as "Queen Bea" over the prisoners and the press as the seat of that power. It is also interesting to note that while we the audience are pretty much aware that Lyn is innocent of her accused crime, there is no real inclination to view Bea as a villian. She acts out of emotions we can relate to and very early on she becomes the "eyes" of the series, very rarely wrong about the character of any supporting player.

Bea is released from Wentworth (2) after serving time for killing her husband's mistress, an act which is originally described by Bea herself to Karen Travers in (18) as a "bashing", but is much later revealed, via flashback in (200), to have been strangulation. Bea visits the grave of her daughter, Debbie. Debbie got hooked on drugs while Bea was inside and her father did nothing to help her. She died of an overdose. Bea quickly takes advantage of her new freedom to pick up a gun from an old mate, pay a visit to her husband and coolly shoot him dead. So much for child neglect. The scene in which she is returned to the prison and confronts Franky Doyle, the tough lesbian who has taken over during Bea's short - but highly productive - absence, is the definitive early "Prisoner" scene: Bea's frame filling the door of some prison room, defiantly staring down a trembling rival. This is immediately followed by the show's first riot, which leads to the stabbing death of Wentworth psychologist, Bill Jackson. Here again, "Prisoner" demonstrates its uniqueness as a series in that the instigators of the riot, Bea and Franky, are far more interesting and likable than any of the "innocent" bystanders. (Though Bea does take it upon herself to expose the murderer, who turns out to be the eternally horny Chrissie Latham).

Franky comes and goes, but Bea's real nemesis is deputy governor, Vera Bennett. They are such bitter enemies that Vera didn't even allow Bea to attend Debbie's funeral. The two women are well matched both as characters and as actresses and though they remain pitted against one another for the span of Vera's role, neither of them ever wholly defeats the other.

One of Bea's primary characteristics is her hatred of drugs and her absolute refusal to have them inside the prison. Now although this intolerance obviously stems more from what drugs did to her daughter than any actual concern for the women's well-being, it nonetheless casts a favorable light on Bea and - more importantly - steers the series away from laughable I've-Got- Drugs-Man dialogue and less talented extras flitting about in the background "high". It also paves the way for great confrontational storylines involving convicted women who deal drugs, either professionally or just to tick Bea off. These range from the young and stupid (Barbara Davidson and Tracey Morris) to the deliciously evil (Sharon Gilmour and Kay White). One of the best "drug" plots, however, is also one of the first.

Anne Yates is a former Wentworth screw who dealt drugs to the women. This led to the suicide of a young prisoner and, though nothing could be officially proved, the dismissal of Miss Yates. Some time later, Anne is convicted for trafficking and sent to Wentworth (28). She is smart enough to conceal her crime from Bea, but Bea is smart enough to be suspicious and has Anne's file stolen from the Governor's office. The file is returned to Anne, who becomes terrified and tries to prepare for the worst. The tension mounts, climaxing in a fight during which Anne stabs Bea with a knife and then takes refuge in a dryer, the door of which is unsuspectingly shut by Vera resulting in Anne's grisly death by suffocation. Bea is taken to hospital, not too seriously hurt, and promptly set off on what is to be the first of her escapes (31).

At first she seeks sanctuary with Mum and her grand-daughter, Judith Anne. Critics of Bea use this to point out her selfishness, as she is seriously endangering Mum's parole, but it doesn't really hold because we know - call it "Dramatic Intuition" - that Bea will make sure Mum comes out of the situation unscathed. This doesn't last long, however, and soon (33) Bea is holing up with her old friend, Val, who provided her with the gun to shoot her husband. Bea uses this to force the reluctant Val to keep her and the stage is set for some "fun on the run" when the story is unfortunately sidetracked by the wayward young girl next door, Yvonne, who reminds Bea of Debbie (not surprisingly, since both parts are played by daughters of Val Lehman). The wild young Yvonne, who is ignored and left alone by her parents, wants to smoke, drink and get laid and it is after Bea prevents the last from happening that Yvonne gets upset and dobs Bea into the police. So much for preventing child neglect.

