Women in prison. What wonderful, wanton images those three words conjure up. Hot and sweaty catfighting. Lonely nights of lesbian passion. Skimpy prison uniforms that seem to be more contour fitting than normal. Cavity searches! One of the mainstays of drive-in cinema, and a true cable channel constant back in the days when Cinemax showed virtually nothing but b movie BMs, the idea of focusing on girls behind bars has always smacked of exploitation and soiled male fantasy. Well, you can put all those pandering concepts away when Prisoner: Cell Block H is the ladies in lockup being discussed. More like the HBO drama Oz except without all the ass rape, this Australian anomaly about the life and times of some honeys in the hoosegow is one conjugal visit that will definitely change your mind about the notion of sweeties in solitary.
Serious to a fault, occasionally campy in its potboiler plotting, and always good for a gratuitous giggle, this Downunder diorama has long been considered a shameless sensation amongst the felony-minded faithful. American fans who recall the show from its fleeting appearance on stations around the nation in the early 80s are probably jumping at the chance to witness this wonder once again. Well, the wait is over – but it may not be exactly what "Blockies" (as the cult is called) bargained for. After a quarter of a century waiting, the Arts and Entertainment network is releasing a three DVD set of the show. But instead of going for a single storyline, or following a complete series arc – either individual or circumstantial – for a digital display, this is really a meaningless montage. It's just a collection of episodes more or less picked at random, featuring far too many characters to keep track of. Fans already familiar with the series will be glad to revisit old friends – and infamous enemies. But they may be more than a bit befuddled by the presentation.
For 692 episodes, Prisoner (the "Cell Block H" tag was added for worldwide syndication to avoid confusing it with the Patrick McGoohan entity from the late 60s) told the story of the inmates, and the staff, of the Wentworth Detention Center. Over the course of its eight seasons, Prisoner explored life behind bars, tackling such hot button issues as homosexuality, corruption, abuse, reform, love and violence. It was a show filled with heart and horror. It wove complex, season long stories in between individual character studies and sudden narrative surprises to craft a crack jack soap opera style show. Dealing in general with the three way struggle between the prisoners, the guards and the administration, the series also managed to squeeze in some social relevance, a little wish fulfillment and some very memorable maniacs into the canon of criminal justice.
For a while now, other parts of the world have had a chance to witness the wonders of Prisoner, either in repeat showings or on region-specific DVDs. Now A&E, that way station for other global world product is offering the 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition as more or less a repackaging of a similar set released in Australia in 2002. On this set, you will find:
Season 3/Show 166: The first show of the 1981 season has a few of the inmates trying to escape through an underground tunnel. A cave-in separates the gang and traps a few in a dark, claustrophobic Hell.
Season 4/Show 287: This episode sees the return of a former prisoner, as well as the hunt for a hidden liquor operation within the jail. More importantly, a new "screw" (prisoner officer) arrives and immediately makes her presence felt.
Season 5/Show 327: The first show of the 1983 season sees the prisoners purposefully setting a fire to cover-up a crime. While the plan is thwarted, a few of the inmates, as well as some staff, are trapped inside.
Season 5/Show 400: Signaling the final episode for one of the series most beloved characters, the sadistic new screw sets her sights on unseating the top dog (inmate leader). And she does just that.
All Shows from Season 7 (1985)
Show 536: In a rare moment of reflection, a couple of the prisoners recall some favorite moments, and infamous faces, from Wentworth's rather jaded past.
Show 550, 551, 552: Recruited to rescue the wife of a notorious crime boss, a group of terrorists storm Wentworth. When their plans go array, they start making threats, and killing inmates – one an hour – until their demands are met.
All Shows from Season 8 (1986-87)
Show 600 & 601: A disgruntled prisoner leads a riot, resulting in the death of a fellow convict. As the Governor (prison warden) weighs his next move, the troublemaker pits a screw against an inmate in a fight to the death.
Show 691 & 692: When the top dog is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the prison population is in turmoil. But their dying compatriot has a plan to fix one of facilities most notorious denizens once and for all.
