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Prisoner - An Underdog Story

Updated: Jan 3


Regular followers of this blog will be aware of the fact that I've been making a bit of a habit of meeting my heroes of late. I make no apology for these shameless acts of star-chasing because at 46 years of age I've finally decided that life is for living and that if I don't make the effort to do these things now then I frankly never will. It's also given me a chance to look back over my life, to reflect upon the people, the stories, the TV shows and sporting stars who've captured my imagination over the years and to ask myself what it was about them that resonated with and inspired me. In every instance this has proved a fruitful exercise, yielding profound insights into my own inner nature and the vital essence of what makes me tick. Last weekend provided yet another example when I travelled down to Birmingham to attend the UK's 40th anniversary celebrations of the iconic Australian women's prison drama Prisoner: Cell Block H. Six stars from the classic series attended the two-day convention organised by Screen Star Events, with the highlight of the weekend being Sunday's 'Two Beas' event in which Val Lehman, who played the show's legendary Top Dog Bea Smith, was joined by her contemporary counterpart Danielle Cormack from Foxtel's hugely successful reboot of the show, Wentworth. The event provided fans with a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see both incarnations of this iconic character side by side on stage for a memorable Q&A. And it didn't disappoint. At 74 years of age, Lehman has lost none of her infamous feistiness. She marched onto stage with all the imperious swagger of her legendary character, took one disgusted look at the microphone offered to her and dismissed it with a curt declaration of "I don't f*****g" need one!" Lest there had been any doubt, the original Queen Bea was well and truly in the building. Lehman is understandably proud of her character's legacy and appreciative of Cormack's contribution to reinventing the role for the 21st Century. The mutual respect and admiration between the two women was immediately apparent. Both care passionately about the character and have a keen awareness of its historic and cultural impact. Wentworth, which has been running in Australia since 2013, has undergone international remakes in Germany, Holland, Belgium and Turkey, meaning that there have now been no fewer than six Bea Smiths in total around the globe.

I was delighted to meet none other than 'Queen Bea' herself Val Lehman at Prisoner's 40th anniversary celebrations in Birmingham on Sunday.

Women's prison dramas have been one of the most enduring staples of television ever since the groundbreaking Within These Walls, starring Googie Withers, first debuted on British screens in 1974. Since then we've been treated to the likes of Dangerous Women (a short-lived American version of Prisoner), ITV's Bad Girls, which ran for eight series from 1999-2006, Netflix smash-hit Orange Is The New Black, taut Spanish thriller Locked Up and, most recently, 5Star's Clink. But Prisoner remains the towering colossus of the genre - the most popular, iconic and fondly-remembered of them all. At its peak it attracted an audience of around 10 million viewers in the UK alone - not bad for a programme which aired in an unpredictable graveyard slot some time after the News at Ten. So what is it about the concept of women behind bars, and Prisoner in particular, that holds such enduring appeal to this day? Few shows can claim such a devoted and committed fan base. Many, myself included, are proud to own all 692 episodes of the show housed within what is officially the world's largest DVD boxset. Probably only Doctor Who and Star Trek command similar levels of loyalty, but what makes Prisoner's appeal all the more remarkable is the fact it has retained its phenomenal popularity more than three decades after it ceased production in Australia. As a teenager growing up in the UK in the 80s and 90s, I was mesmerised by the show. Its twice-weekly late-night slot provided an added air of intrigue. There was an almost voyeuristic thrill about this darkly atmospheric nocturnal peepshow which allowed us a guilty glimpse into a forbidden world populated by female killers, violent bikies and vice queens. In an era of glamorous sequin-clad uber-soaps like Dallas, Dynasty and Howards' Way, Prisoner stood out from the crowd with its gritty portrayal of prison of life, its austere red-brick walls, its predominantly female cast clad in blue denim and its violent and frequently disturbing storylines which tackled hefty issues such as murder, rape and prostitution. There was nothing like it on TV at the time. It was a show in which the goodies didn't always win, in which bad things frequently happened to good people, and for that reason I could relate to it as reflecting real life in a way that few, if any, other dramas at the time even attempted to do.

