By Robert Lindsay
Section headings 4) The remainder of 1979 8) Myra vs Bea
1) Eight years of Prisoner 5) The Peak of Popularity 9) Freaked out
2) 1979 - The first 20 episodes 6) Enter the Freak 10) Another big shake-up
3) The initial storylines 7) The End of an Era 11) The Rita-led recovery
Thanks to Robert for sending me this revised version of his overview of the whole series which is also available on Neil Stewart's Prisoner site.

I have added links to the profiles on the character pages here: if you follow the links you will find that many of these were also written by Robert.

Eight years of Prisoner - an overview

As with many continuing series, there are ups and downs and different phases a series passes through during its run, particularly with such a long running series as Prisoner. Amazingly, Prisoner is probably the world's only television serial to prove popular in repeated screenings decades after the original episodes were produced. Thousands of fans throughout the world devote considerable time energy and money to their Prisoner fan-dom, many religiously retaining videotaped copies of each of the 692 50 minute episodes originally produced in Australia between November 1978 and September 1986. The series has also spawned several theatrical spin-offs in the United Kingdom which have been successfully staged in several cities. Prisoner has stood up remarkably well to criticism over the years and is indeed superior to many similarly produced television serials produced more recently with more time and more money than was available to the Prisoner producers. While much criticism seems to point out that various similar storylines were constantly re-worked throughout the run of the series this is no more the case in Prisoner than with any other series to have such a lengthy run. During its original run in Australia, the series did garner quite a few good reviews and was regularly applauded for providing meaty roles to talented actresses who were never likely to succeed on looks alone. 

1979 - The first 20 episodes

Prisoner was originally devised as a 16 X 1 hour episode series. The initial emphasis according to publicity at the time was realism, although naturally they had to make it entertaining as well. The original cast basically represented each character 'type' that may well be found in any women's prison - intentionally ignoring the fact that in reality the vast majority of women prisoners are serving time for drug charges. 

The original prisoners and their crimes: 

  • Bea Smith (murder - was released March 1979 having served 10 years)
  • Franky Doyle (armed robbery and murder - life sentence)
  • Karen Travers (murder - life sentence)
  • Lynn Warner (kidnapping - 10 years)
  • Doreen Anderson (forgery, theft)
  • Lizzie Birdsworth (murder - had served around 20 years when the series began)
  • 'Mum' Brooks (murder - had served 15 years and was due for parole as the series began)
  • Marilyn Mason (prostitution - sentence of six months)
  • The original staff comprised: Erica Davidson (Governor) Vera Bennett (Deputy Governor) Meg Jackson (Officer) Dr Greg Miller (Doctor) 

    The other original regular was electrician Eddie Cook

    The initial storylines

    The introduction to the series was provided by two naive and relatively innocent young women prisoners entering Wentworth. They arrive during the opening scenes of the first episode and dumbfounded shock quickly escalates to sheer terror as the twosome encounter the terrors of Wentworth: everything from the perfunctory induction to sadistic screws and unwelcoming and dangerous fellow inmates. The horrified newcomers, Karen Travers and Lynn Warner, are our eyes and our introduction to the strange and unfamiliar prison and its inhabitants. 

    Early scenes detail the problems of Karen and Lynn settling into Wentworth. Karen is preyed on by tough Lesbian inmate Franky Doyle in between romantic interludes with her former fiance, who just happens to also be Wentworth Doctor Greg Miller. Lynn, meanwhile, quickly finds an enemy in tough and unsympathetic 'Top Dog' Bea Smith who knows just how to deal with a suspected child kidnapper. Lynn did have one friend, the wise and forgiving Mum Brooks, who led a quiet and dignified life tending the Wentworth garden. Mum is soon released however and the problems of a long term prisoner entering an unfamiliar and hostile outside world are explored. 

    On a lighter note was a serving sex and romance in the form of seductive blonde nymphomaniac Marilyn Mason, cunningly enticing the prison electrician Eddie Cook into amorous trysts which quickly develop into a cute though sometimes rocky romance. 

    The officers were not left out of the proceedings: with contrasting vignettes featuring sadistic Vera Bennett exploring the person behind the stern facade, while nice officer Meg Jackson deals both with teenage rebellion and a personal tragedy that underlines most emphatically the concept of giving ones life to the prison service. 

    Due to the envisioned short run of the series the storylines move along very quickly. These early episodes were extremely well written and produced, and are definitely a far cry from the typically padded out serial fodder of most continuing series. The early scenes have almost a theatrical, stilted feel which actually works very well considering the prison setting. 

    Much of the storyline progression of this period lay with hugely popular character Franky Doyle, detailing her one sided love affair with Karen Travers and her attempts at replacing Bea Smith as Top Dog of the prison. Such was the quality and popularity of these episodes, Network 10 edited together many of Franky's scenes to produce a TV movie titled 'The Franky Doyle Story' aired later the same year. Finally, with Bea firmly back in place at the helm and the realisation that any relationship with Karen is pure fantasy, Franky stages a daring escape, taking along two previously under-utilised members of the original regular cast, Doreen Anderson and Lizzie Birdsworth. 

    Originally the death of Franky Doyle was to form the conclusion of the series.

