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.

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