TV Transformations & Transgressive Women- From Prisoner, Cell Block H to Wentworth
Stories & Ideas

Thu 27 Oct 2022

TV Transformations & Transgressive Women: From Prisoner, Cell Block H to Wentworth

Industry Representation Television
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Leaona Cusick

Retail Manager

A new book takes a deep dive into the iconic 1980s Australian women-in-prison TV drama Prisoner and its contemporary reimagining, Wentworth.

Written with love by a collective of expert aca-fans, TV Transformations & Transgressive Women takes us on a fascinating journey through the cultural legacies of Australia’s favourite prison TV dramas.

ACMI Shop manager Leaona Cusick talks with the authors of this title, and finds out more about their practices and what inspires them.

Tell us about your research practice, what motivates and inspires you?

We are a group of screen researchers working across traditional screen studies and creative practice research, particularly screenwriting. Working across four universities in Melbourne and Adelaide, we examine contemporary industry practices (e.g., script development, media production) and screen policy, and undertake textual analysis of various films and television shows. We also research screen practitioners – what they do, how they do it, and how they feel about what they do. We are inspired by good quality screen content, which as well as having high levels of craft and innovation, means work that is inclusive, diverse, and has high levels of integrity. We love what we do – not just because it means we get to watch a load of great stuff!

What made working on this book so special?

We had a great time jointly convening the ‘Wentworth is the New Prisoner’ international conference. It was that project which led to this book. The conference brought together a fantastic group of local and international researchers and industry creatives, all focused around Foxtel’s hit TV series Wentworth (2013–21) and its iconic predecessor, the cult Australian women-in-prison drama Prisoner (1979–86), known internationally as Prisoner: Cell Block H. While quite select and focused, the conference spanned a number of days and included diverse perspectives and experiences, including panel discussions with screenwriters, actors, casting directors and VR creators, themed research presentations and a legendary trivia night featuring live music and interpretative dance! It was great to explore these impressive local screen dramas in such depth whilst celebrating reflecting on the Australian TV industry context more broadly.

Prisoner (Fremantle, 1979–86). Image via the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Prisoner (Fremantle, 1979–86). Image via the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

How did the book title TV Transformations and Transgressive Women: From Prisoner: Cell Block H to Wentworth originate?

After much discussion, we settled on this title in order to capture how the book as a whole reflects upon the relationship between Wentworth and Prisoner – thinking through links and disparities, the 27-year interval between these productions and their distinct industry contexts. We wanted to highlight the huge industrial changes that have occurred since Prisoner premiered and the journey that led to its 2013 reimagining as Wentworth. These two series provide a fascinating way to map industry change within a local TV framework. At the same time, it was critical that gender be highlighted upfront in the book’s title – as this is key to both series, their fandoms and cult followings, and the way both series engage with issues of transgression.

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What are some of the sources of inspiration that you draw from when doing screen research?

Good drama! The work we research must be compelling and have us hooked. We don’t want to be bored to tears. That said, it must be meaningful drama and conflict – the type that digs deep into culture and society and encourages us to think about the situations people find themselves in (not always by their own accord). We’re also inspired to produce research that has relevance and impact for the screen industry – reflecting back on the industry so it can hopefully learn and improve.

How does the world of screen culture influence your work?

Our book is about much more than just the TV shows Prisoner and Wentworth. It really explores the cultures surrounding the shows, telling stories of how they emerged and probing the variety of meanings produced from them. Our analysis of the screen cultures surrounding Prisoner and Wentworth ranges from the historical context of prison reform movements, how the shows were written, what it was like to work on them, the politics on set and the politics of the text, and how fans have engaged with the shows in loving, provocative and creative ways.

Leah Purcell and Rarriwuy Hick in Wentworth. Courtesy Fremantle Pty Ltd.

Leah Purcell and Rarriwuy Hick in Wentworth. Courtesy Fremantle Pty Ltd.

Is there a favourite exhibition you remember? How did this affect your practice? Is there an exhibition you'll like to see curated in the future?

We were really pleased to be able to contribute to the selection and presentation of artefacts in the Wentworth/Prisoner display in ACMI’s permanent exhibition The Story of the Moving Image. We reflected on how audiences engage with the show, especially how fans create further art and meaning from beloved shows like Prisoner and Wentworth. Exhibitions like this can be an important part of how shows are remembered and valued. Of course we’d love to see an entire exhibition devoted to Prisoner, Wentworth and their fans!

Otherwise, thinking back on ACMI exhibitions past, there are so many that stand out: ‘Wonderland’s imaginative deep dive into the Alice in Wonderland classic and its unique relationship to the screen; Angela Mesiti’s 3-channel video installation ‘The Calling’ that explored whistling languages in Turkey, Greece and the Canary Islands; Soda Jerk’s Terror Nullius parody remix of Australian screen culture and mythology; Lynette Wallworth’s Western Australian desert VR experience ‘Collisions’ that connected audiences with Indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan and the Martu tribe; Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’; Candice Breitz’s ‘The Character’; and ‘Deep Space: Sensation and Immersion’– the ACMI gallery’s opening exhibition from 2003!

What are you currently watching, playing, streaming?

Severance (Apple TV), The Staircase (HBO), NFSA’s restored print of Starstruck (Armstrong, 1982), The Split (ABC iView), Vera (ABC iView), Station Eleven (HBO Max, Stan), Borgen – Power & Glory (Netflix), Gogglebox Australia (Binge), A League of their Own (Prime Video).

Join us to celebrate the launch of this title in the ACMI Shop, 5–6pm Friday 11th November 2022, free to attend.

See production stills and props from these iconic shows in our centrepiece exhibition, The Story of the Moving Image. Book your tickets today.

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