On its own, the feverish fandom for the Australian prison drama Prisoner (1979–86) is a fascinating thing. Airing 692 episodes over its seven-year run from 1979 to 1986, the show found not just a loyal Australian audience but an even bigger international one that has only grown in the years following its conclusion. There were attempts at German and American remakes, fan conventions, and an online social media presence that’s still growing with nearly 92,000 active users on Facebook alone. When you combine that fan history with Wentworth (2013–21) – Prisoner’s modern reinvention – it’s downright extraordinary. It had the biggest debut in Foxtel history when it first aired in 2013 and in the time since, its international audience has dwarfed its local one. Both series have the kind of legacy fandoms most showrunners can only dream about. Factor in the very specific source material, geographic origin, budget, and lack of household name talent and the feat is even more extraordinary.
A vintage documentary on Prisoner, featuring the cast and highlights from the show. Video via the oztvheritage YouTube channel.
Greig Chambers is based in Scotland, almost as far from the fictional Wentworth prison in Melbourne, Victoria that one could get (spare the Alaskan Prisoner/Wentworth fan community – if it exists). And yet, his love of Prisoner has spanned more than 30 years. It began in the late 1980s, when Chambers first started watching the show on Scottish TV Station (STV) as it was airing.
“I loved the characters, the fact that they were just normal, strong and flawed, without the glamour and falseness of the usual women in TV series,” he said. “They swore, they lost their temper, they made mistakes. It wasn’t all hearts and flowers and happy endings… There are some clunky storylines (which long standing series doesn’t?) and some parts which were a little tougher to believe than others, but it’s all forgivable because the actors and characters were so strong. Even the villains, the characters we loved to hate, the writers, and actors gave them redeeming features, made you want to follow their stories.”
It’s these villains that many consider to be one of the original show’s greatest features: characters like Vera ‘Vinegar Tits’ Bennett, Reb Kean, Franky Doyle, Margo Gaffney and Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson. They weren’t archetype antagonists: they were complex and multifaceted with infinite shades of grey. It’s a hallmark of the show that was groundbreaking already as a series largely comprised of just female characters.
“Kath Maxwell – and her relationship with Merle Jones – is a wonderful story of a woman who becomes the monster she is perceived to be, but ultimately attains redemption,” said Chambers, who cites the characters of Pixie Mason and Sonia Stevens as other standouts who were “wonderfully nasty characters who were victims in their own way too”.
Such is Chambers' love of the show, he handcrafted hundreds of Prisoner figurines of various characters, including key scenes and props like mini shivs and nooses. “The miniatures were designed mainly with sketches and photo references by myself and then sculpted in “Green Stuff” an epoxy putty, which allows them to be tweaked and changed as necessary, by my colleague in Canada,” he said. “I then had them shipped over to Britain where I made any final tweaks as necessary and then had them cast in Resin. Once cast, I was able to assemble and paint them and display them.”
According to Monash University Film and Screen Studies lecturer Tessa Dwyer, Prisoner’s success in the US was just as crucial as its growing UK fanbase during the period. “Prisoner is quite a radical and transgressive drama concept for television,” she said. “This was true when it premiered in 1979, and it remains so today, with high-profile 'Quality TV' series Orange Is the New Black (2013–19) and reboot Wentworth its closest counterparts. The fact that the series was sold for US syndication only six months after its Australian premiere is quite remarkable.” Dwyer noted that its popularity in “that highly competitive and complex market” was fascinating, with the series attracting two million viewers and often outranking rival shows on major networks like NBC and CBS.
The trailer for the first season of Wentworth from the Attention Compound YouTube channel.
The unexpected ‘hit’ status of the show came down to a few key factors. “It cannot be divorced from its authentic, down-to-earth 'Australianness',” said Dwyer. “Its female-focused storytelling and its spotlight on female transgression; women acting with aggression and violence, using threatening, coarse and irreverent language, breaking laws, challenging and subverting authority and displaying a range of non-normative sexualities.” It felt fresh to US audiences because it was, so much so that when the production company Grundy tried to do a male version of Prisoner called Punishment, “the concept really didn’t translate”.
There was a lesson learned from this, with Wentworth staying true to the theme and tone of its original when the retooled series first hit screens in 2013. The central premise and core elements of both shows were similar, but the execution had improved with the times: the show had a glossier sheen, the writing was tighter, the cast more inclusive, and the fights so real audiences could feel the emotional punches. And just like Prisoner, it too hit the mark despite the odds. Women behind bars has long been a staple of pulp fiction and exploitation according to Dwyer, yet despite Wentworth not being the only show in the market that met this criterion anymore, it still found eyeballs. “The women-in-prison setting introduces a female-dominant 'hub' which remains rare on television today,” said Dwyer. “Female 'hubs' allows for a wide range and diversity of women characters, and the fact that Prisoner and Wentworth's diverse inmates are also transgressive, often contravening social norms and laws, adds a further level of intrigue.”
There’s the in-depth, intellectual reasons both Prisoner and Wentworth have found dedicated, international followings. And then there’s the simpler explanations. “It was just a very brave and charismatic series,” said Chambers of Prisoner. “It was a show which allowed you to care for people who made mistakes, who got it wrong, didn’t fit in or who’d lost hope. In doing so it allowed you to feel that perhaps there was hope for you too, that the bad choices, crappy life, frustrating rules or whatever you were experiencing could be worse and would get better … it has allowed so many people to feel accepting of their own flaws and hopeful that those same flaws don’t define them.”
– Maria Lewis