    The remainder of 1979

    After the first 10 episodes the popularity of the series prompted the decision to extend it from 16 to 20 episodes, and then to an indefinitely running serial. With the scripted conclusion to the Franky Doyle storyline coinciding with the decision to continue to produce the series indefinitely we begin to see a slight shift in focus and a slackening of the fast pace while production trundles along without a break. Many of the original characters simply had not been written to last the long haul, and many of the actresses involved did not want to commit to this sort of workload. The initial storylines also were not written for this long-term run and therefore an eerie 'limbo' effect was felt for awhile where the writers are quite obviously scratching around and experimenting with different directions in which the series may go. Actresses Mary Ward (who played Mum) and Carol Burns (Franky) left the series as they did not want to be part of a long-running serial. This was actually a blessing as their characters had really reached their conclusion and it would have been unconvincing had they been stretched out any longer. The characters Marilyn and Eddie were also written out as they had reached the end of their storyline. 

    The initial storylines also were not written for this long-term run and therefore an eerie 'limbo' effect was felt for awhile where the writers are quite obviously scratching around and experimenting with different directions in which the series may go. The writers did manage to come up with some entertaining situations almost immediately, such as the return to the series of former Wentworth officer Ann Yates and the appearance of intriguing new prisoner Susan Rice, though not all of the 1979 storylines were this successful. 

    Karen Travers and Lynn Warner, who were not career criminals but were only included to guide the viewers through the introduction to the prison were left with very little to do. Their original storylines were basically re-hashed, with varying results. Lynn was eventually written out after the first 6 months. The writers persevered with Karen. Additional storylines to keep her amused included a brief story where Karen helps a young Greek inmate who cannot speak English, Karen then attends University lectures by day which somehow results in her lecturer, sleazy psychologist Peter Clements, appearing at Wentworth to use the inmates for psychological research. Karen is finally released and opens a halfway house for women who are just out of prison. Unfortunately all these storyline attempts seemed only to propel other characters into the spotlight while Karen waited uncomfortably in the wings (for example, the appearance of Peter Clemens inside Wentworth developed storylines for Doreen, not Karen, and even Karen's appeals lawyer Steve Wilson found himself more prominently featured than poor Karen as he went on to represent several other needy cases amongst the Wentworth inmates while romancing social worker Jean Vernon). Once in the halfway house Karen was mostly seen sitting at the kitchen table with a chequebook and pad of paper in front of her and an anguished look on her face - no doubt trying to come up with additional storylines for herself. She apparently failed and actress Peta Toppano left the series at the end of 1979. Karen's departure also spelt the end for prison Doctor Greg Miller, with whom she had reconciled after her release from prison. 

    During 1979 several additional characters were added to fill the gaps. Two that caught on were stern, no-nonsense Deputy Governor Jim Fletcher and troublesome inmate Noeline Burke. Bea's former cell-mate Monica Ferguson returns and though she is given a prominent role in the proceedings, lasts only a few months. Another major character to join early on was Pat O'Connell, an ordinary housewife who became friends with Bea Smith. Pat also stayed in Wentworth several months. 

    With the aforementioned experimentation of the script writers, this period is remembered by many as being quite disjointed with many new and sometimes incongruous characters appearing in storylines often occurring outside the prison with only the most tenuous of links with Wentworth Detention Centre. The social and romantic activities of various solicitors, social workers and prison psychologists are an example of this. Other storylines traced the events leading to the crimes that lead to the women's incarceration in Wentworth Detention Centre, with new character Catherine Roberts featured in an early occurrence of this type of story. These storylines, featured regularly throughout the run of the series, would often include courtroom sequences depicting the women's battle with the law prior to their imprisonment. 

    One noticeable characteristic of this period of the series was the alarming rate at which characters appear and then disappear again without warning. Many of the new characters of this period disappear so abruptly with only the vaguest of explanations that many viewers were left wondering if the missing character had actually left the series. Monica Ferguson, Barbara Davidson, Joyce Martin, Jean Vernon, Catherine Roberts and even Lyn Warner suddenly and unceremoniously departed, leaving fans wondering just what had become of them. 

    These departures had the pleasing effect of bringing the remaining (and more interesting) cast members into more prominent roles, particularly Lizzie and Doreen. The writers tried various stories for these characters, mainly, an extended stint with Doreen and Lizzie being released from Wentworth and living at the halfway house with Karen though their presence was sorely missed in the inside Wentworth scenes. This meant they could not be allowed to run free for too long and soon the script writers happily obliged. 

    While completely watchable (one particularly good character of this period was prisoner Joyce Martin who unfortunately disappears too soon), this period was hardly classic Prisoner, and even the popular prison threesome of Bea Lizzie and Doreen were separated much of this time. These varied storylines met with limited success and the writers soon realised that more fun was to be had with the regular day to day antics of Wentworth's established inhabitants. 


    The Peak of Popularity

    At the end of 1979 the series began to take the form that fans know and love.  Beginning with the emergence of some more interesting guest characters such as Roslyn Coulson, and then Sharon Gilmour and hated Officer Jock Stewart the series happily gets back on track. The following three to four year period was the most popular and best remembered period of the series. Around this time several popular characters first appeared and began their lengthy stints in the series, most notably Judy Bryant, Margo Gaffney, Helen Smart, and 'Mouse' Trapp. The end of 1979 also saw the welcome return of Wentworth's favourite tart, Chrissie Latham

    Unlike some of the storylines that had featured during the first year, most of the action of the next few years concentrated on the internal dramas of Wentworth Detention Centre. Events often revolved around short-term prisoners and their interaction with the more established inmates. The success of this period lies squarely with the popular Bea, Lizzie and Doreen gang of prisoners: a perfect vehicle for all manner of storylines and enough comic relief at other times: Bea was the tough leader, Lizzie the lovable but crotchety old dear, and Doreen the wayward youngster finding support and guidance from the other two. Each had quite marked weaknesses and temperaments which, combined with their gleeful rebellion against authority, lead to many explosive situations and unpredictable events over the years. 

