Ann Curthoys and John Docker: 'In praise of Prisoner' in John Tulloch and Graeme Turner (eds) Australian television: programs, pleasures and politics (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989, ISBN 0-04-380030-0).
A revised and shortened version of the essay is reprinted as:-
‘Melodrama in Action: Prisoner, or Cell Block H’ Chapter 19 of Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural history by John Docker (Cambridge University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-521-46598-2 £13.95, 0-521-46045-X £35.00)
The links in the original footnotes lead to the bibliography at the end. My own comments are footnoted [JL1], [JL2] etc.
"The Festival of Light stated that Prisoner does a great disservice to the Department of Corrective Services: 'Staff appear no better than the prisoners. This program breaks down respect for law and order - especially young people watching at 8.30 pm. It includes excessive violence and crude language'" 
The earliest serialisations watched by Australian audiences were of British origin, and were often based on a well-known novel. From the early 1960s locally made television serialisation appeared. It was pioneered and produced mainly by the ABC, sometimes in co-production with other local or overseas production agencies. Examples include The Outcasts (first shown in 1961), Seven Little Australians (1973) and Ben Hall (1975). In the mid to late 1970s, the Fraser era, the initiative in serialisation passed from the ABC to the commercials, a consequence of the financial starvation of the ABC by the Fraser government, the loss of key personnel and confidence within the ABC, and ABC's relative lack of concern to respond to changes in popular demand. With this shift in the locus of innovation and energy went a shift in the form of the serialisation itself. As in the United States, it was by and large transformed into the mini-series, comparable to earlier serialisations in terms television hours but screened over a shorter period. Pegasus Productions’ Against the Wind (1977) signified the change, followed by such successes as A Town Like Alice (Alice Productions, 1981) and The Dismissal (Kennedy-Miller, 1983). The ABC continued to produce serialisations, but for a dwindling audience.
By contrast, the commercial stations had always dominated in the screening of locally made series. The major independent company here was Crawford Productions, whose pioneering Consider Your Verdict in 1961 was the first such series to attract large audiences. Crawfords followed up with the highly successful Homicide (1964) and its successors Division 4 (1969) and Matlock Police (1971). Others also produced popular series, such as Norfolk International Productions’ Skippy (1968) and Sydney’s ATN comedy, My Name’s McGooley - What’s Yours? (1966).
By the early to mid 1970s, however, series were losing ground to serials on commercial television stations. From the mid-1960s serials made overseas had been showing on Australian television: Coronation Street on the ABC from Britain, Peyton Place on the commercials from the US. Locally produced serials began in 1967 with the ABC’s long-lived Bellbird, a fifteen-minute early evening program. The ABC followed up with Certain Women, shown in prime time, from 1970, but the first really successful prime-time Australian made serial was Cash-Harmon’s Number 96, shown on the Ten network for over six years from 1972. The Cash-Harmon company ceased production with the demise of Number 96 in 1978. It was Crawfords who were most able to capitalise on the expanding audience for serials, its successes including The Box (first screening 1974), The Sullivans (1976) and Cop Shop (1977).
The reasons for the popularity of serials were similar to those for the popularity of earlier radio serials: characters and their relationships could change and develop over time in intricate ways; episodes could end with a ‘cliff-hanger’ and not with a resolution, and so invited audience return more strongly than in a series. With the additional power of the visual image, television serials could create in audiences a very high level indeed of interest in characters and story lines. As in the case of radio in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, serials were often called ‘soaps’ or ‘soap operas’, a name based initially on the sponsorship of radio serials by companies making and selling soap, but alter signifying serial drama which drew strongly on the forms of melodrama.