Where does one begin with A&E's 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition of Prisoner: Cell Block H. American fans have been kvetching for years since it was known that other regions were able to see this series once again. Up until a couple of years ago, the gay-themed Pride Cable network had been airing the show in Canada (the rebroadcast is on hold as some rights issues are resolved) and both the UK and Australian devotees have had a few box sets of the show to wet their women in prison whistle (sadly, all follow the same set up as this box when it comes to the offering of episodes). So just to be able to have a set of shows to watch is an accomplishment that many Block buffs thought they'd never experience. But this also means that we are stuck with an indiscriminate approach to the presentation, a facet of this feature that truly sabotages several of the show's sensational personas. Anyone interested in such Cell stalwarts as Doreen Burns, Freda "Franky" Doyle, Chrissie Latham or Vera "Vinegar Tits" Bennet will be incredibly displeased with this display. Doyle, the dangerous dyke is relegated to a clip show (Episode 536) while Vera gets a single appearance (Episode 166) before she's promoted and leaves the series for good.
Now, if you love Joan "The Freak" Ferguson, one of the most devious, depraved devils in the history of television (naturally, she is a prison GUARD), you'll really warm to this collection. Our molesting, murdering Ms. appears in 11 of the 12 episodes here, and as essayed by the formidable Maggie Kirkpatrick, she's one of the definitive examples of that gloriously grotesque baddie you love to hate. Unfortunately, most of her most notorious acts are left for the shadows of memory> Indeed in a couple of cases, Ferguson is kept almost exclusively in the background. Disc 3 gives us a chance to see the development of Rita Connors, from top dog to mastermind of Ferguson's ruination, and the early episodes featuring original prison "Queen", Bea Smith, provides an instant understanding as to the series initial popularity. Still, the furthest back we go here is Season 3, and several of the storylines (everything revolving around Franky, Vinegar Tits, and an abusive male guard named Jock Stewart) that made Prisoner what it is in the eyes of the faithful are barely even hinted at.
This leaves any critic with a definitely divisive ideal about the DVD. On the one hand, we finally get a chance to see it, to shore up those recollections from syndicated glimpses dozens of years ago. It's an opportunity to revisit Lizzie and her dopey drunken droning. We can wallow in the base brassiness of Bea Smith and boo and hiss as supreme slag Lou Kelly demoralizes everyone and everything around her in the never-ending battle to be Wentworth's top dog. But the scattershot approach to the episode selection becomes a puzzle in and of itself (you will find yourself saying more than once "what makes this installment better or more significant than others?") and proves a very schizophrenic entertainment situation. The main thrust of the narrative will keep you glued to your chair. The subplots bobbing and weaving within the tale like an amateur boxer with ADD will cause aggravating questions that constantly nag at the back of your brain. From the subtlest moment to the most outlandish acts, this grab bag approach smells of appeasement, not appreciation for individuals in love with the show.
Once you've gotten past the fact that you will be seeing selected moments from the series, that you'll not be able to quickly pickup on past storylines or understand most of the underlying drama between the characters and the circumstances, you can actually settle in and enjoy Prisoner: Cell Block H for all that it is. The easy way to define the show is to call it a soap opera located in a strangely antithetical non-Peyton Place, or a Melbourne style serial in which the drama occasionally borders on the 'mela' side of refinement. In either case, the description would be missing some crucial, clever facts. Prisoner: Cell Block H is a wonderfully written, expertly acted narrative occasionally hampered by the inability to fully explore the environment it works within. The penitentiary premise is ripe with all manner of horrible, hideous possibilities – female version or not – but this is not pay cable, or even the rather loosey-goosey standards of American broadcast television. Australia in the late 70s and early 80s was going through a cultural crisis, with the undeniable influence of adult entertainment swamping the previously puritanical island continent. For it's time, Prisoner was an envelope pushing program, addressing issues that were more or less unspoken in the Aussie media.