    The producers had always agreed that drug use should not be shown and violence should be kept down, so while the prisoners mostly delighted in causing trouble, in many ways it was depicted as 'girls boarding school gone wrong'. To this end, the main prisoner characters were basically 'good' prisoners, who, for example, would never allow the use of drugs within 'their' prison. There would always be more unscrupulous prisoners battling the goodies (notably trouble stirrers Chrissie Latham and Margo Gaffney) but they usually came to no good with Bea and her gang always remaining victorious. Apart from these measures, Prisoner is nonetheless one of the most consistently violent modern television serials ever produced. 

    The Bea, Lizzie and Doreen dynamic was joined in 1980 by newcomer Judy Bryant. Judy provided the much needed blend of sensitivity, toughness and independence to the series: up to then everyone followed what Bea said - or else. Judy was tough enough to stand up to Bea whenever she saw fit and as a result quickly became an integral character in the series. The twist was that Doreen and Lizzie were close friends with both Bea and Judy. Bea and Judy soon made peace and became friends but Judy always stood up for what she believed in - even when it conflicted with Bea, sometimes providing for some interesting power struggles, particularly in those cases where Doreen and Lizzie side with Judy. 

    The officers side of things generally revolved around Queenly Governor Erica Davidson who would shift between being strict and severe or soft and syrupy depending on the script requirements. As Erica, actress Patsy King evidently subscribed to the 'boarding school' concept with a character that was almost a caricature, using a somewhat comical style in the delivery of her lines. As time went on we saw more of the staff politics within the prison. While Erica usually found support in caring officer Meg Jackson and varying support from cynical Deputy Governor Jim Fletcher, officious Vera Bennett would always present a hostile front. Various storylines would explore relatively ordinary family and social aspects of Meg and Jim's lives away from the prison and sometimes events depicted as the source of Vera's nasty demeanour would be explored. Jim provided some interesting developments within the walls of Wentworth with his incorrigible habit of taking a personal interest in many of the prettier young female inmates or the innocent and helpless elderly jailbirds (not wicked old Lizzie however). Occasionally we would also see a 'guest' officer patrolling the corridors of Wentworth, and any corruption or illegal activities by officers was usually handled by these interlopers who would be promptly removed from the proceedings once their nasty proclivities came to light: Wentworth, it seemed, was home to only the most ethical and law abiding of prison officers. 

    The first major change to this successful lineup occurred late 1981, episode #224, with the departure of Officer Vera Bennett who had been with the series from episode one. Previously semi-regular Officer Colleen Powell skilfully and seamlessly slipped into the tough screw role. Colleen soon became a nasty, strict and frighteningly ambitious officer. She would have done almost anything to get the coveted job of Deputy Governor, often battling with Meg Jackson. Finally she did get this job and calmed down a bit though these events give a taste of some storylines that would later be explored further in regards to Departmental politics. Two new, inexperienced Officers, handsome young male Officer Steve Fawkner, and Janet Conway joined Wentworth. Steve lasted several months and his main problem was his bending the rules for the women too often. Janet Conway suffered the usual dramas befalling any new inexperienced officer while also playing romantic interest for Jim Fletcher. Janet's other twist was that she had previously been a prisoner at Wentworth, and had known Bea Smith from those days. With these changes the general format of the series was beginning to shift. 

    There was always a couple of short-term guest prisoner characters floating around at any time, however it was still always the Bea, Judy, Lizzie, Doreen show. One break from the usual formula came at the end of 1981 around episodes #235 to #274. In very quick succession Doreen and Judy were transferred to Barnhurst, Lizzie was transferred to another block in Wentworth and Bea was sent off to hospital with a kidney ailment. Two strong new prisoner characters Sandy Edwards and Dr Kate Peterson entered Wentworth, and previous guest trouble-maker Marie Winter was transferred back in from Barnhurst. This was a welcome change from the usual formula that had dominated for so long. It also allowed such semi-regular support characters as Phyllis Hunt and Hazel Kent to grab a bigger bit of the pie, as usually they didn't get much of a chance. Another semi-regular character, Margo Gaffney, who hadn't been seen for awhile made a brief return appearance as well. 

    Shortly after her reappearance, Marie started a huge riot at Wentworth, another in a long line of major catastrophes to befall the prison. The new Officers Steve Fawkner and Janet Conway were held hostage during this riot. In a familiar storyline seen throughout the series, two dominant prisoners, in this instance Marie and Sandy, wanted to take over as Top Dog. This storyline featured an interesting twist in the dynamics between Sandy, Marie and Kate, with all sorts of scheming, plotting, threats and finally a murder occurring. Judy and Lizzie came back midway through all this but for awhile they took a back seat, script-wise. Finally Bea and then Doreen came back as well, just in time to witness the demise of Kate, Sandy, and Marie (who was shipped back to Barnhurst). In reality of course actresses Val Lehman and Colette Mann (Bea and Doreen) took time off to appear in the film, Kitty and the Bagman. Nonetheless it was a breath of fresh air to see someone else dominating Wentworth for awhile. 

    The next main character to go was Officer Jim Fletcher, a good character who had by this stage run his race in the series. His sudden departure led to Janet Conway's departure soon after. The writers unconvincingly had her go off and marry the prison's newly arrived printing instructor and move to Queensland. The silly thing was that she had just broken up with Jim and then goes off and marries someone else, while the man she marries had initially been interested in Meg Jackson. 