Crawfords’ major competitor in the expanding field of television serial productions was Grundys (and still is, though now we must add JNP, producers of A Country Practice). The Grundy Organisation, producer of Prisoner, has begun in 1959 as Reg Grundy Enterprises, a local producer of game and quiz shows for television. In the mid-1970s the company became Reg Grundy Productions and entered television drama serial production with Class of 74 and Class of 75. Maintaining its emphasis on youth, the company embarked in 1976 on the highly successful The Young Doctors and in 1977, The Restless Years. The inspiration for both Young Doctors and Restless Years had come from Reg Watson, in the senior ranks of Grundys, an Australian who had returned from England where he had worked for many years for ITV. Watson had been one of the originators of the long-running British serial Crossroads. In the early 1960s there was no daily television serial in Britain, and Watson began discussing with Lew Grade the possibility of establishing one. It was Watson who thought of locating the projected serial in a Midlands motel and who, as producer of the serial for ten years, had a great impact on its style and development. Watson had long had a philosophy of attempting to attract audiences, not please the critics. Of the Young Doctors (and it could have been any of his projects) he said, “Are you trying to please the critics? The answer is no.” 
So far, we’ve looked at possible answers to the questions “why a serial?” and “why Grundys?” In 1978 Watson set out to devise his third serial in three years. But why set the serial in a women's prison? At this time there was considerable public attention, especially in New South Wales and Victoria, to prison issues generally and the position of female prisoners in particular. Key events around this time were the Bathurst gaol riots, the Nagle Royal Commission into New South Wales' prisons in 1976 and 1977 and the founding of Women Behind Bars in 1975, with its very sustained and eventually successful public campaign for the release of Australia's longest-serving female prisoner, Sandra Willson. In 1978 St Theresa, a low-budget discussion film about women in prison, was made in Sydney by Dany Torsch, with a script by Anne Summers and music by Margaret Roadknight.  The women's movement, prisoner action groups, and an atmosphere of public inquiry and media attention, together laid a basis for an interest in the lives of women in prison.
Watson and his team at Grundys began nine months of research for the new serial. Women in New South Wales and Victorian prisons were interviewed, as were prison officers and other people associated with women’s prisons. The Nagle Report was studied closely, and later some of the actresses visited women’s prisons. Watson was proud of the attention to detail: he told TV Week that even the prison bars were the same size as those inside. “We’ve gone for realism”, he said. The interviews with women prisoners formed the basis of many of the stories. Wentworth Gaol was to be based on a combination of Silverwater (Mulawa) in Sydney and Fairlea in Melbourne, and the rules and regulations depicted in the program were an amalgam of those operating in New South Wales and Victoria. Watson urged the depiction of unpleasant prison officers and also lesbian relationships, on the grounds that everyone interviewed agreed these were part of the reality of prison life . Ian Holmes, who took over from Reg Grundy as President of the Organisation in 1979, also insisted on the importance of research for the program and took notice of suggestions by prison reform groups. . Sandra Willson commented that the depiction of a halfway house for women in Prisoner related more to the plans of prison reformers than to actual provisions in New South Wales at that time (1981). 
When production began late in 1978, Prisoner was to show for one hour per week, but an early decision was made to increase the production schedule from one hour to two. Some key actors and actresses subsequently quit after the first six months, but the program survived and gathered strength. 
Yet if Prisoner draws on very contemporary, historically specific concerns it also draws on much wider and older cultural histories. Its concern with ‘law and order’ places it squarely within the arena of much popular culture, with its westerns, cop shows, detective novels and TV series, courtroom dramas, programs about prisons. ‘Crime’ is a staple of twentieth-century tabloid newspapers and radio and TV news, just as it was the forerunners of the tabloids, in broadsheets and chapbooks. The interest in crime has often been attributed to the voracious appetite for the sensational and the morbid of popular audiences and readerships.
Mikhail Bakhtin, the early twentieth century Russian critic recently discovered in cultural studies, offers, however, another explanation. He points to the narrative importance of crime in the uncovering of private activities: “The criminal act is a moment of private life that becomes, as it were, involuntarily public”. Bakhtin writes of the “enormous organisational significance” that crime, the criminal trial and the legal-criminal categories have in the history of the novel - and, we can add, in newspapers, film and television. Crime is that intersection of where the personal and private become social and public: where private passions erupt into public knowledge, debate, contestation and judgement. Hence its enduring cultural fascination. 
