Diary of an old cheeser

Hi there! Like other blogs, this is my chance to wax lyrical (some might say talk utter cr*p) about a) what's happening in my life b) all of my pet obsessions in particular music, tv, movies, books and other generally connected things, quite often of the retro, old and "cheesy" variety. Hence the title of my blog. Feel free to leave a comment if the mood takes you. There's nothing like a good chinwag about one's favourite topics and besides I love to meet new people! Cheers, Simon

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Cheeser's Choice: Prisoner: Cell Block H

Yep, it’s time for another Cheeser’s choice post. Welcome! It’s been a while, folks, since I waxed lyrical on the joys of Joanna Lumley. This time it’s the turn of a certain Australian soap opera/drama which ran from 1979-1986 (although it reached UK screens rather later than this).

It’s…Prisoner: Cell Block H (although originally entitled “Prisoner” in Aussieland, it’s name was lengthened over here, so as to avoid confusion with the Patrick McGoohan surreal fantasy drama of the 1960s – couldn’t be more different content wise though…) And I love the show. I’ve currently been addicted to watching loads of repeats of ""Prisoner", thanks to lots of uploads on You Tube – it’s been great to watch it again after all these years. They’ve even brought the programme out on DVD – all 692 episodes!! – and there’s a massive boxset you can purchase which I admit I’ve been sorely tempted by, if only a) it wasn’t so damned expensive b) I wasn’t paying a mortgage.

"Aaaah, fair go, Mrs M!" "I’m just going to the dunny for a smoko!" "You’re a rotten, flaming mongrel for dobbing me in to the governor, you beeeeeeeetch!"

Er, yes. Those are a few examples of some “classic” Prisoner dialogue, and any of you who are au fait with the show will know exactly what I’m going on about, I’m sure. If not, you’ll probably still know of the show by reputation – all about a load of loud, unattractive women in a prison wearing denim and getting into lots of fights and hair-pulling. The “fetching” brick wall interiors of the prison (they actually reminded me of Sussex University where I once studied) and the wobbling sets. The sub-standard acting. The fact that "Prisoner" was always shown really late on TV in some graveyard slot (usually after the news) and consequently made for essential trashy viewing after rolling in from the pub. Some of these things are true and some are apocryphal. Thus I am here to set the record straight. Or in some cases, confirm the rumours...

The ladies of Wentworth enjoy a spot of light lunch. Or breakie. Dig the yellow chinaware...Was it from IKEA?

To start, a common perception of the show is that its female characters, in particular the prisoners, were all, erm, a load of dogs, never wore make up or bothered to do their hair properly, as well as being a bunch of lesbians. Alright, this was PARTIALLY true - in its efforts to be realistic a lot of the women were certainly made to look as unattractive as possible and no-one could honestly say that characters like Bea Smith or Lizzie Birdsworth were “lookers”… (although it you look above some of the ladies aren't half bad...) And remember, this was supposed to be about prison life wasn’t it? It wasn’t “Dynasty” after all…

The great Queen Bea ... she ruled the roost ...

However the absence of glamour was more than compensated for by the characterisation – Val Lehman as leading prisoner Bea for instance made a fine central protagonist – gutsy, outspoken and rebellious, with a take no sh*t attitude. Yes, I know some of you out there will probably be chortling away to yourselves as you read this, thinking “What the hell is he on??” It’s true that in classic Aussie soap tradition, the characterisation, not to mention the acting in “Prisoner” was not ALWAYS of a particularly high calibre. There were some very cliched and stereotypical characters – not to say situations - in “Prisoner” and the way in which these were written could be quite two-dimensional – uptight, repressed prison officer Vera Bennett for example is a continual ogre of a person throughout her time in the show and rarely lets up, jokes or cracks a smile – could anyone really be so horrid? Maybe she’s not the best example to use though, as old Vera (or Vinegar Tits as she was more fondly known) became a bit of a fan favourite but there were other instances of poor characterisation in the programme. Not to mention the fact that the characters sometimes became a peg onto which the series writers hung whatever issues they were dealing with that week e.g. wife-beating, drug abuse, pregnancy, teenage delinquency…the list goes on.

Which kind of leads into another point about the storylines. Although I’ve (mildly) berated “Prisoner” for its tokenism, it was at least willing and able to deal with some fairly controversial themes – albeit in watered-down, sometimes simplistic soap opera style – as well as tackling the issues I’ve mentioned above there was lesbianism, political intrigue amongst the prison staff and more besides…And Prisoner did this years ahead of its UK counterparts (Val Lehman has been quoted as saying that they showed gay/lesbian characters long before English soaps and this is true). Often though, when a storyline involving a particular character had run its course, the character/s involved would completely vanish from our TV screen, never to be seen and rarely mentioned again, what I call the SSS (Surreal Soap Syndrome).