At the root of Prisoner's appeal lies the fact that it's essentially an underdog story. The characters are likeable and relatable and most are shown to have a sympathetic side, even those whose crimes appear quite shocking on the surface. In the show's opening episode, viewers were introduced to prison life through the eyes of two new inmates - schoolteacher Karen Travers, who had been sentenced for murdering her abusive husband, and naive farm girl Lynn Warner, who had been wrongly convicted of child abduction. It soon becomes apparent that neither Lynn nor Karen really belong behind bars and that both are, in their own different ways, merely victims of tragic circumstances beyond their control. This theme becomes one of the fundamental tenets of the entire series - the causal factors of the prisoners' crimes are almost always explored and things are seldom as black-and-white as they first appear. Prisoner broke the mould in more ways than one, not least in challenging stereotypical depictions of those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. This even led to the cast receiving a letter from a former inmate of the infamous Alcatraz prison, thanking them for their sympathetic portrayals and for helping to shatter the popular misconception that all criminals were irredeemable monsters. There is no finer example of this emphasis on character depth than Val Lehman's utterly unforgettable portrayal of Queen Bea Smith - the show's majestic Top Dog throughout most of its first 400 episodes. On paper, Bea looks like she ought to be a complete bitch - a double murderess who rules the inmates with a rod of iron and who terrorises Lynn Warner on her first day behind bars by burning her hand in the laundry press. And yet Bea evolved into a complex multi-layered personality; she became the dynamic heart of the show, a true champion of the underdog who fought for the other women's rights and protected them against threats from more dangerous inmates and sadistic warders alike. Much of this character evolution was down to Lehman herself who seized the part of Bea and made it her own, infusing the character with warmth, humour, integrity and swagger. Viewers soon learned that Bea's daughter had died of a drug overdose and she was therefore staunchly anti-dope and had a zero-tolerance approach towards drug-pushers in her prison. As an impressionable teenager this had a profound effect on me. Growing up I was never once tempted to take drugs - not even a joint - and this was largely down to my respect for Bea Smith and her hardline approach towards the evils of narcotics. It's an aspect of the character of which Lehman remains rightly proud to this day. Speaking at Sunday's convention, she said, "The anti-drug message was particularly important to me. I always took the view that even if we could save just one person from going down that road then what we were doing was worthwhile."

Bea's downfall ultimately came at the hands of her arch-enemy - the equally-iconic bent screw Joan 'The Freak' Ferguson, played to note-perfect malevolent perfection by the brilliant Maggie Kirkpatrick. A cruel, sadistic, power-hungry warder and predatory molester of younger and more vulnerable inmates, Ferguson was utterly corrupt, the moral antithesis of Bea and also a physical match for her. The rivalry between these two characters became the core dynamic of the show as they embarked upon a bitter and violent power-struggle for control of the prison - the highlight being an explosive showdown which saw the pair locked in mortal combat as the prison burned around them in the cliffhanging 1982 season finale. When Lehman eventually quit the show, Ferguson became its star attraction and writers moved to flesh out the character by giving her more sympathetic qualities such as a love of dogs, a maternal relationship with a runaway child, and a short-lived love interest with a fellow female officer. Like Bea Smith before her, the Freak ultimately became a rounded and three-dimensional character and viewers would frequently find themselves morally conflicted and rooting for her whilst simultaneously aspiring to witness her comeuppance.

This tendency towards perfectly-nuanced characterisation was one of the keys to the show's success and could be seen reflected in the rich backstories of many of its inmates such as elderly mercy killer Mum Brooks (Mary Ward), kleptomaniac recidivist and grandmother figure Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florence), misunderstood illiterate bikie Franky Doyle (Carol Burns), maternal lesbian Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbitt), tart-with-a-heart Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton) and cunning sociopath Dr Kate Peterson (a towering performance by the late Olivia Hamnett). The officers too were given fully developed personalities, from the bitterness and touching vulnerability of desperately lonely spinster Vera 'Vinegar Tits' Bennett (Fiona Spence) to the caustic sarcasm of Officer Colleen 'Po Face' Powell (brilliantly portrayed by the late Judith McGrath), not to mention the two governors Erica Davidson (Patsy King) and Ann Reynolds (the late Gerda Nicholson) and the seemingly endless trials and tribulations inflicted upon the long-suffering Meg Morris (Elspeth Ballantyne). Prisoner's writers and actors delivered a consistent masterclass in blurring the lines between good and evil, testing our loyalties to our favourite characters with every dramatic twist and turn of the Wentworth rollercoaster. The characters in Prisoner resonated with my own lifelong affiliation with the outlaw archetype. I've written previously about my affection for Robin Hood (Robin Hood - A Symbol of Hope) and many of the same appealing and inspirational traits can be seen to apply to the characters in Prisoner. A cursory comparison of the qualities of Robin Hood and Bea Smith will demonstrate the similarity - both are champions of the underdog and defenders of the weak and oppressed, both are leading a rebellion against harsh and frequently corrupt authority, both are technically criminals but often demonstrate a stronger moral compass than the supposed authority figures who persecute them, both use violence to achieve their ends but only against those who appear to deserve it, and both have become synonymous with their own archenemy (Robin Hood with the Sheriff of Nottingham and Bea Smith with Joan Ferguson) to such an extent that they and their nemesis are effectively two sides of the same coin.