A further reason for the popularity of crime dramas is that through them can be explored the morality of a society’s rules and regulations. This exploration is often pursued in crime dramas and indeed in much else in popular culture through the principle of ‘inversion’, the reversal of the usual and accepted in a society. In the last twenty years or so, inversion, as cultural representation and practice in a variety of societies (traditional, in early modern Europe, and industrial) has received increasing attention from analysts of popular culture, and not least by Mikhael Bakhtin in his Rabelais and His World. In The World Upside-Down, Ian Donaldson has pointed out how much of seventeenth-century comic drama shows judges as incompetent, magistrates as fools, the rich as idiotic; and he traces such inversion back to broadsheet illustrations prevalent in early modern Europe of the normal world as upside-down, and to customs like carnival, festive periods and spaces where values of authority, status, hierarchy, power, in terms of class, gender and age, are mocked and flouted. 
We can also see the ‘wise fool’ (in various guises, the divine idiot, the innocent outsider, the trickster) as a carnivalesque figure who, outside of set festive periods and occasions, is licensed to ‘play with’ a society’s ostensibly revered values and apparent certainties. And we can perceive a long female tradition of inversion and inversionary ‘figures’ in popular culture, from the 'unruly' or 'disorderly' woman of early modern Europe evoked by Natalie Davis in 'Women on Top', to the witch figures discussed by Ian Donaldson, to the rebellious Maid Marians analysed by Peter Stallybrass in relation to Robin Hood ballads and festive activities.  In such 'wise witch' figures we are perhaps approaching the female equivalent of the male tradition of the trickster as outlaw, in figures like Robin Hood and Dick Turpin and Rob Roy.
Here is part, a strong part, of Prisoner's carnivalesque ancestry, carried through into Australian cultural history and developed and transformed in terms of a robust mythology, literature, and drama of inversion involving prisoners and authority, convict and officer, bush worker and squatter, bushranger and police. This Australian popular culture sees 'Australians', or at least 'true' Australians, as different from other Western peoples in supporting prisoners rather than their keepers, outlaws rather than the police. Australians are seen as anti-authoritarian, anti-police, pro-prisoner, deriving from images of ill-treated convicts, sadistic convict overseers, and ‘Ned Kelly’. This view can take many forms, and become bound with other cultural discourses, of tensions between Irish and English, as in television series like Ben Hall and Against the Wind, or between Australians and English as in the Anzac myth in general, and in films like Breaker Morant and Gallipoli. It’s particularly strongly affirmed in bushranger mythology.
But Australian attitudes to law and crime have been much more complex and ambivalent than this myth suggests. Robin Walker showed this historically in a close analysis of the public response to the police incapacity to capture the Ben Hall gang in the early 1860s.  In terms of modern Australia, we only have to think of the difficulties facing prison reform movements to realise that Australians are by no means universally or consistently pro-prisoner. There are in fact both pro- and anti-prisoner popular conceptions. Very often the conflict between the two is negotiated, both in public discussions and cultural representations, as a division between two kinds of prisoner - ‘hardened criminals’ on the one hand, and social victims, prisoners whose circumstances have driven them into conflict with the law, on the other. 
If a modern audience inherits conflicting images of prisons and prisoners generally, so too does it construct conflicting images of female criminals and prisoners in particular. While one common image of women is that they are less violent than men, less a danger to society, another common one is that women who transgress, who end up in prison, are somehow more foul, more corrupt than men. They have, after all, broken social norms even more thoroughly than their male counterparts. For a long time an image of the women convicts of the early nineteenth century was that they were worse than the men - more abandoned, profligate, degenerate.  They were slatternly, lazy, foul-mouthed, wandering around in a drunken stupor with their dresses half falling off. But just as there has been a conflict in popular consciousness between images of early convicts as hardened criminals and as the starving stealers of handkerchiefs, so too Australian female convicts have also been seen as victims as well as exemplars of viciousness. Anne Summers’ version of female convicts as pressed into prostitution to provide sexual services for the males - in which convicts and convict overseers are not very clearly distinguished - has had considerable impact on cultural depictions of female convicts in recent years, for example in Journey Among Women and The Timeless Land. In some ways it’s as if George Arnold Wodd’s earlier version whereby all convicts were the victims rather than the perpetrators of a vicious social order, has now been reserved for female convicts only. 
