Forty years ago, on 27 February 1979, one of Australia’s most addictive soap operas debuted on Network Ten.
It finally came to an end after nearly eight years and 692 episodes, on 11 December 1986.
That was when millions tuned in to see if Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson would finally get her comeuppance. Ferguson was the corrupt officer who unofficially ruled Wentworth Detention Centre with an iron fist (or should we say, leather glove?) on the show produced by the Grundy Organisation.
Prisoner also had great success in many territories, particularly the UK (where it was known as Prisoner Cell Block H and even inspired a musical stage show). It generated a short-lived spin-off set in a male prison (Punishment, featuring a young Mel Gibson), a US remake (Dangerous Women) and an award-winning re-imagining (Wentworth).
Prisoner first aired on Network Ten on 27 February 1979. Exactly 40 years later, on 27 February 2019, the NFSA hosted a screening of the 'great fire of Wentworth' (episode 326) followed by a special Q&A with actors Val Lehman and Amanda Muggleton.
The session started with musician Allan Caswell performing 'On the Inside', the theme song that he wrote, and that singer Lynne Hamilton made famous (Australia #4, UK #3).
He then joined Val and Amanda to discuss the legacy of the show with the NFSA's Miguel Gonzalez, and to share anecdotes about what went on behind the scenes.
Actress Maggie Kirkpatrick, interviewed by Andrew Mercado, talks about her work on the Australian soap opera PRISONER, playing corrupt officer Joan 'The Freak' Ferguson. This is an excerpt from the Oral History that Kirkpatrick recorded for the NFSA on 29 September 2003.
In this scene Tim Jarrett (David Spencer) meets Rick Munro, played by Mel Gibson. In the first scene of this episode, Tim was arrested for a murder he did not commit. Rick gives the newcomer some information that might prove useful during his time in prison, including a veiled warning about one of the screws.
This special edition of Open Air focused on the success of Australian soap operas in the United Kingdom. The Prisoner segment includes phone interviews with actresses Sheila Florance (Lizzie Birdsworth) and Val Lehman (Bea Smith). It aired on 27 April 1989.
Dangerous Women was the American remake of Prisoner, running for 52 episodes from 1 August 1991 to 1 January 1992. The opening credits are inspired by those of Prisoner's pilot episode, contrasting the main prisoners’ lives before gaol (in colour), with their mug shots (in black and white).
Officer Joan Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick) has been arrested for her complicity in the bank robbery executed by Rita Connors (Glenda Linscott). ‘The Freak’ was caught as she was about to leave the bank with $250,000 which Connors had hidden in the women’s toilet.
Ferguson panics once she realises she's about to be taken to Wentworth Detention Centre, where she’s made countless enemies amongst both staff and prisoners. She flips out at Officer Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne) as the latter follows the induction process: 'Do it Morris, I'm here, do it! You must think all your birthdays are coming, you must really be enjoying!'
Gerard Maguire (Jim Fletcher), Patsy King (Erica Davidson), George Mallaby (Paul Reid) shooting a scene at the Wentworth Detention Centre gate.
On the Inside is the main title theme from the 1979-1986 Australian soap opera Prisoner. It was released as a 7" single in 1979, backed by the B-side 'Love Theme from Prisoner' performed by the William Motzing Orchestra.
Songwriter Allan Caswell’s country sensibility can be heard in this ballad, with minimalist guitar and piano arrangements. Lynne Hamilton delivers an emotional performance that captures the pain and fragility of a woman who feels imprisoned.
The lyrics describe ‘the outside’ and ‘the inside’, in reference to both the prison setting of the show, and a failed romantic relationship. Full of longing, the verses recall how different life was ‘on the outside’. Roses are used as a symbol of love and freedom. She then laments the end of that happiness with a sense of guilt, of having done something wrong. The chorus then describes ‘the inside’, where life goes on but as a ‘prisoner’, both literally (in the context of the program) and figuratively, as a prisoner of the memories of a broken relationship.
Kate Randall (Kris McQuade) visits her boyfriend Rick Munro (Mel Gibson) in prison.
Kate: Enjoying your vacation?
Rick: Yeah. There is only one thing wrong with it.
Kate: What's that?
Rick: You're on the wrong side of the bars.
On screen rivals, off screen friends: Fiona Spence (Vera Bennett) and Elspeth Ballantyne (Meg Morris-Meg Jackson) having a drink.
Celebrating the 400th episode of Prisoner, which aired on 11 November 1983.
Joan Ferguson is transferred to another prison, as the Wentworth immates witness in silence. Once the car leaves, Governor Ann Reynolds (Gerda Nicolson) instructs her staff to leave the women alone. The prisoners then celebrate the fall of ‘The Freak’. Top Dog Rita Connors (Glenda Linscott), recovering from cancer, tells Lurch (Lois Collinder) that she’s going to be ‘the oldest biker in the world’ as the credits roll one final time.
Holly has been arrested for allegedly abducting the child she was hired to care for. In this scene, she joins the other women in the classroom, and Rita sticks out her leg to make her fall. Holly has no choice but to say to the officer that it was an accident, that she just 'slipped and fell'. Maria hears this and it triggers her memories of covering up the domestic abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband.
Rooftop protest rehearsal with Betty Bobbitt (Judy Bryant) and Val Lehman (Bea Smith). The scene is featured in episode 121.
The opening credits of Punishment, episode 1. The first shot is reminiscent of its Prisoner counterpart, showing one of the characters walking amongst a crowd.
Sandy Gore (Kay White), Gerard Maguire (Jim Fletcher) and Jane Clifton (Margo Gaffney) during a break.