The appeal of the outlaw archetype has perhaps never been greater than at present. We live in a world where we see injustice everywhere we turn - a country and a world divided; bigotry, intolerance and prejudice in multitudinous forms, homeless people sleeping rough in shop doorways, fat cat bankers getting richer while countless people have been plunged into poverty and unemployment by the very financial crises which those same bankers created. More and more people are having to turn to food banks, mental health problems are on the increase as folk succumb to stress, our health service is overstretched and our political system a shambles. The sick and disabled feel victimised and marginalised, subjected to degrading and inhumane “work capability assessments” and forced to justify the minimal benefits they receive. I know of many people with severely-limiting mental and physical health problems who’ve been declared “fit for work” and stripped of their welfare payments, leaving them panic-stricken and broke. Therein lies the appeal of characters like Bea Smith who champion the rights of the marginalised and downtrodden and serve as powerful symbols of rebellion against injustice, corrupt authority and a bureaucratic system which treats people as mere numbers rather than human beings. Archetypes such as Bea inspire us to stand firm and fight back, to defend the vulnerable and to foster a sense of community in a world where social isolation is becoming a tragic norm. The women of Wentworth, particularly Bea and her Top Dog successors Myra Desmond and Rita Connors, are shining beacons of hope, a call to action; a symbol of our moral responsibility to take care of each other and to take a stand when we see something that looks wrong.

Pictured with Gerard Maguire (Deputy Governor Jim Fletcher) who spoke about Prisoner's popularity with younger viewers and their ability to relate to its themes of institutional hierarchies.

The claustrophobic environment of Wentworth Detention Centre is a microcosm of society. Yes, the events and circumstances featured in the storylines are amplified and intensified for dramatic effect, but the situations, battles and dramas are nevertheless those which we all face in our own lives. The hierarchical structures and power struggles are the same as those seen in any institution, whether that be in schools, colleges, businesses, hospitals or governments. Every office has a Bea Smith, a Lizzie Birdsworth, a Vera Bennett and a meddling pen-pushing senior manager akin to Prisoner's infamous "man from the department" Ted Douglas. Every institution has its bullies, its victims and its rabble-rousing union reps. The women of Wentworth appeal so strongly because we feel as though we know them, and in a sense we do. We can relate to them. They are archetypes woven throughout the fabric of our collective subconscious. The sets and storylines echo everyday life for all of us. The prison bars serve as a powerful metaphor for a world in which some are more socially isolated than others. Feelings of being trapped, closet sexuality and loss of identity are all symbolised by the core theme of confinement. At the 40th anniversary event in Birmingham on Saturday, actor Gerard Maguire, who played Deputy Governor and Vietnam veteran Jim Fletcher, said he was always touched by the large quantity of fan letters the cast would receive from schoolchildren, frequently speaking of the comfort and reassurance they gained from watching the show and from being able to relate to its characters. A school has many similarities to a prison in the way in which it is structured and run - the teachers as authority figures can be viewed as the prison officers while the pupils are the prisoners and the headteacher is the governor. Both staff and pupils have their own hierarchies and there is inevitably dissension in the ranks of both. There are invariably trouble-makers who rebel against authority and face punishment as a consequence. There are tough teachers and soft teachers. There are bullies and there are victims, those who toe the line and those who rebel.

