The collected reviews by NANCY BANKS-SMITH on the Guardian’s TV page.

02 March 1991

Frankly, everyone's real favourite is Prisoner: Cell Block H (ITV). We sneak off and watch it when we think no-one's watching. This is an Australian soap about women convicts. On this subject, naturally, Australians are top notch. The leading lady is known as Bloody Bea Smith, which shakes me as I've been called that in my time. All the convicts have large busts, acccentuated by their unflattering dungarees. This is unusual on TV but very comforting to the rest of us, who thought we were peculiar. Chrissie, who is temporarily on the outside and wearing a mauve jumper, is a sight to stop the breath. Only Liz has no bust, being about 92. She has, however, in her words a dicky ticker. I can't understand why, year after year, Liz never gets out. What can a woman of such pronounced age and scrawniness have done or, if released, do?

11 September 1991

[After describing another programme] This is familiar territory to any close follower of Prisoner Cell Block H (ITV) where, you will be pleased to hear, Lizzie, Australia's oldest convict, is inside again. Any prisoner who leaves Cell Block H returns almost instantaneously as if their braces were caught on the door knob.

25 October 1991

Prisoner Cell Block H (ITV), the Australian soap about strapping women convicts in unflattering dungarees, secretly watched at midnight by people who would deny it fiercely, runs at different speeds throughout the TV regions. It will finish first in Central on December 16 among passionate lamentation and a protest march led by none other than Queen Bea, the prisoner with the biggest bust. Good on yer, Bea. Get it off your chest!.

24 January 1992

Brides of Christ is set in Sydney in the sixties where Diane, argumentative and intelligent, and Veronica, dim and endearing, become postulants at the convent of Santo Spirito. Or Santa Spirito as TV Times calls is, suggesting something rather jolly with whiskers. A subdued performance from Brenda Fricker as Sister Agnes, who is supposed to be a holy terror, and a rather fine one from Sandy Gore as the Mother Superior. It has the oddest resonance of that universal Australian favourite Prisoner Cell Block H (ITV). The same uniform, the same detested screw, the same theme of women in isolation, the same red headed, insubordinate heroine. Which is strange as it suggests that, whether you are unusually virtuous or unusually vicious, the end is the same.

NOTE: It may have seemed familiar as several of the cast were old Prisoner hands... Including Sandy Gore, who had been Kay White, office worker in the carpet factory where the women have work release in the early days

11 July 1992

But never mind Eldorado or Coronation Street, what about Prisoner: Cell Block H (Thames)? This is a highly addictive Australian soap about a women's prison, transmitted at midnight and faithfully followed by a mildly disturbing number of the mildly disturbed. ...... Yesterday Neil, the male nurse at the prison, tore off his whiskers and revealed himself as none other than the local psycho, who has been killing prostitutes and is about to kill Chrissie, the only prisoner at Wentworth with a recognisably human shape. ''You have to die! Enjoy your last meal!'' he gibbers inconsequentially, serving her, oddly enough, potatoes. Do potatoes have some special significance in Australia? ''You're off your bleeding rocker!'' responds Chrissie, game girl. Of course, I don't watch it myself. (316)

22 July 1993

You will be eager to know what is happening in Prisoner Cell Block H (ITV), that pearl which Carlton, for one, throws away at midnight. Prisoner, an all-Sheila show as Police Rescue is an all-bloke show, is the last resort on television of really hefty women and shaking scenery. Of course, one may lead to the other. If you can imagine Crossroads Motel catering exclusively for murderesses? Last night's entirely typical episode opened with Meg, a warder, in the sanguined hands of Dennis (as a hatter, my dears,) who was ordering her to take her clothes off and waving a bread knife in a menacing manner. Leaving Meg, now down to her camisole, we move on smartish to Judy's Home for Fallen Sheilas where Sister Peacebird, a cult convert, is being deprogrammed in the attic and shrieking like a good 'un. She stabs Colin, her deprogrammer, dead centre with a cheese knife and he marks the spot by expiring in a perfect X. You can't afford to blink in Police Rescue or Prisoner. Lizzy, a human prune, is the prison's oldest resident, having poisoned an entire sheep station with her cooking. She said she has a pen pal in Pommieland called Mick, who is currently making a good living by selling homing pigeons. Take my tip. Never shake hands with a left-handed draw and never buy a homing pigeon from a man called Mick. (384)

05 August 1993

ALL RIGHT, all right! Simmer down there. I am not starting until you are all sitting quietly. The news from Prisoner Cell Block-H (Carlton), Home of Correction for Strapping Sheilas, is, as usual, noisy. Wentworth Prison, you will freely recall, was recently burned to the ground by its high-spirited inmates. In many ways it reminds you of Roedean. Yesterday a man with a moustache arrived to inspect the rebuilt wing which, like the rest of Wentworth, is endearingly shakey. He turned out to have a briefcase full of time bombs, which he installed around the place in lavish fashion. No, I have no idea why. This must be some bat-out-of-hell story line which has shot past me. Mrs Powell, a loose screw, spots the interloper and is briskly trussed and gagged (''It's nothing personal''). The man with the moustache plants another bomb in the boiler room (''When this timer goes off, boom! Hello, paradise!''). Mrs Powell, game girl, is writhing in her bonds (''Argh! Uggle!''). The wake up to Wogan type alarm clocks, which seem to be part of the package, are ticking the minutes off to paradise. If I didn't know there were another 306 episodes to come in the south east, I'd be quite worried. (386)