Going back to the sexuality thing, the majority of the female inmates in “Prisoner” were mainly heterosexual, although there were some major lesbian ones who sprung up during the course of proceedings, in particular the show’s first proper dyke Frankie Doyle, followed later on by Judy Bryant and then evil warder Joan Ferguson. What was also quite interesting was that a few of the ostensibly heterosexual inmates would “turn to women” during times of loneliness and isolation, like Doreen with Frankie or Chrissie with Sharon. Probably truer than we know, after all if you were banged up without a fella for all that time, wouldn’t you have to “make do”?!

Queen Bea squashes young Lynn's hand whilst Dopey Doreen looks on. Nasty!

Another crucial element of “Prisoner” and life in Wentworth was the top dog. Charming term! The top dog was basically the leader of the women inmates and the point of contact between the prisoners and the Governor. Over the course of the show we saw several of them, and lots of power struggles ensued between the women over who was going to seize ultimate control. The focal point for the top dog was the, erm, steam press in the laundry room and whoever got to operate it was in charge! Woe betide anyone who got on the wrong side of the top dog too – they’d usually get their hand forced underneath the press by way of punishment like the naive Lynn Warner in the very first episode.

Prison officer Vera "Vinegar Tits" Bennett and Margaret-Thatcher-lookalike Governor Erica Davidson

Another good aspect of the show was that it focused not only on the lives of the prisoners but also some of the prison officers too - the firm but fair Meg Jackson/Morris, the acerbic Vera Bennett, governor Erica Davidson, and others too. As for the prisoners, we got to see what happened to some of them before they became incarcerated "on the inside" and the crimes which led to their imprisonment. With some ex-cons, we saw their life "on the outside" once they were released and whether or not they could cope with this adjustment.

The “Prisoner” dialogue was another mainstay of the programme – some examples of which I have already provided above. From the point of view of us whinging Poms, all of this Aussie speak was highly entertaining as well as amusing. Of course we had the more refined and well-spoken characters like Erica Davidson too, so there were some "normal" conversations going on somewhere. Relatively speaking.

And the music? The “Prisoner” theme tune, “On The Inside” - played over the closing credits in which an officer locks up the prisoner cells for the night - has become iconic and one of the show’s most successful elements. I’m sure most of you will have heard it even if you never actually watched the show. “You used to bring me roses, I wish you could again…” A gentle, slightly camp folksy number sung by vocalist Lynne Hamilton (it even made the charts over here) it’s somewhat in contrast to the “tough” and sometimes violent situations we see portrayed in the programme itself. If you want to see the lyrics, try here

Toothpaste tripping (with appropriate background music)

The show’s incidental music was a different matter entirely and sometimes side-splittingly funny for the wrong reasons. In the early episodes it was kind of 1970s stabbing strings (when something dramatic occurred, like Karen Travers stabbing her husband in the shower), replaced later by tacky 1980s synthesisers that could easily induce a migraine (I remember one scene in which a prisoner is tripping on LCD and drawing a face with toothpaste on a cabinet in her cell. The music which accompanied it was … unusual).

One more thing: contrary to popular expectations, the walls of Wentworth did NOT wobble.

Well, that’s the general lowdown on “Prisoner”. Now, as you all know, once I get onto a subject I like, I’m capable of rattling on for eons, so I shall now cease. Rather than turning this into another Cheese-a-thon and in the interests of making my musings more palatable, I will be returning a bit later on with some more Prisoner posts.

And if you want to know more about "Prisoner" I'd really recommend this website and this one.

Next time on Cheeser's Choice: The leading ladies (and fellas) of Wentworth.

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  • At 6:11 pm , Blogger Steve said...

    To my great shame I have never ever watched an episode of Prisoner: Cell Block H - not a single one. Although I have a general idea from the amount of jokes and anecdotes about the show that people still refer too... plus references about the wobbly sets. I guess it has impinged on people's consciousness a great deal. Hmm. Mayeb I should invest in a boxed set and get myself H'd up?!

  • At 12:35 pm , Blogger Old Cheeser said...

    Steve, you don't know what you've been missing! Mmm, just to be on the safe side, I would advise you to go and watch some clips on Youtube first, before investing in a DVD - you might decide that you can't stand the show! The first episodes are up there and quite easy to find.

  • At 4:11 pm , Blogger PATSY KING IS A GODDESS said...

    Wonderful post about a wonderful show!

    I loooove the picture of Vera & Erica: The chemistry between them are fabulous!

    All my best,

  • At 9:06 am , Blogger Old Cheeser said...

    Thank you very much Eva!

    Yes Erica and Vera were a right pair.

    And for any other Prisoner fans out there can I recommend Eva's two blogs dedicated to Prisoner actresses - Patsy King is a Goddess and Jude Kuring is a Goddess! They're fab!

  • At 5:37 am , Blogger kalea_kane said...

    You never know how a person will stumble on a blog. Yesterday out of the blue I heard the beginning of "On The Inside" in my head, and I was said to myself "What happened to that show? I loved that song!" It was one of those things where of course no one I knew had heard of it. I decided to look up the song lyrics and I found your blog. It was wonderful reading your post about Prisoner: Cell Block H. :)

    Have a great day!

  • At 10:15 am , Blogger haris awais said...

    watch prisoner cell block in hd without any ads


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