Chapter 1
Chapter 2/1
Chapter 2/2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

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Prisoner: Cell Block H

The inside story

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Prisoner: Cell Block H

The inside story

Hilary Kingsley

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<usual reverse of title page information including ISBN 1-852983-113-8>

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Preface  7
Introduction: Australia - Soap Centre of the World? 9
1 Aussie TV Goes to Gaol  17
2 On the Inside  33
3 On the Outside 65
4 The Captive Audience 85
Roll-Call  93
Wentworthspeak  95
Wentworth Wisdom  96
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This is a book for Prisoner: Cell Block H fans and all those interested in one of the great surprise success-stories of popular television.  There were almost 700 one-hour episodes made, and the show is currently watched in 12 countries.  It's a show millions watch and enjoy as a drama about a small community and the camaraderie and conflicts within it.  Millions more enjoy it with their tongue firmly in cheek.  Others claim its appeal is that it's the kind of television 'that's so bad it's good'.  Others watch it because it focuses on women and lesbian relationships are featured without a great fanfare and without heavy moralising.  For whatever reasons, around 10 million viewers in Britain lap up the series Australian television thought was history in 1986.  No one connected with the production ever claimed it was art, and this book will not try to analyse its 'worth'.

As a viewer in the London region where the show until recently went out only once a week (when nothing more 'important' such as darts interrupted it), I realise I know less than viewers in the Midlands and North and other ITV regions where many more episodes of the series have been shown.  At least the 'On the Inside' section will not give away any secrets to other 'deprived' southern viewers.

My introduction is an attempt to place Prisoner on the map of Australian television.  Chapter 1 covers the beginnings and teething troubles of the series, with comments from its creator, producers, writers and a designer.

Chapter 2, entitled 'On the Inside', is a collection of character profiles and story summaries with a few comments.  Chapter 3 I've called 'On the Outside'.  It contains the accounts of actresses and actors who worked on the show. I talked with most of  them during a visit to Australia early in 1990.  Some actresses were unavailable, so I have in places included comments from earlier interviews with reliable publications.

Chapter 4 is a light-hearted summing-up which includes a guide to 'Wentworth-speak' for non-addicts, some lines I class as gems, some notes on the Prisoner stage-play and the fan club, and a selection of what some celebrity fans think of the show.

And enjoy the photographs, for which we thank Grundy Television.

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<Photos of Nola McKenzie drowning Paddy, Bea and Chrissie bashing Margo, Meg tending to Joan Ferguson's injuries> British viewers stay up late to follow Wentworth scenes like this.

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Australia - Soap Centre of the World?

Something happened to British television in the late 1980s.  With the spectacular success of Neighbours came a new interest, a new awareness.  So many of the series we enjoyed - even if we didn't admit we ever watched them - and so many of the performers we liked came from Down Under.

From this side of the world it seemed as though everyone in the Australian television industry must suddenly have turned to soap opera.  It is certainly true that Neighbours, Home And Away, A Country Practice, Sons and Daughters, The Flying Doctors and other long-running family serials have been among the most important drama productions made there.  There is nothing new, though, about Oz soap.  There have been about 40 of them to date, most highly popular at home, many very successful all round the world.

Soaps have always been a large part of their industry's output because, with America and Britain keen to export their expensively made drama series and Australia's population so small, there was little incentive for television network bosses to try to compete with remakes of the classics or expensive contemporary action series. The Australian feature-film makers were painting the wider landscapes.

So the job left to be done on the small screen was to reflect the small important things in Australian family life, to tell romantic stories which would strike chords with young viewers and comfort and amuse their mums.

What's fascinating about Australian soap opera is how it adapted to fill the gaps left by the British and American 'suppliers'.  In the sixties the choice was between Britain's Coronation Street, loved for its quaintness and foreignness in some Australian  cities (but gradually outstaying its welcome), and the American melodramas such as Peyton Place.  At that time Australian producers were busily churning out police sagas; but two bright men, Don Cash and Bill Harmon, created Number 96, soap with sex and humour which still seems daring sixteen years later. Later Crawford Productions combined their skills for solid story-telling with cops and robbers and other keeping- the-rules series with scenes of home life.  Then they chanced their luck with nostalgia, creating a saga of Australia's very special experiences of the war, The Sullivans.

Meanwhile the man who was to become 'the soapies' supremo', the 'pope of soap', Reg Watson, at Grundy Television, began to write about young

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love and to show how every society needs its gutsy women as a stabilising force.  With The Restless Years, Glenview High, The Young Doctors and others Grundy rehearsed their skills for Neighbours, that most seductive and simple morality-tale of modern life.

By the mid-seventies, when nothing very inspiring was coming from Britain, and American soap was beginning its obsession with the mixed-up rich, greedy and beautiful, Watson looked to gaol and came up with Prisoner, about the mixed-up, poor and unlovely. It shouldn't have worked, but it did.  It may have ended seven years later, but time may show that its hold on audiences outside Australia will outlive that of any of the softer soaps.