During Bea's escape three women vied for top dog: Bea's jovial big-boned mate, Monica Ferguson (who became inexplicably hostile during her takeover), the verminous and quite possibly inbred Noeline Burke, and flighty socialite Clara Goddard (who seemed to gain control over the women by calling them "my dears" and smoking "Mores"). These ladies mainly served to prove that Wentworth - and the show - needed Bea at the helm. And, after being brought back to prison, that is where Bea stayed for quite a stretch, mostly presiding over other women's stories and forming and cementing her crucial friendships with Lizzie Birdsworth and Doreen Anderson. Together they formed the triumvirate of Wentworth; Bea the leader, Doreen the slowly maturing daughter figure, and Lizzie the lovable old coot. It was a threesome that worked very well indeed.

Not surprisingly, romance was hard to come by in Wentworth - and sometimes painfully contrived. Bea was no exception. Her love interest came in the form of Ken Pearce, a fairly robust ex-convict separated from his wife who now organized prison drama groups (104). He also, as the fates would have it, had a troubled teen-age daughter named (what else?) Debbie. This gave Bea the chance to help straighten out someone called Debbie and her relationship with Ken blossomed. It was cut mercifully short by the nasty Sharon Gilmour locking them in a store room (where they had met "to be alone") leaving them to be discovered by officers (116). Ken was banned from Wentworth - but not forever. Some time later, Bea got the ban lifted by threatening the success of the conjucal visting suite. This is a classic example of Bea's selfishness - as Chrissie, herself a paragon of selflessness, is quick to point out - but Bea's human failings only strengthen her as a character and, besides, with best mates like Doreen, who is fickle in her loyalty every time Bea's out of the picture for two seconds, and fair weather allies (at best) like Chrissie and Margo Gaffney, Bea is far better than the women mostly deserve. It should also be pointed out that Bea murdered two people who "pissed her off". Mother Theresa she ain't. Her re- familiarization with Ken doesn't last long though - he decides to get back together with his wife!

Bea is a major player in "The Great Tunnel Escape" (165), during which Judy Bryant, Doreen, Heather "Mouse" Trapp and a luckless extra attempt to flee Wentworth via long-forgotten water drains. Using a pantomine (Cinderella) as a diversion, the women literally go down the drain. But then Lizzie, resplendent in a pink fairy godmother costume, decides to follow Doreen, then Bea goes after Lizzie. Deranged prisoner, Anne Griffin, places a loaded wheel barrow over the drain opening. The tunnel caves in, creating a wall between Judy and Mouse on one side and Bea, Lizzie and an injured Doreen on the other (The extra is buried beneath the newly formed wall). Judy and Mouse continue on to (temporary) freedom, while the Wentworth Three are trapped between a rock and a hard place (Wentworth, that is)! Since Doreen can't move, Bea goes back for help but is unable to budge the manhole cover. She returns to Lizzie and Doreen and they decide to wait for help, but Bea soon becomes panicky. It seems our Bea suffers from claustrophobia - though it must be a rather selective form as long stretches in solitary have never left her traumatized. Convinced the air is running out, Bea loses her head and dashes about the drainage system until she comes to a barred dead end. She picks up a rock and proceeds to bang it against the bars, and this is how she is eventually discovered and saved. While recovering in the infirmary, a very humiliated Bea promises to kill Anne Griffin for what she did, but, luckily for poor Anne, she is carted off to the loony bin before Bea can fulfill her promise.