Australian audiences don’t, of course, receive only these kinds of conflicting images. There is also the whole Hollywood tradition. Without going into this in any detail here, we can point to those representations of women prisoners which depict them as brutishly lesbian and therefore terrifying. There are suggestions of lesbian rape or seduction of young girls, of leather and chains, of a deep viciousness of character, and of an extraordinary capacity for violence, all tolerated by the sadistic screws. In an episode of Charlie’s Angels the main difficulty for the Angel concerned, who had to pose as a prisoner, was how to escape the terrifying lesbians in the gaol, and save the one good prisoner, young and confused, from a life of crime. Whereas in historical dramas and representations it’s the issue of prostitution which is central, in modern dramas and representations that of lesbianism tends to be more important.
Before reaching Prisoner, another path has to be followed, the history and conventions of melodrama. In The Melodramatic Imagination Peter Brooks argues that tragedy as a form has lost its vitality by the end of the eighteenth century. But its prestige has lingered on in terms of a notion of the hierarchy of genres, where culture and particularly drama of ‘quality’ should be tragic, should be sombre and unhappy in its endings and give insight into the finally tragic nature of the universe. It’s because of this hierarchy of genres that other forms, and especially melodrama, are so often denigrated and dismissed. Brooks argues that in melodrama characters relate in a way that people rarely do, confronting each other with their deepest feelings, beliefs, resentments, fears, anxieties. Indeed, says Brooks, melodrama is very close to the drama of psychoanalysis, the bringing to the surface of repressed feelings, states and desires. It has affinities with dream and nightmare, and can be seen as a form of ‘deep play’, where attitudes, dreams and fears that aren’t usually expressed in ordinary life can be represented and played with. In melodrama, every conversation is a confrontation, and this is one of the secrets of its fascination since it spread as a form (melodrama equalling drama plus music) at the beginning of the nineteenth century to England, the United States and Australia, becoming enormously popular on the stage and then in this century, in Hollywood and, in serial form influenced by nineteenth century fiction, in radio and television.
Brooks argues that in melodrama virtue is tested to the very limit by evil (villain figures), evil being defeated, finally, by the forces of good in the universe. Yet, says Brooks, melodrama is consistent with the ‘modern consciousness’ in always being provisional in its dramatic solutions, and in featuring so much the strength of evil.
We can see melodrama as the most carnivalesque of modern forms. It burst onto the stages of Paris in the midst of the French Revolution, which licensed the speaking of words in popular theatre where this had been a right before only of the ‘legitimate’ upper-class theatre, with its privileging of tragedy and the high comedy of character, and its word-centred dramaturgy and narrow range of frozen gestures. Melodrama offered itself as a democratic form, open to all for attendance and ‘reading’. It inherits the theatrical resourcefulness and visual and gestural expressiveness of pantomime and circus performance. It is carnivalesque in inviting the participation of the spectator in its drama of crisis for virtue, loss of name and identity, separation, and final (shaky) reunion; in its comic and farcical moments, recalling Bakhtin’s notion of carnivalesque humour as questioning all values, including its own; and in its cosmology, its notion of fate and destiny as not necessarily tragic or closed. It recalls the early modern European social dramas of charivari and public square festivity, a public ‘trial’ of usually hidden attitudes, passions, actions. And it breaks with realism in its notion of character. Where realism demands that characters be well-rounded and psychologically believable in an everyday sense, and always explicable, melodrama denies that characters are rounded, are ‘fixed’. Rather it explores the way characters go through all sorts of transformations of ‘identity’, and in this sense melodrama is very like Bakhtin’s evocation of folk motifs of metamorphosis, of crisis and rebirth. 
Melodrama was conceived in a time and spirit of social radicalism. From the very beginning it often featured the villain as a landowner or factory owner (a remarkable example is the 1832 English play The Factory Lad).  Melodrama, that is, doesn’t have to be in the least embarrassed by its history, aesthetically or ideologically. It was not ‘bestowed’ from the top, and indeed has proved very influential on ‘high’ literature, as Brooks argues, for writers like Henry James, Dostoevsky, Conrad; it grew from illegality and the unofficial; it drew on popular forms and genres of all kinds, theatrical and literary. Melodrama is indeed a kind of ‘meta-genre’, allowing genres (romance, mystery, adventure, detective, horror, the tragic and the comic, even naturalism) to mix and confront each other. It can move easily between private and public worlds. Unfettered by the hierarchy of genres and exuberantly ignoring genre-purity, it can, aesthetically, do anything, and often does. In the terms Bakhtin applied to the novel, melodrama allows many different ‘languages’ to speak and converse and contend and dispute and argue with each other. It is this flexible and lively cultural history, along with that of carnivalesque inversion, that ‘Prisoner’ inherits and confidently and distinctively develops.
