A tribute to Prisoner

BY MIGUEL GONZALEZ

Audiences were hooked on Prisoner from the moment 'Top Dog' Bea Smith burnt Lynn Warner's hand under the laundry steam press, Wentworth Detention Centre's ultimate symbol of power. The Network Ten program, initially conceived as a 16-episode series debuting on 27 February 1979, went on to become an eight-year love (and sometimes hate!) affair with the women of Wentworth. The tone changed from a gritty portrayal of life in prison to a sometimes over-the-top soap opera. Characters came and went, with only one cast member on board for all 692 episodes (Elspeth Ballantyine, playing the unluckiest prison officer in the world, Meg Morris/Jackson). But audiences enjoyed the wild ride, and few Australian soap operas have remained as popular as Prisoner.

'Screws', 'the pound', 'lagging' and other prison lingo became everyday words for the legions of fans of the series. Vera 'Vinegar Tits' Bennett, Lizzie Birdsworth (and her 'crook ticker') and Joan 'The Freak' Ferguson all became household names. But all good things must come to an end, and Wentworth closed its doors 30 years ago this week, on 11 December 1986. While many of the most beloved characters were long gone by then (with one key character killed off-screen well after her departure), audiences got to see justice finally catching up with Ferguson after countless narrow escapes for the villain.

 

THE WENTWORTH LEGACY

But even after it stopped airing in Australia, Prisoner was far from over. It became a phenomenon in the United Kingdom, albeit a late one as it premiered almost a decade after its Australian debut. It was renamed Prisoner Cell Block H, to avoid confusion with another program. The main cast became huge stars, and many of them participated in musical stage shows inspired by the original program.

Then, in 2013, Prisoner was re-imagined in Australia as Wentworth. It found inspiration in some of the original characters and storylines, but is closer in tone to the award-winning contemporary dramas one can see on HBO or Netflix. Wentworth has been renewed for a fifth season, set to air on Foxtel in 2017.

But not all the products in the Prisoner franchise have been successful. A male spin-off, titled Punishment, was punished by audiences when it premiered on Ten in 1981. Featuring a young Mel Gibson, Punishment has not been seen since. Another Prisoner rarity is its American remake, Dangerous Women, which aired in the early 1990s. It only lasted 52 episodes.

You can enjoy clips from these programs, as well as other exclusive Prisoner materials, in our Curated Collection. The 'no lagging' rule does not apply here - so make sure you share it with other fans, from Blocks A to G!