A bout of amnesia is an absolute must for the heroine of any serial - but Bea's experience with it provides her what is arguably her best storyline. Bea is transferred to Barnhurst (196) in an effort to suppress mounting tension inside Wentworth. While at Barnhurst, she runs into Marie Winter (who we find out many episodes later from Doreen was top dog before Bea - which, since Doreen couldn't possibly have been inside that long, raises the interesting question of what exactly Bea did for most of her original sentence...Read tea leaves?). Marie has Bea's soup drugged, more or less for fun, and Bea's obvious reaction to this makes her quick transfer back to Wentworth very welcome by all at Barnhurst. However, on the way back, Bea's police van is driven off the road by wild drivers and crashes. The driver is killed, the officer knocked unconscious and Bea hits her head...Oh, yes! The whack to the skull sends Bea's memory back to when she was just plain Bea Smith, housewife and mother. She gets a lift into the city, but finds her house occupied by strangers. The number of Mum's flat pops into her head and after much searching she finally locates her. Mum is quick to realize that Bea has amnesia and that it is genuine. Mum enlists Meg's help and, like most things Meg tries to help with while she's a parole officer, everything soon goes wrong and both Bea and Mum are sent to Wentworth. At first, none of the women or staff believe Bea. All of them are quite sure Bea is faking it in an attempt to get early release. Mum is her sole defender. Vera takes tremendous pleasure, though, in "reminding" Bea of all she's done during her memory lapse - killed a friend, shot a husband, lost a daughter to drugs. While Bea was away, Margo Gaffney became top dog and doesn't seem to know what to make of Bea - Mum, however, gets up her nose right away. It is while hurting Mum that Bea's natural instincts overcome her and she attacks Margo. It is while strangling her that Bea has her first recall; a flashback to when she throttled the "other woman". The memory sends Bea screaming from the laundry. Shortly thereafter, just when she has convinced most people her memory loss is real, she is bashed by Margo and her gang and locked in a store room. The tiny space causes her to remember the tunnel cave-in and this leads rapidly to full memory restoration. The scene in which she squeezes Margo's head against the bars of her cell door and says, "I'm back, Margo and if you tell anyone - I'll kill you", is the stuff of which classic "Prisoner" is made. Bea successfully fakes her amnesia from this point, holding up through painful questions about Debbie and Margo defiantly bashing Doreen in front of her. At the trial, things look good for Bea - but bad for Mum, who looks certain to go down for harboring a known criminal. With a shrug of her hefty shoulders, Bea decides to do the right thing. She tells the court that her amnesia was a complete lie and that she forced Mum to shelter her. Bea is sentenced and Mum is released (204). A satisfying - and most unselfish - close to an excellent story.

Upon the arrival of Sandy Edwards and Kate Peterson (235), Bea is awfully sick. She herself is convinced it is cancer, as it runs in her family, but Kate is fairly certain its kidney malfunction. This is not good, since a prisoner is bound to be at the bottom of a kidney wish list. So Sandy organizes a drive within the prison to help find a kidney donor for Bea. A compatible donar is found and it turns out to be Doreen, which, naturally, pleases and reassures Bea. Doreen, however, in her greatest show of disloyalty yet, cannot bear to donate her kidney because, as she so eloquently explains, "She's real scared of being cut up"! Bea, probably too sick at this point to care, accepts this explanation and soon after a traffic fatality provides Bea with the much needed organ. While she is in hospital, a full scale riot erupts at Wentworth apparently led by Sandy but actually engineered by Marie Winter. It is also during this stay that she learns (from her doctor) the true and horrid nature of the good Dr. Peterson, a lady who, despite having diagnosed her kidney trouble, Bea has never liked (Ah, that "Queen Bea" intuition again). Upon her return, Bea is too weak to reclaim her position, so naturally she sides with Sandy against Marie (as well as trying carefully to reveal to Sandy the truth about her friend, Kate). The relationship between Bea and Sandy is an interesting one: Bea obviously wants to be top dog again as soon as her strength returns, Sandy obviously has no intention of giving it up. The two women are perfectly aware of the other's feelings, but as they stroll down corridors, making cracks about Marie or dropping hints to torment Kate, the other women in tow behind them, you get the sense of genuine fondness between them. But Bea is ill-prepared to protect Sandy from the fate that awaits her.

