On the Inside at the NFSA
BY MIGUEL GONZALEZ
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, and share anecdotes about what went on behind the scenes:
During the session, Val and Amanda also reacted to clips such as this Ten Eyewitness News report from 1979:
On the Inside (of the NFSA)
While at the NFSA, Amanda and Val joined us for a special tour of our vaults and preservation facilities. Here are a few photos from their visit:
We have a curated collection dedicated to Prisoner. It includes behind-the-scenes photos, a British TV segment on the success of Australian soap operas in the United Kingdom (featuring Sheila Florance and Val Lehman), excerpts from the final episode and rare footage from Punishment and Dangerous Women.
The only main character to appear from beginning to end of the series, for a total of 669 episodes, was long-serving officer / deputy governor Meg Morris (later Jackson), played by Elspeth Ballantyne. If you want to see a fresh-faced Elspeth as Melbourne’s most glamorous roast chicken salesperson, showcasing the wonders of the Victorian capital to potential European migrants, don't miss Life in Australia: Melbourne (1966).
You can also explore our online catalogue for a complete list of NFSA holdings related to Prisoner.
THE LEGACY OF PRISONER
Prisoner was a groundbreaking drama, boasting a mostly female cast that was far removed from the glamorous roles available for females in prime-time soap operas.
Placing the spotlight on ‘crims’ proved highly controversial. While Wentworth was home to several hardened criminals, the storylines also focused on women pushed by society to the limit in high-stress situations ranging from domestic and sexual abuse to discrimination in the workplace.
Prisoner entertained audiences by maintaining a balance between over-the-top plots and comedic situations, while also questioning the effectiveness of the punitive vs rehabilitation objectives of Australia's correctional services.
This Grundy production was a cultural phenomenon and as such, it has spawned several spin-offs and remakes. Let’s not forget the rare Prisoner in Concert special, which saw the ladies trade their denim overalls for Village People costumes to perform 'YMCA', among other musical numbers!
One of the rarest spin-offs is Punishment, a short-lived 1981 spin-off set in a male prison. Mel Gibson was set to play one of the main characters, but he only appeared in the first episode and his character was immediately transferred to another prison off-screen.
Albeit with a five year delay, Prisoner Cell Block H (as it was retitled) became a hit in the United Kingdom in 1984. A stage musical was even produced in London’s West End in 1995.
The show was also remade in the United States, but Dangerous Women only ran for 52 episodes in 1991–92.
The new 'golden age of TV' has seen most production companies delving deep into their archives to find properties suitable for a 21st century reboot. Prisoner is no exception.
Wentworth premiered on 1 May 2013. With higher production values (and well thought-out fan-service) Wentworth is a grittier, more socially conscious yet equally addictive drama. Several of the original characters have been re-imagined, and the show itself has been remade in a number of European countries. Wentworth's eighth season premieres on 28 July 2020, with a ninth and final season scheduled for 2021.
Val Lehman played Bea Smith, Wentworth’s tough-yet-fair Top Dog, whose hatred of drugs (her daughter Debbie died from an overdose) makes her clash constantly with less scrupulous inmates. Having won three Logies for this role, Val left the show in 1983. With a solid career on TV and the stage, she was last seen in I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! (2016) and Neighbours (2017), and the 2009 hit film Charlie & Boots. Earlier this year she auctioned her Gold Logie to raise funds for bushfire relief efforts. Val is on Twitter.
Amanda Muggleton played Chrissie Latham, a former prostitute who couldn’t stay out of trouble, no matter how much she tried to for the sake of her baby daughter. Amanda migrated to Australia from the UK in 1974. While she’s had guest roles in other popular dramas such as A Country Practice, City Homicide (for which she was nominated at the AFI Awards) and Home and Away (from 2019), she has focused her efforts on an acclaimed career in the theatre. She has received two Helpmann Awards, for her work on Master Class and Eureka!. Amanda has an official website.
Allan Caswell is an award-winning singer-songwriter. He recently released his 20th album, Tequila Amnesia (2020). His ballad 'On The Inside' first put him on the map, and he went on to build a successful career in the country music scene. You can find his latest releases on his official website.
AUSTRALIAN SOAP OPERAS
Our australianscreen website also has pages dedicated to: Bellbird (1967–77), one of the first soap operas to reflect serious social issues as well as have a diverse cast; The Flying Doctors (1986–93); and Heartbreak High (1994–99). We have also celebrated mini-series such as All the Rivers Run (1983) and Brides of Christ (1991).
If you’re looking for Home and Away, take a look at this special appearance by John Farnham in 1988, and one of Heath Ledger’s first roles in 1997. And if you prefer Ramsay Street over Summer Bay, sing along to the Neighbours theme song as performed by… Dame Edna Everage!
The NFSA also preserves photos, posters, press kits, costumes, props and memorabilia. However, we don't have any original costumes or props from Prisoner, so if you're one of the lucky collectors who has managed to track them down and you're interested in donating them to the NFSA in the future, please let us know at collections [at] nfsa.gov.au.