We can begin by noting that in Prisoner many of the ambiguities and conflicts so far touched on appear. There is an ambiguity about the ‘law’ and the breaking of it, a concern with the relation of the moral and the legal and the powerful, and a distinction between ‘hardened criminals’ and the majority of ordinary prisoners. And there is an ambiguity surrounding the issue of lesbianism. The ‘hardened criminals’ are in fact rare - there might at any time be only one, like the evil doctor, Kate, or later, Nola MacKenzie. But these characters are dramatically very important. They help establish a counterfoil to the troubled, confused, sometimes silly, but basically ordinary and sympathetically drawn majority of prisoners. Most of the inmates are in for things like petty theft, soliciting, involvement in the drug trade, and various kinds of fraud, forgery or non-payment of debts. Few are inside for crimes of violence, and even those who are may fall into the social victim category. At times the drama shows how they came to be in prison, and the forces leading to recidivism. There’s a strong element of seeing them as victims of social inequalities and misfortune, as people who never really had a chance. Once in prison their sentences are often made much longer because of their resistance to the repression of (particularly) the harsh screws. Some characters, especially the wayward granddaughter figures like Maxie or Bobby, are often in prison or return to prison because of their ‘good’, their selfless and loyal, actions (for example, Maxie, out of prison and living with her mother, covers up for her respectability-seeking sister, when brother-in-law robs the bank he works in).
Prisoner established plenty of room for dramatic conflict and tension. The first source is the pathos of the lives of many of the women. From time to time, various characters such as the long-term prisoners Bea Smith and Judy, express with painful clarity the experience of being locked up. On one occasion Judy was asked by another prisoner what she'd like to do if she were outside and Judy replied something like 'I don't know, just move around ... just, you know, be free.' Bea at times contemplates the terrifying prospect of spending the rest of her life in prison, never able to have a sexual relationship, never really able to do anything, her enormous talents and energies doomed to be wasted. At times we see old Lizzie contemplating dying in prison. Particularly important in this context is the character Hazel Kent. Hazel is not very clever, has got herself into trouble really through weakness and stupidity, and feels the loss of her children acutely. Hazel represents more than anyone else the plight of the ordinary woman who can't get her life together, can't take charge of her own destiny. Hazel is you and me, except that she's been unlucky and a bit silly. In terms of melodrama as ‘meta-genre’, the strand of narrative involving Hazel is in naturalistic mode, harsh and relentless.
The second source of dramatic conflict arises from the relationship between the women. Since they are now away from their families, or have no family, or have through being in prison lost their family, they are outside the usual conception of women’s lives. To a certain extent family-type relationships are formed between most of them. Lizzie, whom we presume is in her seventies and looks as old as or older than anyone else regularly seen on television, is clearly a grandmother figure. But although Lizzie has a certain wisdom about human relationships, and is loving, concerned and kind, she's also a mischievous old lag rather like a child, liable to get herself into trouble. Bea Smith is in a certain sense her daughter, and a mother to the rest of the women. Bea has been a key character in the program since it began, and is in many ways a moral centre for the other prisoners. She is inside for the murder of her husband in an act of revenge, for supplying and thereby killing her daughter with drugs. Bea’s main problem is a propensity to solve problems through violence: this is what got her into prison and what keeps her there. Although Bea generally mothers the women, she gets tired of this role at times, and wants to look after herself for a change, though never at their expense. And in this surrogate family, characters like Maxine and Doreen and Bobby are the granddaughters, with Judy as ‘aunt’ figure. These ‘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, co-operation, 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
But the relationships between the women are by no means all of this supportive kind. Conflict and violence often erupt, and indeed the advertising for Prisoner tends to accentuate this side of it. A key conflict is the struggle between Bea and other dominant personalities, like the remarkable Nola MacKenzie, trying to topple her from her position as ‘top dog’. The drama of Prisoner provides for continuous contrast between ‘figures’ like Nola and Bea Smith. Despite her propensity to use violence to get her own way or for purposes of revenge - she also kills Nola for trying to drive her insane over the memory of her dead daughter Debbie - Bea acts on moral principles that are the reverse of Nola’s extreme individualism and selfishness. Bea possesses considerable wisdom about people and human relations which she uses for the benefit of the prisoners as a whole. Where ‘hardened’ criminals like Nola or Kate would lag to the screws, Bea practically never does: she believes in trust, loyalty, sharing between the prisoners; she dislikes and tries to counter and perhaps punish actions that are self-seeking and competitive at the expense of what she perceives as a family group. But if Bea is the moral centre in Prisoner, she’s an unusual and complex one, in part, exerting her control through violence or the threat of it: she brands K for Killer on Noeline’s chest with a soldering iron.