    Another change shortly afterwards was Judy Bryant's release from prison. She remained in the series however, and was seen running the halfway house, a refuge for women. Like Wentworth, the halfway house would play host to a constant stream of guest characters, as well as semi-regulars such as Wally Wallace and Helen Smart. The halfway house also provided an opportunity to explore some softer storylines and social issues. 

    Finally in late 1982 - episode #303, Doreen Burns departed the series. The arrival of young prisoner Maxine Daniels served as Doreen's replacement. Maxine continued in the series for about 12 months teaming with Lizzie in providing comic relief during lulls in the storylines. Although some major long-term characters had now departed, the producers had replaced them quickly with new characters who were popular in their own right, so the loss was not too obvious. The tide, however, was beginning to turn.

    Enter the Freak

    A big change to the popular formula began with the addition, in May 1982, episode #287, of formidable Officer Joan Ferguson, superbly portrayed by actress Maggie Kirkpatrick. The appearance of Joan Ferguson heralded major changes to the series that would gradually occur over the following 18 months. Superficially she appeared to be taking over the Vera Bennett nasty officer role, but the character of Ferguson was actually something completely different. In terms of her impact on the series itself, the difference was that suddenly Prisoner became The Joan Ferguson Show. Unlike Vera and most of the other characters, Joan Ferguson quickly developed a following of non-Prisoner viewers. Anyone who knew anything about television would instantly equate Prisoner with the horrible Joan Ferguson. It was a bit like JR in Dallas or Alexis in Dynasty, which were both airing at that time: you did not need to watch these series to know who those characters were. Not even the great Bea Smith ever achieved quite this sort of fame. The hated Joan Ferguson was soon nicknamed 'The Freak', and coming when she did, just as the gradual departure of core cast members had begun and the series was undergoing a natural renewal process, Ferguson soon found herself becoming the lead character in the scripts as well as the publicity. As each major star left the show, Ferguson got that little bit more important, picking up the slack left by the missing character. During Joan Ferguson's first 18 months the following major long term characters left the series (in this order): Officer Steve Fawkner, Doreen, Mouse, Margo, Chrissie, Erica, Bea and then Lizzie. By the beginning of 1984 with most of the favourites gone, it was only natural for the writers to turn to Joan Ferguson for strength. 

    Around seven months after Joan Ferguson's arrival was the big Wentworth fire of November 1982, another well-remembered highlight in the series. It was in the fall-out of the fire that many of the longtime favourites departed. From episode one of 1983 we also saw a subtle change in that the camera work became freer and a bit more 'arty'. After the fire, many of the prison interiors were rebuilt giving the series a whole new look. A new prisoner, the frighteningly ruthless double murderer Nola MacKenzie joined the series just as the exodus began. Chillingly portrayed by actress Carole Skinner, Nola seemed likely to become part of the new guard, quickly finding herself central to many of the storylines. It therefore came as quite a surprise when such a popular character suddenly exited the series only six months later. It really seemed Nola was being groomed to fill the gap when Bea Smith's imminent departure occurred. 

    Also around this time the regular cast became slightly larger than normal with up to three or four different storylines running concurrently. Guest characters also seemed to stay around quite a bit longer. These characters, previously being seen for only a few episodes in which they would be extensively featured, would now be around for up to three months while their particular storyline slowly pans out. 

    In the midst of Joan Ferguson's rise to power, the new Governor, Ann Reynolds, joined in early 1983. She proved a stabilising and popular character and stayed until the end of the series. The new Governor gave the series great strength with the two excellent actresses Maggie Kirkpatrick (Joan Ferguson) and Gerda Nicolson (as Ann Reynolds) regularly battling it out to the delight of fans. This interplay also brought the previously unseen Department of Corrections into the fore, with political power-plays and repeated phone calls and surprise visits by Departmental personnel, often stemming from Joan Ferguson's typically underhanded treachery. 

    Script wise, Joan Ferguson's increasing importance signalled another major change. Before Joan there was always the general prison pecking order but the prisoners always seemed to reign supreme. While strict officers would always be there to stir trouble we never really had an officer teaming with inmates on corrupt deals or trying to run the inmates much the same way the Top Dog would. All of this changed with the arrival of Joan Ferguson, who quickly revealed herself totally corrupt. Ferguson saw inmate boss Bea Smith as a threat to her power within the prison and the power-play between the two came to dominate storylines. Sadly it seemed the all-powerful Joan had Bea beat, and in quick succession we saw various catastrophes befall the great Bea Smith, each threatening to remove our favourite Top Dog for good... 

    The End of an Era

    Sadly, in September 1983 - episode #400, much loved character Bea Smith finally departed the series as actress Val Lehman had decided to leave. This was a great loss to the series that literally took years to heal. Many fans agree that the series was never the same after Bea's departure. The end of a truly great character. 

    Another great loss, almost as devastating, was the loss of the other favourite, Lizzie, which came a couple of months later in episode #418. Over the years other characters had come and gone but viewers could always rely on the Bea and Lizzie team. Sadly this era was now over and the earlier loss of Bea had resulted in little for Lizzie to do. She slipped into a slightly less prominent role, before finally being released from Wentworth once and for all at the wish of actress Sheila Florance who had decided to leave the series. 

    After Bea's departure a new group of prisoners gradually rose the ranks from guest-support characters to become the leading characters of the series. Lovable inmates such as Pixie Mason, Cass Parker, Minnie Donovan and Bobbie Mitchell emerged from guest star status to form the core cast of prisoners. To lead them, old favourite Judy Bryant was brought back to Wentworth, thus ending the halfway house which had outlived its storyline potential by this stage anyway. 