Prisoner has also retained a huge worldwide following amongst the gay community - another frequently marginalised and persecuted section of society for whom the outcast characters have powerful symbolic resonance. The show was years ahead of its time in terms of its treatment of homosexuality, portraying gay relationships on-screen in a sympathetic and sensitive context at a time when other soap operas and dramas still regarded the subject as taboo. Long before the likes of Eastenders dared to screen something so shocking as a gay kiss, Betty Bobbitt's Judy Bryant was providing a powerful and positive role model for insecure viewers struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. In their outstanding book Behind The Bars - The Unofficial Prisoner Cell Block H Companion, authors Scott Anderson, Barry Campbell and Rob Cope write: "A section of society frequently pushed to the sides, ignored, mocked or the recipients of major prejudice was now represented with great sensitivity and understanding in the scripts of the programme. Indeed, if Prisoner did anything for the gay movement, it was to de-sexualise, for the most part, its gay characters. Showing that whatever gender we may find ourselves attracted to, the emotions and problems are the same. The fears, paranoia, anger et al are universal; we are all the same." Anyone who's ever known what it's felt like to be an outsider on the fringes of society can find something or someone to relate to within the dynamic of Prisoner. It also appeals to that natural innate part of us which rails against rules, regulations and bureaucracy. We are all, in our own ways, in some kind of a prison. Whether it's a job we don't like or a relationship which has run its course, many of us are shackled by invisible chains which are holding us back and preventing us from maximising our full potential. Prisoner speaks to that part of ourselves which yearns to be free, to cast off the shackles and escape oppression. Above all, it offers a message of hope. Many of the characters demonstrated that it was possible to take a pounding, physically and emotionally, and yet still emerge on top. And in Prisoner's final climactic episode, viewers at last got to witness the long-awaited downfall of the treacherous Joan Ferguson, her defeat engineered by dynamic towering bikie queen Rita 'the Beater' Connors (the superb Glenda Linscott). This magnificent finale saw the show end on a high as the Freak was inducted to Wentworth as an inmate. Karma had come full circle and justice had finally been seen to be done. The message was clear - what goes around comes around. So if you're currently on the receiving end of a raw deal, don't give up. All things come to those who wait.

Panelists Sigrid Thornton (Ros Coulson), Tina Bursill (Sonia Stevens), Gerard Maguire (Jim Fletcher), Louise Siversen (Lou Kelly) and Nigel Bradshaw (Denis Cruickshank) delighted fans at the 40th anniversary event.

Other prison dramas will come and go but Prisoner will live forever in our hearts and in our memories and its legacy survives to this day in the form of Foxtel's contemporary reboot Wentworth and its various international remakes. The loyalty of the UK fans was amply demonstrated by the sell-out crowds which attended last weekend's event in Birmingham where they had the chance to meet not just the "two Beas" Lehman and Cormack but also Tina Bursill (ice-cold vice queen Sonia Stevens), Louise Siversen (psychotic thug Lou Kelly), Gerard Maguire (Deputy Governor Jim Fletcher), Nigel Bradshaw (Officer Denis Cruickshank) and Sigrid Thornton, who holds the unique distinction of being the only actor to have appeared in both Prisoner and Wentworth. All the stars were generous with their time, happily chatting and posing for selfies with fans, and reminiscing fondly about their days on the series. And the party's not over yet. Later this year, the UK will be visited by none other than the Freak herself, Maggie Kirkpatrick, when she promotes her eagerly-awaited autobiography The Gloves Are Off at book-signings in Birmingham and Glasgow in December. Special thanks are due to all those involved at Screen Star Events for organising these events and for all their tireless work in bringing the stars across the globe from Down Under.

The resilience and fighting spirit of Prisoner's powerful ensemble of characters has inspired me through some tough times in my life and I know it has done the same for many others too. It has instilled in me a strong sense of social justice, a desire to defend the rights of those less fortunate and an awareness of the need to take a principled stand against bullies and corrupt authority figures as well as a healthy awareness of the dangers of drugs and an antipathy towards those who peddle them. Characters such as Bea Smith and Rita Connors can serve as models to inspire us to greater heights, to find an inner strength and reach for the hero inside ourselves. At Phoenix we make frequent use of such archetypes and storytelling to help clients to maximise their true potential. If you want to know more, check out our website or drop us an email at

Happy 40th anniversary Prisoner!

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