The Sandy/Kate story was the first time it appeared "Prisoner" could function without Bea in control. Before this the thought of "Prisoner" without Bea was like "Dallas" without JR - simply unthinkable. (Though the departure of the first long-run character, Vera, just prior probably had much to do with this. She, too, seemed irreplaceable, but the iron gates continued to shut just fine without her) For close to 300 episodes Bea had been the axis on which the show revolved. But all things change...

Bea's character thrives on opposition and this is provided by the arrival of Joan "The Freak" Ferguson in (287). By one of those co-incidences that makes "Prisoner" as a whole so satisfying, these two major characters each appear for around 400 episodes, and the 84 where they overlap are full of dramatic incident.

Bea takes a while to realise how dangerous the Freak is to her and the other women, until she finds out that Joan is taking a cut of Doreen's proceeds from running a book (292). Bea organises the first of many attempts to set Joan up, this time by making it look as if there is a sexual relationship between her and new inmate Hannah Simpson, but Chrissie is forced by Joan to lag on the plot.

Bea's anti-drugs line has another outing when prostitute and heroin addict Donna Mason is brought to Wentworth (296). Bea tries to help her give up heroin (299) but after a brief period in the halfway house, where a hitwoman hired by her pimp Des tries to kill her, Donna is brought back again (303). This time Bea refuses to help her get off drugs, much to Bea's regret when Donna dies in her arms.

The next new arrivals give Bea another opportunity to try to fix the Freak. Both Paddy Lawson and Barbara Fields are used by Joan - Paddy to get Bea involved in fights and Barbara as informer.

Bea next tries, with help from officer Steve Fawkner, to frame Joan for dealing in contraband, but this only leads to Steve having to resign when Joan gets to hear about from Barbara (315).

Rather improbably, Bea is given a chance to do work release (315) and gets a job at a printing shop. This largely serves to introduce a plot about incest and child abuse through one of Bea's colleagues: shortly afterwards Bea is laid off (321). On her return to Wentworth, Joan sabotages her application for a hairdressing job and body searches Paddy in front of Bea - probably just to show her increasing power. But when Joan has Bea's parole set back for another six months, Bea decides to sacrifice her future chances to settle accounts with the Freak.

Through her contacts on the outside, Barbara gets hold of Joan's compromising diary. When Bea finds out Barbara has it, she uses it as bait to get Joan to solitary for a bashing (326). However, the small fires started as diversions get out of hand and Wentworth is nearly burnt to the ground. Paddy tries to escape through the roof and comes upon a major fight between Joan and Bea. Bea's life is saved when Paddy makes Joan pick her up and take her out onto the roof.

While in Woodridge after the fire, Bea is in danger of being charged with arson and murder, but works out that the police are just trying to set the women against each other to find out the truth about the fire and a little investigative work reveals that it was Margo's Molotov cocktail thrown into the storeroom that made the fire catch hold so fast. Bea has Margo bashed to confess her responsibility to the women - though not to the police.

Bea is eventually only charged for the assault on Joan (333) after Ted Douglas orders a cover-up.

Bea's next opponent is already waiting in the wings - Nola McKenzie, an escapee who is brought to Wentworth under an assumed name. When her true identity is revealed, she murders Paddy Lawson by drowning her in a washbasin (338) so she doesn't have to go back to Western Australia to face the death penalty. Bea has to bide her time before getting revenge, as Joan is continually trying to set Bea up for bashing Nola. Eventually, she brands Nola on the breast with a "K" (for Killer) using a soldering iron (342).

But despite Bea's best efforts, the women are stuck with Nola who is given life (and a stay of extradition) for murdering Paddy. Nola settles in to running various rackets with Joan Ferguson's help.

