Revisiting the prisoners in Cell Block H

When Prisoner began in 1979, no one could have predicted it would go on to air 692 episodes and become a cult classic. In light of Foxtel’s commissioning of Prisoner re-imagining WentworthBob Ellis looks back at the original.

Watching the first episodes of Prisoner today, when Helen Travers (Kerry Armstrong) and Lynn Warner (Pieta Toppano) are ‘settling in’ (one is innocent of burying a baby alive, the other guilty of stabbing an adulterous husband who bullied her into an abortion, his death a scene reminiscent of Psycho) and Bea (Val Lehman) and Mum are released from what Scott Morrison would call ‘luxury accommodation’, we are less drawn into the unfolding stories and characters than we were in 1979.

We are less keen now to accept the bullying, the furniture-smashing violence, the unremarked corruption, the Governor’s piss-elegant Toorak accent, the male doctor’s bad acting, and the, well, imprecise morality at the heart of the whole sadomasochistic mishmash of shallow gesticulation and slut-feminist railing it became. That the sympathetic screw Meg (Elspeth Ballantyne) is a good and decent person is hard to swallow once we know how much she knows of the injustice around her; and Mum’s tranquil stoic wisdom as she prunes her roses in the prison garden seems so Terence Rattigan, so Beaumaris Players 1955, so morally oblivious to the crimes against humanity around her you want to throw a boot at the screen.

And Carol Burnes as Franky, the dominant bull-dyke (“I run things round here,” she is still bizarrely asserting the day before her release) has the problem of dialogue so lump-witted it prevents her ferocious lunges at performance.

When compared with The Magdalene Sisters, Cool Hand Luke or The Shawshank Redemption, the dialogue, in this post-Guantanamo era of torture reappraised, approaches the unbearable. Every utterance is a dot-point wrapped in a cliché, and characterisation is on life support in.

And then there is the difficulty of the documentary truth and the cosy decor. We expect something like Riot In Cell Block 15, with iron bars, handcuffs and tin cups rattling as the hangman works round the clock and the remorseful murderer awaits his pardon, but we get instead the dull rooms of a down-market boarding school, good food, a choice of paid jobs, a patient staff who give you successive single rooms upon request and, occasionally, for money, a wild night of lesbian pleasure with the bull-dyke of your preference.

Only the fist fight in the trampled rose garden is, in the first three episodes, convincing. The rest of it seems in denial of the brutality the show was surely about. What has changed now, after Hicks, Habib, Haneef, Assange and Corby and the Australians hanged for drug muling in various overseas hell-holes, is our attitude to punishment and redemption through incarceration. It all seems a cruel joke now, with everyone ‘inside’ a product of dysfunctional parenting or hasty marriage to a louse, and the smugness of the incarcerators all the more unbearable, like the lofty wisdom of priests you know to be pederasts.

One can see why it was popular in its day – it reminded so many entrapped housewives of their own inescapable servitude – but it has not survived as anything close to entertainment or instruction.

Our standards of dialogue have risen. At no point does it resemble, say, In Treatment. At no point does it reach  the level of Stir, or even Porridge, and it remains the sort of pro-am embarrassment, with that peculiar Melbourne mixture of elocuted haughtiness and vulgarity that made producers Grundys and Crawfords and their cattle-calls a kind of Long March for good actors hoping to eat while putting together a one man show or awaiting a call from John Bell.

So much talent was wasted in the end, on a sado-masochistic exercise in dumbed-down grimy feminism that could have been so much better.

  • This feature is from the March issue of Encore magazine. To suscribe visit iSubscribe.


  1. Cuthbert
    6 Mar 12
    1:34 pm

  2. How very dare you!

    Insulting Prisoner should be a punishable offence.

    You’re off to see the governor, Ellis!

  3. Alison_F
    6 Mar 12
    4:36 pm

  4. Who is this Bob Ellis???? I couldn’t agree more with Cuthbert!
    In fact, all the aspects Mr Ellis has attacked are the very attributes that made it cult in the first place and currently keep me and my entire circle of friends enthralled with each new episode on Triple 1 Hits on Foxtel.
    I really wouldn’t be surprised if the reason they are now re-imagining it is to do with the ratings for the re-runs.
    I was too young to be allowed to watch it the first time round, but I don’t plan on missing any now – and I can’t wait for a revamp that hopefully will ignore the diatribe of the post above.

  5. Rawnoceros
    6 Mar 12
    5:55 pm

  6. It was brilliant TV. I saw Maggie Kirkpatrick (The Freak, Officer Joan Ferguson) ahead of me in the security check at Sydney Airport just the other week and was too terrified to even look at her. She was the baddest of screws.

  7. Mr Darcy
    8 Mar 12
    1:16 am

  8. It may seem dated and the dialogue dumbed down as I believe you put it? But, it was no different to the other 80’s soapies, Cop Shops, Sons and Daughters or A Country Practice. What Prisoner did for most if not all of Australia’s female actors, was give them leading roles, some household names and a foot in the door. Bravo I say. Love it.

  9. Stephen Pickells
    12 Mar 12
    8:01 pm

  10. The author makes two mistakes in the first sentence. Kerry Armstrong played Lynn Warner, Peita Toppano played the other one. So much for research. He’s also a bad writer in my opinion. Too many clumsy descriptions, not enouh editing.
    And what pontification! It’s vomit-inducing. Actually, the characters developed as the show progressed. This article is pointless.

  11. Mark Clayton
    15 Mar 12
    7:34 pm

  12. The writer of this piece of rubbish should be fired, as should the editor for allowing it!

    The writer makes 2 huge mistakes in the opening paragraph. As Stephen Pickells pointed out, Kerry Armstrong did indeed play Lynn Warner and Pieta Toppano played KAREN Travers, not Helen as he put it.

    The whole piece of writing is biased and a complete waste of time.

  13. Teddy
    17 Mar 12
    12:49 pm

  14. Indeed you are right Stephen, the writer cannot even get the character and the actor names correct and he is hurling rubbish at the show. He should make sure he gets all his facts right before embarking on what he believes is a review of the show.
    Peta Toppano played Karen Travers, where the hell he got her name as Helen from is beyond me.
    Long live Prisoner !!!

  15. Mirrorgirl
    17 Mar 12
    12:52 pm

  16. Wanker journalist who wouldn’t know entertainment if it fell on him from a great height. I dare say that he watched one or two episodes with a jaundiced and closed mind and wrote a piece he expected would be agreed with…sorry mate, everyone but you loved it.

  17. Val
    26 Mar 12
    2:13 pm

  18. Bob used to write for playskool,
    I wish he would again,
    But that was when he had a crayon,
    And things were different then.

    We built a popular T.V show,
    With women brave and strong,
    But Ellis doesn’t know their names,
    His dribble mostly wrong.

    On the inside the sun still shines,
    And Bob just falls down,
    His opinion is a prisoner too,
    When morning comes around.

    Last night I dreamed Bobs demise forever,
    Sharing no more of his drone,
    Til I had to face the nightmare,
    I was posting at his home :)

    On the inside the roses grow,
    They ignore the B.E ground,
    Saving all their thorny spikes,
    For when this man comes around.

    Bob used to write for playskool,
    I wish he would again,
    But that was when he had a crayon,