Certainly the Australians have not succeeded with a strong soap since.  In the eighties, there were attempts to copy the Americans whose success with the super-rich sagas, Dallas, Dynasty and the many copies, seemed unstoppable.  They came up with Taurus Rising, Holiday Island, Possession.  But Aussie glitz never shone as brightly as the American stuff, and of Aussie hussies only neurotic Pat the Rat of Sons and Daughters stayed high on the hiss-lists.  The Bitch, as Americans understood her, seemed sad, strange and out of place among laid-back Australians with their naturally sunny disposition and their admiration for the 'she'll be right, mate' optimism.

James Davern understood this difference in ideals when he began work on A Country Practice.  This is soft soap full of rosy cheeks and quaint old country coves.  Adultery doesn't exist in Wandin Valley; the viewers wouldn't let it.  But nevertheless this is drama which shows itself aware of real social problems which can't be solved between the opening music and the closing titles an hour later.

During the eighties policemen came back into soapland in Australia, but they weren't the harassed authority-figures of Homicide but husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends with doubts and weaknesses. The Flying Doctors is not perhaps true soap (most of the stories are completed within an episode) but it's a descendant of all the medicated soaps since Dr Kildare proved that patients get better quicker if the doctors are handsome. This filmed series mixes adventure, illness and romance with shots of the sort of landscape they don't have in Dallas or Surrey.  It's so successful in Europe and Scandinavia that Sydney Airport information assistants have lost count of the number of Danish and other backpackers arriving and asking directions to Cooper's Crossing.

In the past couple of years much has been written about the appeal of Australian shows to foreign audiences.  Is it the sunny backdrop, the brightly dressed, straight-toothed, clear-skinned young characters so happy to fall in and out of love?  Possibly it's the appeal of the Australian soap-houses, neither lavish American mansions nor Coronation Street two-up-two-downs, suggesting a comfortable, classless society (one where a plumber's family can afford the same fitted kitchen his neighbour the bank manager has).

None of these theories explains why

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Prisoner works.  It broke many of the usual rules about pretty young faces, nice homes, romance, romance and more romance.  It was the strong-meat series which surprised everyone, Reg Watson's colleagues, the critics, and viewers who may not have thought they liked 'that sort of thing' but found they did.  But, as EastEnders was to prove later, viewers can see through cuteness and when raw emotional conflict is on offer they love to join in the fight from their armchairs.  When you think about it, a prison is an ideal setting for a soap.  Here is a family, perhaps not a conventional one, but an enclosed society where people have to support each other to survive.  The way Reg Watson saw his series, it was also an intriguing study of the way women suffer in a man's world.  When it went to air early in 1979, it caused controversy, uproar in some quarters, but it was immediately successful.  It was exported to America - where the title was changed to Prisoner: Cell Block H, to distinguish it from the (British) Patrick McGoohan drama series running there.  In 1987 it was first shown in ITV regions to British audiences in a kamikaze slot, when all sensible folk should be tucked up.  Any interest in it should have fizzled out in weeks.  Yet around 10 million viewers here still stay up late to follow Wentworth Detention Centre's feisty gals.  Other soaps claim bigger audiences, but Prisoner fans claim they are entertained in the fullest sense.

What Prisoner has, in abundance, is the important ingredient shared by all successful soaps, British, American and Australian: resilient, coping women who take what life throws at them and carry on.

In Australia's harsh and dangerous landscape, the early settlers struggled to survive.  And it was the women of the isolated communities who pulled their families through.  The women of Australian soap must have inherited their spirit.  The late Pat McDonald, a veteran of several Australian soaps, was one who believed this.  'Australian women are not nambypamby yet they're not devoid of feelings about men's ability, too', she said before her death in March 1990.  'They're strong because they have to be - some of them do the job of ten men.  My own grandmother went into the desert.  She lived hundreds of miles from the nearest town, there was no running water yet she grew vegetables in the dust.  There were so many like her, some of them lived in canvas tents all their lives.  Their strength was unbelievable.'

Another is Anne Charleston, who played Mum's daughter in Prisoner and now plays Madge, the coping woman of Neighbours.  'Madge isn't liberated- she's tough and aggressive because she needed to be with those great bullying brothers of hers.  It doesn't occur to her that she shouldn't work.  Most of the women in Neighbours work because they feel they have to - not to fulfil themselves.'

Former script editor of The Flying Doctors, Gwenda Marsh. echoes their views and adds that the heroine of Australian soap puts her American and British counterparts to shame.  'The American woman in soap is shown as a de-baller, the English heroine is a wimp

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saying, "Yes, love.  No, love." But the Australian woman is finding a middle way.  She's self-sufficient, no one is buying her ticket.  Australian women hate to feel dependent.'