    The departure of Bea Smith could easily have meant the demise of the series but fortunately the writers did a change of tack and added some new powerful figures on the wrong side of the bars while eschewing the obvious move of creating a Bea Smith clone. Though Nola would have come in quite handy during this period she had earlier been dispensed with so instead we had a cool and sinister new prisoner Sonia Stevens, a wealthy criminal mastermind of great strength who was also capable of great terror. Sonia immediately teamed with Ferguson, initially helping to remove Bea Smith, and then to run all manner of money making scams within Wentworth thus reinforcing Joan's power and involvement in storylines regarding the prisoners. This retraces some of the earlier concepts that had been explored with the Nola MacKenzie character and was quite a change in that while the earlier storylines had mostly been more simplistic and character or event driven we now had lengthy and involved plots regarding the interaction between Joan and Sonia. Also new was the degree of interaction between an officer character and a prisoner character, as any officer character previously found to be involved in illegal plots and practices had always been quickly written out of the series. Now we had the two of the stronger characters being a nasty, selfish and unscrupulous prisoner, and a power-hungry officer joining forces. For the viewers to cheer on in the fight against such a powerful front we had the somewhat comical Minnie Donovan, a tiny, middle-aged and squeaky voiced woman who teamed with the less than bright but tough Cass Parker to become Top Dog. Like Bea, Minnie stood for the masses against the screws and the crooked deals of Sonia Stevens, and she had a cheeky disregard for authority. 

    During the first half of 1984, the much changed cast was enlivened by the welcome guest appearances of such departed favourites as Erica Davidson, Helen Smart, Doreen Burns and Margo Gaffney (though this also marked the final appearance of all these characters). Another big plus of this period was appearance of a hugely popular inmate character in the form of a rebellious young James Dean fan named, appropriately enough, Reb Kean, who proved quite an adversary for Myra and Judy (and Joan) and generated all manner of exciting developments. 

    The new characters to fill the ranks after Bea's departure were all actually quite good and it is a tribute to all involved that coming so soon after the recent big-star departures that these episodes were so very good and very enjoyable, even though many viewers still missed the presence of Bea and Lizzie. Many of the characters to appear during this period are still well remembered, even today. This was to be shortlived unfortunately, because within the year many of these characters began disappearing too. 

    The Minnie and Cass Top Dog partnership soon tumbled and well-known but rarely seen leader of the PRG, Myra Desmond, found herself returned to Wentworth where she quickly took over the reins as Top Dog. Myra was basically a successful character, well acted by Anne Phelan, though as the first 'big' Top Dog after Bea Smith she had a difficult role to fill. With Myra in charge the series took another turn, with Myra sadly missing the cocky disregard for authority that had characterised the earlier Top Dogs.

    Myra vs Bea

    Viewing the early episodes reveals Bea Smith as, at times, quite a nasty and selfish character, and as a viewer you may not always agree with what she does. She ruthlessly feathers her own nest, often with total disregard to supposed friends such as Doreen or Judy, and certainly has no qualms about putting prison officials off-side. Bea was not always concerned with keeping a respectable slammer or looking after the girls or being fair or enforcing the prison rules - unless it suited her own plans to do so! She certainly didn't follow a strict set of rules, except for her anti-drugs stance as required for script reasons. In many situations she quite openly enforces one set of relaxed rules for herself while less popular inmates must follow the more strictly laid out prisoner's code. Over the years this slowly changed (while Bea was still there) and the Top Dog character became more an unofficial enforcer of the prisoner's code and someone to look after the other prisoners. Everything she did was 'good' and 'fair' and the 'no-drugs' edict was rigidly enforced. Bea, however, always remained a pretty tough character not reluctant to put up her fists at the slightest provocation. Sadly, when Myra took over as Top Dog all the anger and volatility of Bea was missing, and basically I think Myra was too serious, too nice and too fair. The situation wasn't helped when Judy Bryant, who had earlier countered Bea's selfishness and inconsistency with her own brand of toughness, also softened to become a passive peacemaker serving only to calm Myra whenever she threatened to do anything exciting. I think it would have been more fun had Myra been a bit more relaxed and inconsistent (like real people are), and a bit tougher. With the earlier, tougher, Bea you never quite knew which way she would turn or what would happen next. Bea had often been ruled by her own anger and temperament while Myra always seemed calm and controlled (and seemed to spend most of her time with a sour and serious look on her face). Even though you liked Bea most of the time, she could be unpredictable and sometimes you just HATED her, and I think this made her a more interesting, and realistic character. 

    Freaked out

    June 1984 was a sad day for Prisoner. Over the past few months the guest stars had all made their final appearances, then such successful characters as Minnie (437), Pixie, Cass and Phyllis (460) departed. This was very sad as most of them had not been in the series for very long at all. Another big blow came with the loss of long-time screw Colleen Powell (456), a great character whose contribution to the series is largely underrated. Sonia had also departed (447), and although the writers intentionally left to door open to allow for her possible return she had at least had a quite satisfactory character development during her time in the series. After the loss of Bea and Lizzie and now all these additional losses it was a bit jarring for Prisoner viewers - the cast had just about been turned around within a 12 month period. This was when tough Lou Kelly and Alice Jenkins first appeared in the series. Obviously the writers began to worry about the high cast turnover: Alice and Lou simply appeared one day having supposedly been in Wentworth for years. They were joined by Marlene Warren who was an annoying and immature new inmate. Sadly, this character was annoying to prisoners and viewers alike. Another new character was elderly Dot Farrah who was just too close a Lizzie clone for our liking. Dot was another character who had supposedly been in Wentworth for years, but in another block. A more interesting character was a frightening new prisoner, mass murderer Bev Baker, who took gleeful enjoyment in inflicting pain and suffering on the hapless inmates. To ensure that things don't get too grim Marie Winter returns to liven things up with another big riot: just the thing to smooth over a bumpy cast shake-up. 