Disc One is subtitled "The Early Years", but it could very easily have been subtitled "The Bea Smith Saga", "The Growing Pains Cycle" or "The Arrival of 'The Freak'". During its first few seasons, the series had a revolving door of memorable and forgettable characters, but along with The Freak and Vinegar Tits, Bea is a long time fan favorite, and at least two of the shows here – 166 and 400 – give actress Val Lehman a chance to really strut her stuff. Bea is part-bitch, part-mother and all aggression as she attacks those who would undermine her authority while taking the position of Top dog with the grain of compassion and compromise it requires. A&E would have been better served by giving us 12 episodes revolving around Bea and her escapades. Four is hardly enough to get to really know this outstanding character.
The same goes for Myra Desmond, another classic Top dog character in Prisoner. From what we see of her reign in Wentworth, Myra appears to combine Bea's muscle with the thoughtfulness and compassion of her original role - on the outside world – as a member of the Prison Reform Board (she ends up in Wentworth for killing her husband). Yet, again, the box set approach undermines her impact, as we are immediately thrown into a less than successful three-part story involving ultra-witch Ruth Ballinger and a terrorist siege. This triptych to overacting and perfunctory plotting has far too many female breakdown scenes, some of the worst male characters ever crafted (from the stupid criminals in charge of springing Ballinger to the dumb-ass cops trying to capture them) and further proof that, as criminals, these women are more matronly than menacing (they get several chances to thwart the thugs and fail every time). But since it is the last we see of Myra, her final moments have an shock that softens the senselessness of all the silliness swirling around them. And as usual, the performance by Anne Phelan is wonderful – sharp, subdued and salient – tossing around her authority only when necessary. While she does get a sensational send-off, Myra deserves better when it comes to explaining her impact as a character and as an integral part of Prisoner's appeal.
Perhaps the best realized retrofitting of the series into this obtuse retrospective setting comes on Disc 3. The focus this time is on Rita Connors, a biker gal who ends up as the series final relevant top dog. While we don't get enough background on why she hates "The Freak", or how she comes to gain the respect of the Governor or the rest of the inmates, the performance by actress Glenda Linscott is so affecting, so carefully considered that we fall instantly for Rita and her good-natured carefree force. From the first two episodes on this disc (where the vile Lou Kelly stages a badly bungled take over of Wentworth) to the final two shows of the series, where Ferguson gets her comeuppance, we sense the entire story arc within this character more so than any other in this set. The final two installments of Prisoner are especially strong, relying more on acting and familiarity with the plight and the personalities of the prisoners than it does some manner of clockwork plotting (the final celebratory shot is one of the most effective in the history of the series).
Yet, there is still that nagging sensation of only getting part of the story – and what a tiny part it is. Prisoner's eight year run could not possibly be summed up in 12 shows, and part of the problem with taking such an approach is that it leaves anyone unfamiliar with the show scratching their head in confusion. One moment Anne Reynolds is the Governor, the next she is taking a motorcycle holiday with some unknown man. Poor Judy Bryant who existed and entered Wentworth so often she should have simply been given a free pass, is showcased a couple of times, but her struggles with elements both inside and outside prison are only skirted around, not dealt with directly. Mouse, a meek little monkey with a daft amount of cheek, is escaping one minute, burning to death the next. And the strange disorientation one feels when Kath Maxwell goes from having dinner with male Governor Bob Morris to almost-instant inmate is a bit mind-boggling. It takes careful listening, and a couple of rewinds, to learn the years of back story you've missed as you jump several hundred episodes into the series. And you still won't fill in all the blanks.
Still, the fact that Prisoner can mostly survive this baffling back and forth is a testament to its power, as both a drama and as a display of exceptional acting. That these characters, who we barely know, can almost instantly draw us into their world and get us rooting for, or repulsed by, their actions is a strong recommendation indeed. As with most shows long forgotten but obsessively held onto, this DVD presentation will only wet, not satisfy, any devotees desire for more. And with the next few box sets destined to follow the same cock-up format (as they have in other regions) we may never see the series presented properly, in full season sets. So the desirability of Prisoner: Cell Block H - 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition will come directly from your previous passion for the show. True fans will gobble this up like some of Mervin Pringle's pot-laced health cakes. Others may be interested, if only to see what so many of their manic friends are going on about. Indeed, Prisoner is recommended for anyone wanting to experience the intentional seriousness and unintentional humor held within these penitentiary walls. The cult of Prisoner continues to this very day for one reason: it is a great show. Too bad the A&E box set couldn't live up to the stellar standards of the series it is reflecting.