16 March 1994

Talking of crooks, you will be eager to know what's happening in Prisoner Cell Block H (Carlton). Well, that nice warder, Mr Bridges, whom we all thought was helping the prisoners to escape has, in fact, been murdering them and burying them in the grounds. His final victim swiped him with a spade and that seems to have done the trick ("Mr Bridges has been killed in an accident.") The governor is miffed. "My God, the press are vultures! I've already had two newspspapers on the phone." Ah, fair go, guv! (417)

12 January 1995

Prisoner Cell Block H (ITV), topical as ever, staged a jail break. Myra ("It'll be hours before they know I'm missing") escaped by the simple device of wearing a large, green, satin lampshade as a hat. This fooled everyone, particularly the warder with the white stick. There was one almost intolerably tense moment when a smitten senior citizen followed her, panting "I couldn't let you go without telling you how charming you look in that hat." Will Myra find true love? Why does this all remind me so much of Crossroads? Could they possibly be related? Yes, indeed, they are.

The producer of Crossroads went to Australia and produced Neighbours and Prisoner there. The persistence of life is quite wonderful. (459)

15 March 1995

You will be keen as mustard to know what is going on in Prisoner Cell Block H (Carlton). Well, the ladies have set fire to the jail again ("All the women have gone mad!") so everyone is coughing a lot. The resemblance to Haworth Vicarage is eerie. Another eerie thing is that the episodes I'm watching are more than 10 years old, so one of the ex-governors is having a lovely holiday in Yugoslavia.

Marie tried to strangle Judy with an oven glove but Judy, game girl, concussed Marie with a milk bottle and some mongrel has pushed Rebecca down the stairs and busted her head. As Myra says "It breaks the monotony." I wouldn't say that myself. (467)

12 October 1995

Carlton, who have no compunction about giving us 90 minutes of Bliss - which is not the same as 90 minutes of bliss - have dropped Prisoner: Cell Block H for six weeks in favour of football. God knows what's going on, Monica. Meg has just been raped. The governor has nearly been murdered and barely got her hair pinned up again. The Freak, a six-foot psychopathic warder with unpredictable soft spots, is seeking whom she may devour. The handyman has just slumped against the wall, clutching his chest. Anything could be happening. [...possibly around (492)?]

21 February 1996

Prisoner: Cell Block H has been missing from the Carlton schedules since December. Oh the agony, chaps. Meg Morris, the really nice warder and Ann Reynolds, the governor, were gagged and bound in a derelict warehouse by one of the many madmen who infest this neck of Australia. He booby-trapped the place with gelignite, then inconsiderately died. Eight weeks . . . with a decomposing loony and not a drop to drink. In the circumstances, the girls were in surprisingly good nick when the series unexpectedly returned. They may well have set some kind of record. (500)

10 May 1996

Meanwhile in Coronation Street (Granada) Steve, the one with the dislocated eyeballs, and Vicky, the one with the wilful ringlets, are up before the beak for perverting the course of justice; in Brookside (Channel 4) Mike is mouldering in the Bangkok Hilton for smuggling a teddy bear into Thailand; and in Emmerdale (Yorks) Nick Bates is on remand, pending a trial for murder. There is, in fact, a soap that caters for all such eventualities. Prisoner Cell Block H (ITV) is actually set in prison, which, I think, would save a lot of bother all round.

30 July 1996

HARDLY a post passes without a cry of pain from someone whose Prisoner: Cell Block H has been cut off without benefit of anaesthetic. Schedulers have never appreciated the appeal of these strapping women, apparently in jail for all eternity, and their psychotic warder, six feet of rippling Sheila.

10 September 1996

Prisoner: Cell Block H (ITV), which pops up unpredictably in different regions, at different stages of the story, is an Australian soap about thundering big women in boiler suits. Dennis, bless him, sticks out a bit. For one thing he is English. For another he has a face so innocent you could eat your breakfast off it. Curly hair tops it off like parsley. You are charmingly reminded of Larry the Lamb. Dennis has been arrested for rape and murder because a pair of tights was found in his car. Frankly, this suggests to me another scenario entirely. (A builder told me that all builders' labourers wear women's tights in cold weather. You may find this a handy hint for humiliating them.) Meanwhile, the natives are cutting up rough and chucking bricks through Dennis's window (''Go back to where you came from, you murdering Pommie bastard!'') A woman in a fun-fur coat is inflaming four or five extras: ''It's the migrants! They should be kept out of the country. It's always them who's doing the killing and raping.'' Dennis exits in marked manner and a Fair Isle sweater. A tinny is flung after him. As he is drowning his sorrows, even the town drunk draws the line at Dennis. ''Buggered if I'm going to drink with scum like that. Get your backside out of here, Pom!'' Dennis, by now a wrung-out rag, throws himself sobbing into the arms of that good egg, Meg. It is always disturbing to discover how deeply you are disliked. You had rather assumed you were quietly popular. The thing to do is keep your cool. Migrant? Who are you calling a migrant, you mongrel? Stand still while I punch your head in. Something like that. (529)

8 January 1997

Talking of Oz, Prisoner: Cell Block H has resurfaced after nine weeks on Carlton, which does not appreciate this daft little treasure. They keep doing this. Last time they left the governor tied up with a ticking time bomb for months. This time the life of Joan, the mad warder, ("You have a chronic subdural haematoma!") has been hanging by a thread since November. Joan's OK. I feel terrible. (535)

Updated ~ 25 March 2011