    Marie wasn't around too long, quickly making her exit via an incredible helicopter escape sequence, typical of the more extreme measures now being employed to try and out-do the major stunts and catastrophes that had gone on before. While Marie's return was welcomed her departure highlighted the need for more exciting characters behind bars. Fortunately Pixie Mason made a (very) welcome return to the series and stayed on several months which certainly helped the situation. Failed character Dot Farrah was retired and replaced by another Lizzie clone, Ettie Parslow, who was brought in from Barnhurst. Like Lizzie, Ettie realised she had served a twenty year sentence for a crime she didn't commit and like Lizzie she sued the department and won compensation on her release. While the battleaxe characterisation of Ettie seemed at bit 'forced' initially, she did gain a degree of popularity once her exaggerated opening characterisation passed and she softened to become slightly more realistic. Sadly around this time the producers decided to include a few inane guest appearances by people who were at the time well known 'folk-heroes' to Australian viewers but must look mighty odd when viewed in the UK where no one knows who the hell they are. Also included were silly storylines such as the fund raising 'Waltz-a-thon', and 'Cockroach Races' devised by Marlene to raise funds for herself. Various other characters did the usual three month stint, including the alcoholic lawyer Janice Grant who helped Ettie with her case, and the deceitful young prisoner 'Angel' Adams who managed to stir substantial trouble for the other characters during a brief but eventful stay. 

    With some patchy storylines concerning the prisoners, viewers during this period could nonetheless enjoy the further attempts to open up the action with strong characters Joan Ferguson and Ann Reynolds utilised in outside Wentworth storylines. For once, journeys into the prison staff's personal lives provided interesting viewing and some very good stories resulted. 

    While the writers (unlike Marie, as it turns out) had gotten away with the helicopter stunt, a subsequent storyline featuring three male Woodridge Prisoners being housed at Wentworth required a major suspension of disbelief - particularly as one of the prisoners was a convicted rapist! Fortunately having the rapist character Frank Burke come to life through the spirited performance of actor Trevor Kent helped viewers forgive and forget the ludicrous plot developments as Frank's cell-mates Geoff MacCrae and Matt Delaney embarked on their romantic escapades with prisoners Myra Desmond and Marlene Warren respectively. Also beefing up the male ranks was well-known actor and comedian Maurie Fields playing evil Officer Len Murphy, a male version of The Freak. 

    Long-time semi-regular Officer Joyce Barry gradually made larger and more frequent appearances in the series and by 1984 had become one of the leads. Joyce has her introduction to the forefront proceedings when stalwarts Meg Morris and Ann Reynolds are taken off for yet another Prisoner calamity where they are held hostage in an old warehouse laden with bombs and booby-traps - a chilling and suspenseful storyline that was extremely well executed and has become one of the most remembered sequences in the series. 

    While the end of 1984 sees the loss of popular trouble stirrer Reb Kean, in many ways the departure was apt, coming after Reb had had a satisfying run in the series with an interesting character development, and while her departure was open ended it was handled in quite a satisfactory manner. The first half of 1985 saw the usual array of guest prisoners appear and disappear but they were a relatively dull bunch, such as the quiet University student Samantha Greenway (496) and dignified, fine evading Nun Anita Selby (526). An enjoyable new prisoner character was the temperamental young Lexie Patterson (510). Here, Prisoner decided to date itself badly by dressing Lexie in flamboyant and unmistakable Boy George gear. As Prisoner was filmed 6 months in advance of the episodes being screened, this had the unfortunate consequence of the Boy George clothes first appearing on screen long after George's bubble had sadly burst and he had become suddenly passe. Luckily, Lexie was very vibrant and a lot of fun, giving the series quite a lift. 

    Sadly, during this period the series seems to have 'lost the plot', with some less than sensational stories and characters. As May 1985 approached everyone involved must have had quite enough, thank you, and when contracts were due for renewal, not very many were signed. Relatively long running characters Marlene (533),  Myra, Pixie (511), Bobbie (514) and truly long running Judy (535) all departed between February and May 1985. This period also saw the departure of the three male prisoners. 

    Another big shake-up

    In May 1985 the most jarring and unfortunate change occurred. Not only did we lose Judy Bryant when actress Betty Bobbit finally decided to leave the series, but we learned that Bea Smith had been killed in a big fire at Barnhurst. This was to tie up loose ends regarding Bea's open ended departure some eighteen months earlier when it became obvious that actress Val Lehman would not return to the series despite numerous offers to do so. In fact a flashback sequence was added so that newer viewers would know who Bea Smith was! After this shocking news, Wentworth was suddenly overrun by a group of total strangers who were transferred in from the now destroyed Barnhurst Prison. The newcomers from Barnhurst were Nora Flynn, May Collins, Daphne Graham, Julie Egbert and Willie Beecham (537). These infidels had the cheek to casually talk about such long-ago favourites as Bea and Vera 'Vinegar-Tits' Bennett as if they knew who these characters were. (Well, according to the script they knew them from Barnhurst but it all seemed just too contrived and artificial.) This was obviously a desperate attempt by the producers to hold onto some aspect of earlier (and superior) episodes even though none of the original actresses were willing to return. The writers also had the audacity to ask us to believe that relative newcomers Alice Jenkins and Lou Kelly were actually long-term Wentworth crims who had been there from the series inception. Hearing these two talk about Franky Doyle and Karen Travers was ridiculous, and simply embarrassing! In addition to the Barnhurst girls there was a new officer, Terri Malone (540), and a terrified new prisoner in the Lynn Warner mould: naive rich-girl Jenny Hartley (540). Prisoner then developed Dynasty type pretensions and added wealthy superbitch Ruth Ballinger (538) to the cast. Played with sinister perfection by actress Lindy Davies, Ruth helped ease viewers into the new cast of prisoners with a diverting storyline, though the hardened crims comprising the new Wentworth gang largely gave her the benefit of the doubt, something that Bea would never have done. 