Prisoner is complex in its treatment of the screws. These are a mixed lot, and from time to time we see aspects of their private lives. They include Joan Ferguson (the Freak), who is hard, corrupt and extremely clever at avoiding detection though not suspicion from the other screws. At the other end of the spectrum is Meg Morris, who is more of a social worker, and indeed for a while became a parole officer but later returned to her original role. Meg, unlike Ferguson, or Vera Bennett (known as Vinegar Tits) before her, or on occasions Colleen Powell, is aware that the women could make good with a bit of assistance such as skills, jobs, a place to live, caring family or friends. Meg’s position is a little confused, for after all she is still a screw, as Bea and some of the other prisoners continually remind each other. But Meg is in fact a counterpart to Bea, a force for morality and commonsense. But whereas Bea is able most of the time to exert some kind of moral authority and crafty strategical leadership over the women, Meg is only able to have her point of view prevail in the administration of the prison when extreme authoritarian measures are seen to fail.
A third source of dramatic tension lies in the relationships between the prisoners and the screws, and beyond the screws, the Department. The screws know Bea has more direct control of the women than they do, and both use and resent this. Bea, on the other hand, knows that the screws and the Department really control everything that goes on, have the final sanctions of lock and key and gun and solitary confinement. The screws - for the prisoners - are always ‘them’, an alien force that controls, exploits, hurts and confines them. But Prisoner explores the differences between formal authority and real power; the screws, if they are to maintain order within the prison, have constantly to rework their strategies, and to take cognizance of Bea. Also, the struggle between the advocates of rigid discipline and of a more permissive, helping approach goes on and on, never really resolved, as each approach is alternately seen to result in further tension, restlessness and disorder.
Prisoner seems to rest very little on conventional definitions of masculinity and femininity, beyond the basic point that sympathy generated for most of the women rests on the fact that they are women, and therefore not usually seen as violent or physically dangerous, and also seen often as cut off from their children. Many of the women are very strong characters indeed, active and independent. Figures like the Freak, Bea, Nola and Marie Winters [JL2] are most unusual in the characters of television drama. They are not substitute men, but active strong women. There have also been several gentle male figures - old Syd, the handyman who married Lizzie, Doreen’s husband, and several young shy boys who enter the story via the halfway house. On the other hand there have been some hard violent male characters as well, such as the corrupt rapist screw Jock Stewart. Strength and gentleness are not distributed in ‘Prisoner’ on male-female grounds. The image of the powerful man and the weak or decorative woman is simply not there. Images of female strength are not uncommon in television drama; indeed they have proved extremely popular in characters such as The Bionic Woman, Wonderwoman, Steed’s offsiders in The Avengers. But in all these cases strength and capability are intertwined with an emphasis on conventional female beauty.
The women in Prisoner are not in the least glamorised. They are 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 to the big girls like Bea, Doreen and Judy. Prisoner does not rely on notions of female beauty, nor on portraying the women as ugly. Their faces are shown as interesting, faces full of character, of signs of hardship and suffering, alternately soft and hard, happy and depressed, angry or bored. The sets more often than not are brick walls, a rudimentary laundry, a dull recreation room, a boring office or entry lobby. The appearance of Prisoner is varied to some extent by indoor and outdoor scenes set outside the prison but overall the look of Prisoner is spare, hard, and yet dynamic.