Bea gets no support from the women, and some of her supporters - like Maxine Daniels - are forced to support Nola. Bea's reaction is to wash her hands of the women and she takes the first opportunity she sees to make her third escape by walking out of the gates disguised as a trainee officer (352).

We next see Bea working in Sydney as a housekeeper (357), though when her employer recognises her from a photo in the paper, she flees and seeks refuge briefly with Doreen.

Bea's escape is only one of the factors that leads to Erica Davidson's resignation as Governor in (360).

After her recapture (360) and return to Wentworth, her battle for supremacy with Nola McKenzie continues. Joan and Nola use the phony medium Zara Moonbeam to persuade Bea that her daughter Debbie is trying to get a message to her, and they drive her to the edge of a breakdown. When Lizzie tells her the truth and gives her the zip gun with which she was intended to commit suicide, she uses it to kill Nola (369).

The son of the new Governor Ann Reynolds inadvertently gives Bea and the women ammuntion against the Department in the shape of a photo apparently showing Ted Douglas receiving a bribe from gang boss Lionel Fellowes. Bea uses it to demand a doctor, teacher, social worker and conjugal visits from Mr Douglas (380). Unfortunately Lionel Fellowes is angered by Bea's interference and hires a man to plant bombs inside Wentworth - one of them outside solitary where Bea has been placed. The bomb squad men fail to defuse the bomb in time, but Bea survives (386).

[By the time this episode was shown, it would have been common knowledge that Val Lehman would soon be leaving the series: probably the writers felt a teaser like this would only fuel the speculation]

She later decides to sue the Department for compensation for her injuries. She settles for $20,000 on condition that the family of the man who died trying to defuse the bomb get half (390).

The final major plot line involving Bea seems silly at first sight: Wentworth is quarantined after one of the women dies of lassa fever, and a party from prison inspection group PASSIVE are trapped inside with the women (391). However, this provides not only another teaser about whether Bea would die, as she falls ill during the epidemic, but also gives her a chance to spend the night with one of the male visitors, who looks anything but PASSIVE (393).

Bea's final antagonist arrives: Sonia Stevens. She is tailor made for Bea as an opponent, as she is brought to Wentworth on a 15 year sentence for trafficking in heroin (394). After a brief period at daggers drawn, Sonia makes it clear she intends to replace Bea as top dog. Lizzie is forced to co-operate by Joan in making grog which Sonia uses to buy the women's support. Joan then uses it to put pressure on Ann to have Bea transferred, and then engineers a fight with Bea in solitary to clinch it.

The final confrontation between Joan and Bea (400) is one of the classic Prisoner scenes - both actresses throw themselves into it with great gusto. Bea even appears to knee the Freak "in the balls". Almost as good is Bea's last scene where the Freak leads her away to her transfer - past Lizzie having ordered Bea not to say anything to her.

After a while the references to Bea dry up. Lizzie gets a censored letter from her in (410).

Which makes it even stranger when in episode (536) the women sit and reminisce for no apparent reason about Bea and others. At the end of the episode, we see why: there has been a big fire at Barnhurst and Bea was among those who died trying to stop a riot.

There seem to be a few inconsistencies surrounding Bea's age.

Marl Cox emailed me with this:-

"In (275), screened in 1982, Bea is surprised by Donny Osmond at her 40th birthday...yet in 1980 Bea says when she gets out she will be 50 (talking to Debbie Pearce). Assuming she has a 10-12 stretch left to serve, I have worked out her release would come around 1990.... This means she is 40 around 1980, born in 1939/1940. So this celebrations seems to be a couple of years too late."

Or you could work a similar calculation from Debbie's dates as shown on her gravestone? The fortieth birthday was in episode (275) probably broadcast around May 1982, so say Bea was born in 1942. Debbie died in 1977 (according to her gravestone) and was born in 1957. So Bea would have been 15 years old at the time! Either Bea was an underage mum, or she must have been lying about her age!

Updated 25 October 1998

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