    The newcomers were quickly inducted into the Wentworth hall of fame when subjected to yet another major catastrophe: a terrifying siege with heavily armed and dangerous intruders holding most of the cast hostage in the prison. Here the writers proved that it was still possible come up with new situations that could shock viewers after so many previous disasters and also proved that much mileage can be had from ending a major character on a high note rather than a whimper. 

    Sadly, after a reasonable start with these new characters some unfortunate patterns emerged. Sadly, it became apparent that someone had told them they were portraying a group of nagging old matrons attending a suburban senior citizens afternoon tea - not a group of hardened long-term prisoners in a high security prison. If Myra had begun the fair play Top Dog style then new Top Dog Nora Flynn perfected it. You have never seen a nicer, more polite bunch of so-called prisoners ever. One of the major catastrophes to afflict this bunch was having to eat their toast without butter (I kid you not). One lengthy storyline featured during this period was the 'prison committee' where a representative group of prisoners would hold an official 'court-room' where prisoner's grievances could be heard and prisoners breaking the rules would have their charges heard and then be punished. The storyline featured the likes of Nora Flynn, May Collins and Willie Beecham looking down their noses and smugly tut-tutting those naughty little rule breakers. This is supposed to be a high security prison - not a High School Parents Club! Hardly the stuff of a television drama either: we want excitement, not fair play and common sense. Oh yes, third time lucky and another Top Dog proves to be ardently anti-drugs. 

    While I may sound quite critical in my description of these characters they actually weren't all that bad, and the episodes were quite slickly written and well produced. The acting was mostly very good, and featured a particularly good character in the form of formidable May Collins. Unfortunately she was unwisely transformed mid-may through her run from a dominant presence to more a comic relief character. The main problem with the other new characters was they were basically fairly dull and the storylines were sadly lacking excitement. There are always some ordinary characters in Prisoner - and they are a necessity. Some of the big favourites were basically fairly ordinary, like Doreen and Judy, Meg, and Ann Reynolds. However, they were successful in their position in a varied but balanced ensemble where they would contrast the more extreme characters: Bea was tough, Doreen was silly and vague, Lizzie was crotchety and comical, and Judy was sensitive and supportive. With these new characters, however, while there was the Judy's and the Doreen's, there was none of the enjoyable and exciting aspects added by the Bea's and the Lizzie's. And, importantly, the disregard for authority lost when the well-behaved Myra Desmond took over was still missing here, and much as we all loved Ann Reynolds, it seemed the bulk of the prisoners was just a little too cooperative during this period. 

    I think basically the producers thought that if they had a group of characters talking about Bea and other long-gone characters that this, in itself, would be enough to keep fans happy and they neglected developing the new characters sufficiently. What they didn't realise was that just talking about the old characters only highlighted the fact that they were absent, and also that those earlier episodes were so much better. Also, the writers seemed intent on creating a ready-made, potted history with the new cast. This was sadly unconvincing. The script emphasised the history of the new characters: Willie and May had shared a cell for eight years while Nora Flynn had for many years carried the reputation of being slightly sinister. There was LOTS of talk about the past and it seemed the writers wanted to instil a sense of long-term stability to a cast that had been subject to such high turnover. The producers really should have just left the past in the past and instead concentrated on bringing some NEW, ORIGINAL and EXCITING characters into the series. 

    One bright spot in all this was the appearance of Ann Reynold's spirited daughter Pippa (540) who also took art class at Wentworth. Pippa's main energies however were taken with her fussing and nagging her mother a lot and with her own romantic entanglements. Pippa was one of those characters who could always be relied upon, like Lexie, to open her mouth at the wrong time and get herself into all sorts of trouble, and this was one of the few examples of an outside prison storyline that was actually enjoyable. Another interesting twist was provided by Officer Terri Malone who resigned from Wentworth and then, for a time, became Joan Ferguson's live-in lover, a difficult storyline which was, nonetheless, quite sensitively handled. 

    Finally Ettie Parslow, who had first appeared a year before, made a welcome reappearance at Wentworth, the return of an earlier established character being used here to help ease viewers over a bumpy cast restructure. 

    Interestingly, most of these new 1985 characters suddenly departed exactly seven months after their initial appearance in the series (ie they departed November 1985). If you work it out that indicates that these characters were in filming for the six months before their episodes first appeared on air, they then appeared on air, and then a month after their first public appearance they were all suddenly written out of the series. The only survivor was Julie Egbert (who was also the dullest of the lot), who lasted until June 1986. Though their departures did come rather suddenly, the closing storylines for these characters turned out to be very good, and quite exciting.