For someone used to British soap opera with its need to give a slice-of-life reality to plots, its tendency sometimes to be cynical, the Australian brands can seem sentimental, over-scented, especially in their lavish use of music to point up emotional moments.  And it hasn't escaped our notice that an awf'lly-awf'lly English accent seems to be the number-one requisite for characters meant to be comical, snobbish or meddling.  Perhaps Wentworth's Erica Davidson, that most refeened of prison governors, began it.  Nosy Mrs Mangel, disapproving Aunt Edie and Cousin Hilary in Neighbours and the bossy matron in A Country Practice, all wickedly anti-pom, carried it on.

There's also no doubt that Australian writers understand better than others young women's ideas of romance, their need to feel accepted.  They understand the older woman's frustrations with her children and her need to know she's a good 'un in the eyes of her neighbours.

Today Australian actors and film crews are probably the most productive in the world.  Soaps are made so fast an actress can be pregnant on a Tuesday and hold a baby in her arms two months later.  With only three commercial home networks, the television industry there has to be fiercely competitive, and series have to be long-running to be cost-effective and saleable.  So an output of 92 hours of Prisoner a year, or 115 hours of Neighbours (compared with around 20 hours in Britain and America) is not unusual.

It's a formula that seems to be effective - hence Britain's delight at the invasion of the new wizards of Oz and what seems to some the Aussification of the world.  In Holland children under five are already speaking "Strine' because of their addiction to Aussie soaps.  Neighbours and Home and Away delight huge audiences, mainly of teenagers, all over Europe.  The most frequent complaint received by Central Television, the station serving Britain's Midlands where Prisoner: Cell Block H is screened three times a week, is the protest that the show's time has been changed.  Alternatively there is a barrage of bitterness from viewers each time a sporting event such as snooker wipes out an episode.  Carol Warburton, Central's press officer who deals with the series, said: 'I can't think of another show where the audience is so passionate.'

Prisoner has been shown in 12 countries including America, Thailand and Trinidad.

Yet the people who make Aussie soap work, the actors, are not garlanded with praise, and few have reaped great rewards.  They pay a heavy penalty for their success because soap opera is often sneered at by Australians, who consider it fodder, 'lowest common denominator' programming. (Mind you, they have been used to several

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<Picture> Judith Bryant (Betty Bobbit) in trouble
with Erica Davidson (Patsy King)

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<Picture> Sheila Florance, Val Lehman and Colette Mann

low-budget American day-time soaps which are hard to defend on any level.) In Britain it's acceptable, even fashionable, to admit to enjoying one or more of the soaps.  It's 'in' among the educated young.  Not so yet in Oz.  Although soapie series are top of the ratings in Melbourne, Sydney and in many other cities (only major sporting fixtures beat them), it tends to be the very young who admit to watching them.  Aussie soap addicts are yet to come out of their closets.  So for the average soap actor the hard work and ballyhoo can (and usually do) mean little recognition as an artist, only a modest

<Picture> Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne) and Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence)

amount of money, and can be followed by long periods of obscurity and unemployment.  This was certainly the case with many of the actresses who helped Prisoner win over 20 awards during its home run.

Yet, with lower budgets and more hastily written scripts, it's clear that Australian actors try perhaps harder than others to make their story-lines take wing.  Gwenda Marsh used to tell her writers and actors: 'If you don't mean to treat your soapie like the next production for the Royal Shakespeare Company - don't do it.' The women who served time in Wentworth didn't need to be told.

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 1958 Autumn Affair
 1967 Bellbird (to 1977)
 1968 Motel (closed that year)
 1972 Number 96 (to 1977)
 1973 Certain Women
 1974 The Box (to July 1977)
 1974 Class of 74/75
 1975 The Young Doctors (to 1981)
 1976 The Sullivans (to March 1983)
 1977 The Restless Years (to 1980)
 1977 Cop Shop (to July 1984)
 1977 Glenview High (to 1979)
 1979 Prisoner (to 1986)
 1979 Skyways (to 1981)
 1980 Arcade
 1981 A Country Practice (to present day)
 1981 Punishment
 1981 Sons and Daughters (to 1987)
 1982 Holiday Island
 1982 Taurus Rising (to 1983)
 1982 Waterloo Station
 1983 Carson's Law (to December 1984)
 1985 Possession
 1985 Neighbours (to present day)
 1986 Prime Time (to January 1987)
 1986 The Flying Doctors (to present day)
 1988 Richmond Hill (to 1989)
 1988 Home and Away (to present day)
 1988 All the Way
 1989 E-Street
 1989 GP
 1989 The Power, the Passion
 1990 Family and Friends 

Chapter 1
Chapter 2/1
Chapter 2/2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

Updated ~ 04 January 1998