One objection we’ve heard to Prisoner is that it’s voyeuristic, relying on images of caged and uniformed women, with a sexual suggestion of bondage. Further, it is felt to rely on images of violence between women, with soldering irons, knives, bashings and so on, which is something of a pornographic turn-on. The program positions the male viewer as someone who enjoys seeing women controlled and confined, and positions the female viewer as one who masochistically desires to be caged.
Certainly the advertising for Prisoner can be seen to display these elements. Early advertising also had suggestions of lesbianism, enhancing the idea of a turn-on. We ourselves did not watch it at all in its first year, for just this kind of reason, a suspicion that the whole thing was somehow anti-lesbian, and exploiting images of women in bondage. But Prisoner in fact regards lesbianism in a fairly complex and ambiguous way. Both Judy Bryant, ex-prisoner and manger of the halfway house, and Joan Ferguson have been established as lesbians. Judy Bryant is an extremely sympathetic character, whose lesbianism has been stressed less and less as time goes on. As far we know she hasn’t got off with anyone for ages. Ferguson’s lesbianism, however, seems to be symbolised by her sinister black gloves, and to provide her with an extra dimension for threatening and controlling the women. Prisoner seems to suggest that lesbianism is OK among the women (though mainly in terms of an expressed identity rather than actual sex in prison) but not OK among the officers, for it introduces the possibility of sexual harassment.
But apart from this, is Prisoner voyeuristic? We don’t think so. The women are portrayed as fairly ordinary women, not violent sexual monsters in a cage. Their strong pro-children and anti-childbasher morality clearly establishes them outside this image. They are located in their society, they come and go, they usually suffer a denial of sexual relationships. Perhaps Prisoner can be read voyeuristically, but we are not convinced it has to be, are not convinced that it has to be, are not convinced that voyeurism is evident in its dramatic structure and visual appearance. The women are not held up as sexual objects, but as human, female, subjects.
Popularity, however, is not necessarily accompanied by critical acclaim, instant or eventual. It might indeed be the fact of popularity itself which, either from the need of critics to assert their independence and toughness - to be critics - or from the application of high-culture criteria, gives many critics the irrits, as Bea might say. Dorothy Hobson has remarked of Crossroads that it is “at the same time enormously popular and yet devastatingly criticised”, and something similar, though in a milder vein, could be said of Prisoner. 
It hasn’t been so much the academics as the journalists who have led
the way. TV Week’s John Michael Howson responded soon after Prisoner
began with a hostile sneer, saying that it wasn’t a drama at all, and it
was so bad it was funny. Peter Dean of TV Times was only a little
more approving. Prisoner was, he felt, “A slickly made tear-jerker
that succeeds in showing a little of the torment endured by unhardened
unfortunates thrust among harridans”. An American critic in the US TV
Guide, with a weekly circulation of six million, was typical of those
who opposed Prisoner for showing too seamy a side of life:
In all this we can discern the operation of a double standard common to much cultural criticism: what is ‘good’ in ‘high’ culture becomes ‘bad’ in popular culture. What might be hailed in high culture as admirable realism or touching pathos or a tragedy that questions the very depths and bases of human existence, is dismissed in popular culture as ‘too’ realistic! Popular culture can’t win: it’s either regarded as mere light entertainment, or it’s viewed with alarm and distaste as too grim. In comments like Peter Simpson’s we hear the double standard speaking loud and clear: How different must Macbeth and King Lear and Hamlet be - nothing but nice people behaving nicely in nice situations.
Double standards are also evident in the comments of journalist Sandra
Hall in her book Turning On, Turning Off: Australian Television in the
Eighties. Here the fact that Prisoner depicts lesbianism
earns it a hostile attack, in a way unlikely in criticism of ‘high’ culture:
An exception to this hysterical chorus of dislike, disapproval and contempt is Lesley Stern’s essay ‘The Australian Cereal: Home Grown Television’. Written from within a post-structuralist approach that owes much to Roland Barthes’ S/Z, Stern’s essay delights in the very raggedness of Prisoner, its narrative discontinuities, its play of contending and contradictory discourses, of identity and difference, of unreconciled and unreconcilable oppositions, of resolutions that beget new dramas requiring no solutions, all without end; and in this view there is no single place, and so no secure ideological stance, in which viewers can be confined and inscribed.  Lesley Stern is anticipating here what the American critic Robert C. Allen has argued of TV serials generally, that as a form they are always refusing ‘narrative closure’ and are always ambivalent in their cultural attitudes and meanings. 
