Reviews

Prisoner: Cell Block H - 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition

Bill Gibron

Women in prison. What wonderful, wanton images those three words conjure up.


Prisoner

Distributor: A&E
Cast: Maggie Kirkpatrick, Val Lehman, Anne Phelan, Glenda Linscott, Fiona Spence, Gerda Nicolson, Betty Bobbit
Subtitle: Cell Block H - 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition
Network: Grundy Television Productions
First date: 1979
US Release Date: 2004-11-11
Last date: 1986
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Women in prison. What wonderful, wanton images those three words conjure up. A mainstay of drive-in cinema, films focusing on girls behind bars smack of exploitation and soiled male fantasies. But when discussing Prisoner: Cell Block H, you can put all those pandering, patriarchal concepts away. It is perhaps the closest the small screen has ever come to an honest portrayal of ladies in lockup.

Airing from 1979 to 1986, Prisoner (the "Cell Block H" tag was added for international syndication, to avoid confusion with the Patrick McGoohan series) followed the inmates and staff of Wentworth Detention Center in Australia (where the show was created and filmed). Over the course of 692 episodes, Prisoner tackled such taboo subjects as homosexuality, corruption, abuse, and prisoner reform. Weaving complex, season-long stories in between individual character studies and sudden narrative surprises, the series was, of all things, a crackerjack soap.

Until now, viewers outside Australia had limited access to the series (it showed briefly in the U.S. in the early '80s). Now A&E, that way-station for obscure Anglo product, offers a 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition: three discs with four one-hour episodes each. The first disc covers the early years, focused on inmate leader (or "Top Dog") "Queen" Bea Smith (Val Lehman), the second follows a terrifying terrorist plot to help a crime boss's wife escape, and the last includes the proper comeuppance for wicked guard Joan "The Freak" Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick).

While it's great to be re-experience this fantastic series after years of its unavailability, the selected episodes here omit several of the show's most beloved characters. Anyone interested in such Prisoner stalwarts as Doreen Burns (Colette Mann), Freda "Franky" Doyle (Carol Burns), Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton) or Vera "Vinegar Tits" Bennett (Fiona Spence) will be displeased. The cruel Doyle is relegated to a solitary clip show, while Vera gets a single appearance as a vicious guard before she is promptly promoted and leaves the series for good.

Other characters have more screen time. The devilish Ferguson appears in 11 of the 12 episodes, even if many of her most notorious acts are omitted. (Though, in the final two episodes here, she gets her long delayed punishment.) The memorable characters are largely functions of brilliant work by the actors: from Lehman's part-bitch/part-mother Bea to Anne Phelan as inmate and activist Myra Desmond, Prisoner offers one tour de force performance after another.

Despite these memorable turns, however, the DVD set's scattershot selection is a puzzle (you may find yourself asking repeatedly, "What makes this episode more significant than others?"). The main narrative thrust of the everyday struggle of the inmates against the system and each other will keep you glued to your chair, and the subplots, like Lou Kelly's (Louise Siversen) will pissed-off play for power raise aggravating, persistent questions. Wonderfully written and acted, the show is occasionally hampered by its very premise. Though the prison setting is ripe with all manner of hideous possibilities, Prisoner was curtailed by obvious censorship issues. It was also affected by late '70s/early '80s Australia's encounters with an influx of "adult entertainment." Many viewers considered Prisoner controversial, given the island continent's notorious founding as a British penal colony. Others feared its "glamorizing" portrait of prison would encourage, not deter, future criminal activity.

Prisoner's several year run could not possibly be summed up in 12 episodes, and so this set leaves viewers unfamiliar with the show scratching their heads in confusion. One moment Ann Reynolds (Gerda Nicolson) is the Governor (head of the prison), the next she is taking a motorcycle holiday with some unknown man. Poor Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbit), who exited and entered Wentworth repeatedly, is showcased a couple of times, but her struggles with elements both inside and outside prison are not dealt with directly. Cheeky little Mouse (Jentah Sobott) is escaping one minute, burning to death the next. And Kath Maxwell's (Kate Hood) quick shift -- having dinner with male Governor Bob Morris (Anthony Hawkins) then becoming and inmate (she kills her handicapped daughter) -- is a bit mind-boggling. It takes careful listening, and a couple of rewinds, to learn the years of backstory missed as we jump several hundred episodes into the series. And we still can't fill in all the blanks.

Still, the fact that Prisoner can survive such baffling back-and-forth is a testament to its power. The delicious bonus features, consisting of a set of interview featurettes, offer us a chance to see Lehman and Phelan as they are today; they report how floored they are about the series' continued success (it recently ended a successful rerun, to incredibly high ratings, in England). The cult of Prisoner continues for one reason: it is a great show. Here's hoping that more of it will be made available to fans worldwide. Catching up with the inmates of Wentworth is jail time well spent.

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