Tom Lappin delves into the Prisoner: Cell Block thenomenon as it makes the transition from small screen to stage. Plus Radio Scotland’s new evening schedules.
LISTINGS: WEEK ONE 68 WEEK TWO 69
Crooked Tom Lappin goes
antipodean with TV’s all-woman
cult soap stars as Prisoner Cell
Block H raids the Glasgow stage. I
‘()n the outside the sun still shines
And the rain still pours down
But the sun and rain are prisoners too
When morning comes around. . . ‘
Lynn llamilton took the schmaltzy theme to Prisoner ('e/l Bloek 11 into the top ten a couple of years ago. It‘s about as close as the Aussie soap ever gets to sentiment. Prisner. as its ever-growing army ofdevotees call it. is a long way removed from the cosy cooings of Kylie and Jason. and not afraid oftackling the big issues: in Wentworth Detention Centre rape. extortion. daring escapes. alcoholism and lesbian love affairs are regularly featured. occasionally all in the same episode. ‘Gritty‘ I think they call it. Not content with reaching upwards of ten million viewers on the TV screen. a stage version is currently touring. featuring two ofthe original Australian cast.
Prisoner was created by Reg Watson in 1979 and ran for seven years in Australia. Reg was a Crossroads producer in the UK before returning to the land down under to become phenomenally successful in the soap creation game. Neighbours. Sons and Daughters. and Young Doctors were all Reg‘s babies earning him the title of ‘The Pope Of Soap‘. It was nice to see that Reg put the production values learnt on Crossroads to good use. On some of his shows. the dialogue as wooden as the makeshift sets, would not have been out of place in the late not-so-lamented motel.
Perhaps it was the motel Reg was thinking about. when he created Wentworth. and its inmates. The series started with the traumas of ‘Frankie‘ Doyle. a kind ofJames Cagney reborn as a lesbian sociopath. talking with difficulty out of the side of her mouth. Frankie went out with a
bang, shot in the back while on the run. and the series settled down into the routine of bullying. gambling and drug-pushing.
But let‘s not be too snide about Prisoner. Perhaps because it was made earlier than the latest anodyne breed ofsoap. it has a harder edge. with more rounded characterisation. occasionally undermined by the desire to pack as much action as possible into a single episode. The interplay between prisoners and warders is the real strength of the show. offering plenty of examples of the Aussie talent for insults.
‘Vinegar Tits‘ is the nickname for tough-as something-very-tough-indeed warder Vera Bennett. played by Fiona Spence. Vera‘s merciless disciplinarian streak was tempered by some insights into her private life recently. where. depressed by a casual sexual encounter she lapses into alcoholism. ‘I never saw Vera as inhuman.‘ says Fiona. ‘she does have this other side to her. She‘s always honest and plays things by the book. There‘s another character coming up in the future who makes Vera look like a Girl Guide.‘
Fiona and Jane Clifton (who plays prison ‘bookie‘ Margo Gaffney) attribute Prisoner‘s
success to its ability to depict believable
characters, albeit not in everyday circumstances. ‘It was a different show,‘ says Fiona. ‘It certainly broke new ground in Australia ten years ago. It was the characters who grabbed people‘s interest; these very. very strong characters.‘
‘The problems the women faced in the jail were pretty much everyday problems.‘ adds Jane. ‘Problems with their families. or getting on with other people. it had that common touch.‘
Both actresses are careful to point out that Prisoner has a family following. with the stage show attracting a wide mix of people. In the past it has been described as a cult show very popular with gay women. (‘ertainly one of the refreshing aspects ofthe programme is that the women are not idealised in any way. ‘People were plain and ordinary.‘ says Jane. ‘The women you saw were by no means glamorous. That was fantastic for us as actresses. not having to be stereotyped. and there was an enormous range of roles for women, which was wonderful.‘
Fiona Spence actually left the series back in 1981. so it might be thought she would have difficulties getting back into the part for the stage show. especially as she is now equally well known for her part as the less formidable Celia Stewart in HomeAndA way. ‘No. even after nine years it is a character I know very well. Being Vera on stage has been a nice break from Celia. and the audiences have been great.‘
Jane Clifton‘s part as Margo (iaffney has been slightly updated for the stage version taking on a nastier streak. ‘On the TV show Margo is still the bookie. quite good fun.‘ explains Jane. ‘but later on she gets a lot harder and starts drug-pushing. It‘s the later Margo I‘ll be doing on stage.‘
Prisoner fanatics are packing out the stage shows. and heading home to catch the TV programme. Lizzie's stash ofgrog has been discovered and there looks like being hell to pay. ‘We‘re in the entertainment business.‘ says Fiona Spence. ‘One ofthe biggest things in prison is boredom. and we can‘t show that can we'." No comment. Sing it Lynn.
' You used to bring me roses
Perhaps you will again
But that was on the outside
And things were drfferentthen . . . '
Prisoner Cell Block H . the stage show is at the King‘s Theatre Glasgow front Q/lpril. The TV series is on 5 TV Mondays and Fridays around 11.30pm.
WHO’S WHO IN WENTWORTH DETENTION CENTRE
I THE STAFF . disliked ior her
Erica Davison: The disciplinarian views. has Govemess. Known as Dave 5 shown signs at soitening
to the prisoners and recently.
generally liked and Meg Jackson: Recently respected. Her humanity ' married a prisoner's lather. and understanding make so her luture looks
Googie Withers look like ' uncertain. Generally MargaretThatcher. angelic. benign and
Vera Bennett: ‘Vinegar Tits' herseli. generally
recipient oi the prisoners' ultimate accolade at being
8 ‘900a SWW- Bea Smith: ‘to do ’at Jim Fletcher: Token man. wentwonh by sing: or Slightly bitter and twisted being me biggest and since his entire iamin was meanest Sets the mom Will!“ 0|" in 8mm" tone whereby battering circumstances. Has taken to husbands to death with a llddliﬂll the (My "mm and polo mallet is welcomed. "809W 0|" l" 8138'" but any crime involving nightclubs. Who can blame chum," of drug; is ; him? anathema. and suitablelor I THE PRISONEHS Ben's own lorms oi
punishment. Frankie Doyle. A ‘victim at Lizzie Birdswith: A society' who recently
habitual criminal. who attempted suicide.
commits crimes because Margo Gaitney: A sneaky
she likes the company in background character. who
Wentworth. Her grog store makes “D "18 b00k810r
is at the centre oithe Bea's oamblina ventures.
current drama. About to develop into a Doreen Burns: Childlike i WHY-"8008“ d'UO'DUSMf-
wail. who took herteddy ! bear when on the run with
The List 6— 1‘) April [99067