    The Rita-led recovery

    Finally November 1985 rolls along. After the loss of Bea the two big character shakeups (in June 1984 and May 1985) the series was but a shadow of its former self. Well now Prisoner fans can breathe a sigh of relief. With the Barnhurst girls finally given some interesting (but also final) storylines there is at last a bit of excitement. We also get a few new characters: the intriguing glamour queen Eve Wilder, hilariously daffy Barbie Cox, the frighteningly spirited bikie Rita Connors, ordinary working-class housewife Nancy McCormack and lovable former madam Jessie Windom. Old favourite Reb Kean also makes a shocking return. 

    New storylines for 1986 involve prison breaks and serial killers, while Wentworth is the scene of yet another riot which leads to one prisoner being lynched. 

    From now on, obviously there's lots of fun to be had. Long time prison toughie Lou Kelly is put in her place by the even tougher Rita. Nasty Lou was played a just little TOO well by actress Louise Siversen so it was nice to see her get her comeuppance. Rita, as rendered by striking and talented actress Glenda Linscott does a Ferguson and steps into a sadly depleted series and revs it up again. With Rita we again have the feeling that almost anything can happen and when she takes over as leader of the women we finally have a Top Dog who doesn't take herself too seriously. New characters from the Rita Connors bikie gang are Dan Moulton, Rita's brother 'Bongo' Connors and his girlfriend 'Roach' Waters, old-timer Ida Brown and many others in less prominent roles. 

    Like Bea Smith, Rita develops an intense hatred of Joan Ferguson, which quickly escalates into an all out war. Here Joan Ferguson returns to the tougher vendetta storylines that had been eschewed in recent years in favour of more sensitive, personal storylines. This Rita Connors/Joan Ferguson vendetta definitely rivals anything that's ever been seen in Prisoner before! A new prison gang develops: Rita and Nancy become a very close and oddly matched team, with Lexie and Julie entering the fold. Rita comically names her gang the Wentworth Warriors while Rita's own nickname is 'Rita the Beater'. The chief baddies are Alice and Lou though Alice soon sees sense and joins Rita's gang. A new little toughie, Janet Williams joins Lou as trouble maker. 

    In early 1986 Lou Kelly succeeds in ousting Ann Reynolds from her job. Her resignation is not accepted however and she is given a couple of months off work instead. Her temporary replacement is the tough Bob Moran who initially makes several enemies with his unbending ways but soon gains everyone's respect with his strength and commitment to the prisoner's welfare. After Ann's return he stays on as Officer for a couple of months while someone thoughtfully puts everyone out of their misery by finally getting rid of Lou Kelly, much to everyone's relief and eternal gratification. 

    Ettie Parslow makes a welcome return appearance in early 1986. She manages to stay away from Wentworth this time and her scenes are with Ann and Bongo and Roach, outside the Prison. 

    1986 is set when despised child killer (actually euthanasia but try explaining that to a group of simple-minded criminals) Kath Maxwell enters Wentworth. Her crime makes instant enemies of Alice and many others while her cool and tough attitude wins her no friends either and only serves to alienate Rita. Prisoner here benefits from a great performance by Kate Hood as Kath. Kath is a tough lady and there is trouble in store for everyone! Kath is soon joined by gentle giant and viewer favourite Merle Jones who conveniently gets not so gentle when her considerable temper is aroused. The 1986 cast is rounded out by sexy blackmailer Lisa Mullins, daffy mother Lorelei Wilkinson, wise cracking bad girl Vicki McPherson, sneering schemer Rose 'Spider' Simpson and fiery young aboriginal inmate Sarah West

    Mid to late 1986 sees Lexie's and Julie's storylines nicely concluded and the characters are written out of the series. Here the writers show the courage to let go of a character when the story-line dictates rather than drag them on indefinitely. 

    The officers basically remain static, comprising Meg Morris who had appeared continually from episode one, long time trouble maker Joan Ferguson, Governor Ann Reynolds, and long time semi-regular cum lead character Joyce Barry. Late in 1986 this line-up was joined by three new trainee Officers: apprentice meanie Rodney Adams, typically nervous new recruit Delia Stout, and Meg's son, the upstanding Marty Jackson

    In direct contrast to the 1985 influx of characters, all the 1986 characters worked out beautifully, bolstered by exceptionally good scripts and interesting storylines. The other important factor was they were all a lot of fun, with the popularity and appeal of the 1986 cast rivalling that of any earlier period of the series. 

    During the later stages of 1986, the writers expanded on the successful formula with some original ideas and more outlandish storylines. On the outlandish side we had the prisoner's work experience on a boat out at sea which turns into another opportunity for Rita to menace arch-enemy Joan Ferguson. We then follow Rita Connors' harrowing experiences on being transferred to notorious Blackmoor prison. This turned out to be a thrilling and highly popular storyline which introduced an equally popular new character, Blackmoor's evil and corrupt Governor Ernest Craven as played by familiar actor Ray Meagher. 

    After all the years on air and the ups and downs, by 1986 Prisoner had slowly matured in its scripts. While completely enjoyable, some of the earlier episodes had been a bit 'camp' (no, I'm not knocking that for a second). This final year however is a winner because the dull sobriety of 1985 is replaced by some riveting characters and scripts while still retaining its credibility. Basically an excellent year and without doubt one of the most enjoyable and highest quality periods of Prisoner. 

    Prisoner ceased production in September 1986 but fortunately they still had eight weeks to write and film an impressive 'conclusion' storyline to the series. As usual, Prisoner was ahead of the soapy crowd and finished with a bang - not a whimper. After such a great final year I think everyone involved was more than happy with the way things turned out and the closing episodes are some of the most touching ever filmed. 


    Updated ~ 26 October 1997 START