Let’s leave the critics (apart from the un-Stern) stewing in their sourness and return to Prisoner's indubitable popularity. The ratings have varied considerably according to city and age group, proving most popular in Melbourne (where it is made) and with 13-17-year-olds irrespective of city. Clearly, then, in attempting to ask why Prisoner gained popularity we need to look at reasons for popularity within specific groups. In an early paper John Docker suggested that the basis for Prisoner’s popularity with school children lies in its portrayal of a situation not so different from that of school: the ethic about not dobbing, or lagging, the ingenious strategies for circumventing formal authority, the informal networks of knowledge and relationship, the getting of things in or out of the institution that are not supposed to be there, the use of humour, cheek and wit to resist authority and rules.  Do the 13-17-year-olds enjoy Prisoner because they respond to a portrayal of confinement and resistance not unrelated to their own experience? Do they recognise their teachers as similar to Prisoner’s screws, especially when those screws tell the women, in the mornings on the way to the shower or later in the laundry, to get a move on, hurry it up, no talking, why isn’t everyone working in here, or when they confiscate various possessions of the prisoners or withdraw privileges ... ? Do kids see in the differences between officers like Vera Bennett and Joan Ferguson and Mrs Powell and Meg Morris recognisable differences between their own teachers? Do they sense that teachers are not unified or undivided or free of conflict amongst themselves, like Prisoner’s screws? But that all have a final power and authority and possible recourse to discipline and punishment, even the kindest and ‘softest’ of them? Do children see in the efforts of Bea to maintain her position as ‘top dog’ against various contenders dramas of attempted leadership and conflict amongst themselves?
Christine Curry and Cristine O’Sullivan wrote in 1980 about the results
of their research into the responses to certain programs, including Prisoner,
of thirteen-year-old working-class school children in Sydney. They argue
that children are not passive receivers of television, but “seek out aspects
of commercial television as a consolidation and confirmation of their everyday
lives”. The kids spend some part of each day at school talking about the
TV they watched the day before, and using it subversively against the rule-bound
culture and institutions of the school. Aggressive female teachers are
nicknamed ‘Vinegar Tits’ after former tough screw Vera Bennett. Curry and
O’Sullivan suggest that Prisoner expresses a higher level
of social contradiction than does Cop Shop where audience
faith in a repressive state apparatus is rarely challenged. One of them
helped her class make a four-part serial called Classroom,
based on Prisoner. As they put it, the “similarity between
gaol and school had not escaped the notice of the students and these generated
a number of possibilities for simulations of both a narrative and a visual
kind”.  Ethnographic research
by Claire Thomas in Melbourne schools reveals similar appropriations of
Prisoner amongst "unruly (young) women”. For oppositional
working-class girls, school is perceived as a hostile and repressive institution,
likened to a prison:
If Prisoner evokes school life, it refers to other kinds of institutional experience as well, for example, life in the highly undemocratic, authoritarian workplace - factory or office. Prisoner here presents contradictory images. Work in the laundry is revealed as tedious, unendingly repetitive, and the screws regularly visit to complain if work appears to be slacking. Yet the women often resist the oppression of a labour process that the prison ‘management’ forces on them by taking smokes, having fun, chatting, planning rituals like birthday celebrations (in the pub at lunchtime and cakes and presents at afternoon tea). But, as in Prisoner, such social relations are intersected and threatened by tensions and drama arising from conflicts of personalities and values. Do adults as well as children, then, see in the program the drama of power in different contexts, in the family, the school, the workplace - of how power is desired, and how it is resisted?
[JL1] Yes, I'm afraid they do make a very basic mistake this early on. There were 692 episodes, as I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone. back to text
[JL2] Marie Winter not Winters. back to text
[JL3] The description which follows doesn't seem to me to do justice to Nancy-Banks Smith's style at all. I think her reviews show considerable affection for Prisoner, even while she's making fun of it. Judge for yourself or go back to the text.