You'd think that a show from Australia, captured on videotape in the late 70s and early 80s (when such technology was still pretty raw) and syndicated worldwide several times over would look much the worse for wear on DVD. Well, you'd be wrong. Even though the limitations of the medium back then meant that we get a less than vibrant or detailed image, the 1.33:1 transfer of Prisoner is amazing. Frankly, the show looks fantastic, filled with nice contrasts, excellent color correction, and just the tiniest amount of flaring. What's even more amazing, the earliest shows look as bright and clear as the latter seasons. Though not an artistically complex show, or overwhelming in its directorial conceits, the visual presentation by A&E of Prisoner: Cell Block H looks damn good.
On the sound side, there are a few minor quibbles with this Prisoner package. First off, there are several instances where the Italian horror inspired musical underscoring (the theme song, however, is a classic) nearly wipes out important dialogue. You have to struggle to hear the conspiracies or compassion in between all the keyboard blips and pompous percussion. But over the long haul, the Dolby Digital Stereo does a nice job of keeping the aural attributes in check. Anyone hoping the mix will be as atmospheric or moody as the series itself needs to look elsewhere. As with most TV dramas from the past, the sound is succinct and rather flat.
Sadly, many fans will be disappointed with the minimum of added features on these DVDs. Each disc contains a gallery of continuity photos, which are interesting in the short term, but have little historic or contextual relevance. If you want to know how the make-up crew matched up bruises, or how wardrobe made sure that blood stains and rips stayed consistent, this will be a gold mine of material. Others will see it an afterthought inclusion of somewhat pointless pictures.
Each disc also contains an interview (Disc 1 – Val "Bea Smith" Lehman, Disc 2 – Anne "Myra Desmond" Phelan, Disc 3 – Casting Director Jan Russ). Both Lehman and Phelan are excellent, reminiscing with wit and wisdom about their stint on the show. We learn that Bea was written out when Lehman wanted to expand her acting horizons. She felt that her top dog character had played itself out and she needed a new challenge. She marvels at how many people still recognize her for a show she completed over 20 years ago. Phelan tells a similar saga, except her departure was over money, not monotony. Myra met her unfortunate end because Phelan felt she should earn as much as another actress on the show. The producers thought otherwise. Both women are boisterous, in great spirits and love talking about the series. Jan Russ, who seems like an odd choice for a Q&A, spends far too much time talking about issues outside of Prisoner and really never gives us any more insight into the casting process other than "she was good, so we hired her...". With the focus here on The Freak, a discussion with actress Maggie Kirkpatrick about her infamous Ferguson character would have been better than the ersatz-career retrospective we get with Russ.
Perhaps the biggest blunder by A&E in the release of this set is a lack of storyline information. Some text based material giving us the context of the episodes we are about to see would have gone a long way to lessening the dizzying dislocation one gets jumping into Prisoner innocent and unprepared. While it may seem trivial, just a few lines of explanation would have made all the difference.
Is there a place more devoid of potential entertainment value than a prison? Starting from the premise that all involved in its operation, from the criminals to the screws, are individuals crawling around in and between the very tale end of acceptable social behavior to reality rife with rape, racism, and recidivism, it's hard to imagine mining anything remotely enjoyable or evocative out of the setting. Amazingly, Prisoner did just that. It figured that the people, not the place, were the key to success and milked that multi-faceted angle for all it was worth. Though A&E's treatment of the series is suspect to say the least, fans can still find something to sing about in this overview of a sensational series. Here's hoping more of this amazing show is made available for fans worldwide. Prisoner was excellent TV, and the chance to catch up with the inmates and institution of Wentworth is time well spent.
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