The 13th Floor

On the Inside — The Cult of PRISONER: CELL BLOCK H

It has been decades now since the cell doors of Wentworth Detention Centre shut up shop (er, prison), but the Australian drama still attracts an international cult following.

The inaugural season of the violent female-dominated soap opera PRISONER (or PRISONER: CELL BLOCK H abroad) — broadcast on Australian television from 1979 to 1986 — started out with a run of 16 episodes, later extended to 20 and the show proved so popular with fans that it became a twice-weekly soap, following the incarcerated lives of a group of legitimately frightening lags languishing behind bars in the high-security Wentworth Prison.

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My first memory of PRISONER was during the summer in the early 1990s when it was shown on ITV. It was late in the show’s run and hard-faced criminal, Marie Winters (Maggie Miller), had been transferred from prison-farm Barnhurst and was in cahoots with the Giallo-gloved, bulldyke screw, Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick) — the primary antagonist for nearly 300 of the show’s 692 episodes.

The Freak was coercing Winters (who’d started protection rackets) into instigating a riot to depose governor Ann Reynolds and kill current Top Dog Myra Desmond (Ann Phelan), who was been held in The Pound after escaping.  I’d never seen anything quite like it: with its lurid and sensational storylines, its non-fetishistic cast of strong and scary women and a tense pervasive sense of danger with Maggie Kirkpatrick always delivering a terrifying performance as predatory opportunist The Freak.

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Running for almost 8 years, PRISONER was the first of its kind: an entirely female-led drama in a brutal prison setting with a large queer contingent and legions of LGBTQI fans. The show’s format and direction has been renewed multiple times and with a lot of success over the years and PRISONER remains a touchstone for prison-centric shows like HBO’s OZ, Channel Four’s BURIED, BAD GIRLS from Shed Productions in the UK, the titillating and exploitive Spanish show LOCKED UP, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK… and of course, Foxtel’s gritty revamp WENTWORTH PRISON (pictured below), a slick, grittier and more violent reboot exploring the origin stories of several key characters from the original including Top Dog Bea (Danielle Cormack) Smith, Joan (Pamela Rabe) Ferguson, Vice Queen Sonia (Sigfrid Thornton) Stevens and Vera ‘Vinegar Tits’ Bennett.

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At the time of its transmission, nothing quite like it had been seen on television before, at least never outside the girls-behind-bars exploitation film genre anyway. It was breath of fresh prison air when compared to contextual dramas like cop shows and ubiquitous daytime soap operas of the time. The main character was usually the woman right at the top of the prison hierarchy (The Top Dog) often wrestling with the season adversary for stirring up trouble among the women or attempting to usurp her status as Top Dog.

Some of the show’s popular storylines were Bea Smith’s rivalry with illiterate and violent lesbian Franky Doyle, the Nola McKenzie arc, serial killer Bev Baker’s disturbing stint behind bars, serial killing prison officer David Bridges butchering the inmates, “phantom lagger” Eve Wilder’s infamous lynching scene, the rise to Top Dog of child-killer Kath Maxwell and her feud with biker Rita “The Beater” Connors and the madness of Kate Peterson.

PRISONER events are held in the UK twice a year by the PRISONER: CELL BLOCK H fan-club which was established in 1998 when the series was being rescreened on Channel 5. They received permission from FreeMantleMedia to operate as the official UK fan club. The events are aimed at die-hard fans and are intimate gatherings with star-fan interaction; there has been a reduction in these events over the years with fans gravitating more towards WENTWORTH PRISON in recent years. Read on for some of the best parts and off-shoots of PCBH….

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The Nola McKenzie arc

A vicious double-murderer, Nola McKenzie escaped captivity and the death penalty in Western Australia after murdering her deadbeat husband and a cop on her trail. She ended up behind bars at Wentworth and, to avoid extradition, murdered a young inmate so she could stay in Wentworth. She quickly made an enemy of Bea Smith with her drug rackets, bashing weaker prisoners and forming an alliance with The Freak.

McKenzie and The Freak engineered a plot with a spiritualist on remand by using information on Smith’s deceased daughter to push The Top Dog to breaking point and possibly suicide. The Freak supplied McKenzie with the tools to make a zip-gun, which she’d later plant on an increasingly unstable Bea. But Smith had the last laugh though, when she learned of their plan and shot Nola at point-blank range, killing her.

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Mad, Bad and Dangerous: Baker, Bridges and Ballinger

David Bridges was a kind and good-looking rookie officer who seemed to genuinely care about the prisoners’ welfare, but if something seems too good to be true, it definitely is. Bridges would lure women to the boiler room or other deserted parts of the prison and offer them “Freedom”, which usually involved stabbing and dismemberment. Bridges got his comeuppance when he underestimated prisoner Cass Parker, who decapitated him with a shovel.

Bev “The Beast” Baker was an outspoken sadist and serial killer who enjoyed carnage, head-hoarding and mutilating her fellow inmates. Originally planned as a long-term rival for Myra Desmond, the character was deemed too controversial and her time in Wentworth was cut short. After skewering a visiting social worker with a knitting needle, she injected herself with a hypodermic needle, leading to a cardiac arrest.

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Ruth Ballinger was an evil international drug-trafficker and child pornographer who was locked up until the feds could gather enough information on her husband to prosecute. She won the women over by lavishing them with gifts and promising to help with their lives on the outside. Like most of her villainous predecessors, she teamed up with The Freak (who had bashed her for her crimes against children) and thug Lou Kelly to bring down Myra Desmond.

Her husband sent in a crew of terrorists to aid her escape from Wentworth, who began to execute inmates unless a safe route was provided for her escape by the authorities. Her escape attempt was thwarted by The Freak and she was transferred to Blackmoore. She was later beaten to death by the other prisoners in Blackmoore after The Freak showed her rap sheet to Blackmoore screw Cynthia Leech.

The Queer Contingent and Lily Savage Behind Bars

PRISONER was a pretty diverse show with several main characters who were lesbians — including troublemaker Franky Doyle, American Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbitt was one of the longest serving cast members), her girlfriend Sharon Gilmour and Joan Ferguson. It was a show gay viewers could get behind, and is still much-loved by members of the gay community. Lynne Hamilton’s mournful theme song is performed regularly by drag queens and cabaret stars around the world.

British drag artiste Ms. Lily Savage found herself doing hard-time (for soliciting) in the musical revival of PRISONER back in the 1990s. The potty-mouthed lady of loose morals was joined on stage by Maggie Kirkpatrick, reprising her iconic role of Joan Ferguson. Watch the behind-the-scenes footage below with a terrified Lily revealing all about life inside:

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Foxtel’s contemporary reimagining of PCBH is as grim and disturbing as OZ and follows Bea Smith (XENA’S Danielle Cormack) who finds herself behind bars after attempting to murder her husband. Now in its fifth season, the show takes place in a maximum security prison, which is being run by Top Dog Franky Doyle (Nicole Di Silva).

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Charting Bea’s progression from abused woman to brutal Top Dog and has won a multitude of awards. Pamela Rabe joined the cast in the second season as a colder incarnation of Joan Ferguson — more akin to Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal than Maggie Kirkpatrick’s creation of The Freak.

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