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

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Cheeser's Choice: The Wild Women of Wentworth

G'day! Some time back I did a "Cheeser's Choice" post on one of my favourite pieces of kitsch (I refuse to say "bad") TV - Prisoner: Cell Block H. And guess what - yours truly recently purchased the entire series (that's some 692 episodes) on DVD! They've brought out the whole thing in a whopping great boxset and, well, I'd come into a bit of money so couldn't resist splurging. My hubbie was horrified at my indulgence and yes, it WAS rather a lot of money but I don't do this sort of thing all the time...fair go, Mrs M!

Anyway last time I gave you the basic lowdown on the main aspects of the show but promised to return with some notes (NOTES! Ha ha - okay, ESSAY) on the leading ladies of Wentworth...so here goes. Incidentally, this time round I'm just going to tell you about the female prison characters...cos there's a whole lot to say about the Prison officers too, but that will come next time!

Beatrice Alice Smith

Or Queen Bea as she was also known. The original and (in my view) the best of the Top Dogs, superbly played by actress Val Lehman. Beatrice Alice Smith was a tough cookie and a no-nonsense lady, make no mistake. Originally a hairdresser, she gets put “inside” for murdering her husband’s mistress. Whilst inside, Bea’s daughter Debbie gets hooked on drugs and dies of a drugs overdose, a lot of which can be put down to her father’s neglect. When Bea gets out of prison and wastes no time in acquiring a gun from her friend, paying a visit to her husband and shooting him dead – one of the best scenes in the show. Go Bea! Consequently she develops a hatred of drugs and comes down hard on any of the women inside who are “using”.

But Bea’s toughness was often justified. If an Australian version of “Vindication of the Rights of Women” had been produced, Bea surely would have been the author. The outspoken ginger one always acted in the women’s best interests and was the first to see that the inmates got a fair deal, often liaising with Governor Erica Davidson or getting the women to go on strike, protest on the roof, refuse to obey an officer’s commands – whatever means were necessary. She also came down hard on those women prisoners who mistreated others. However she did have a softer side and could be a bit of a mother hen to the women as well.

Bea, Doreen and Lizzie are also firm friends and form a kind of triumvirate in the first part of the series. The close relationship and general banter between these three characters makes for great viewing. And some of Bea’s best storylines included her amnesia, her long-standing feud with warder Joan Ferguson (their scrap in a corridor whilst a fire rages through the prison is legendary), her going on the run in Sydney (disguised in an array of camp wigs and scarves) and the “Debbie’s ghost” plotline. See a forthcoming post on Best Prisoner Plots for more info…

Doreen Anderson nee Burns

Wentworth’s nice but dim inmate (the polite term would be "intellectually challenged") Dopey Doreen was a sweet if slightly tubby young woman, often to be seen clutching a teddy. She was also rather easily led and too much of a pushover at times. However in the very early episodes of “Prisoner” we see Doreen go on the run with fellow prisoner Frankie and after Frankie is shot, she returns to Wentworth bitter and twisted and trying to act like a Frankie clone, chucking her weight around the place. It doesn’t last long as Doreen is basically too nice.

Poor old Dor didn’t have much luck though and suffered from low self esteem – after marrying the spunk (that’s Australian terminology for “attractive man”) of her dreams, Kevin, he promptly buggers off when he finds out she’s pregnant by another fella (and it’s not really her fault as the daddy is a horrible old factory worker who’s been blackmailing her into having sex with him). A gutted Doreen tries to hang herself but fortunately is prevented just in time.

Although rather immature in some respects, over the years Doreen does gradually grow up, ditching the teddy bear that she carries around with her and learning to stand on her own two feet. Not long after the arrival of nasty new warder Joan Ferguson, Doreen is released (after being the first prisoner to officially suffer the indignity of one of Joan’s “body searches”) and later turns up in Sydney, where Bea has gone on the run from prison. Naturally they run into each other and it turns out that Doreen is now working in a clothes shop and living in a posh flat opposite Sydney harbour (VERY dez rez and expensive). Her final appearance comes a year or two later when she’s agreed to marry a foreign guy so he can get his visa. She doesn’t want to do it and in a series of funny “stunts” attempts to get herself put back into Wentworth e.g. getting arrested for shoplifting, dressing up as a prostitute….like you do. Needless to say it succeeds and it’s nice to see old Dor back inside for a few episodes before she finally bows out…for good this time.

Elizabeth Josephine Birdsworth aka Lizzie

Chain smoking, wrinkled old bat with a loud cackling laugh. Had a penchant for the “grog” aka alcohol and known to break into the Prisoner infirmary cupboard in order to steak bottles of meths (the best the prison had to offer when it came to booze). Also involved in beer-making scams which invariably went wrong. Lizze liked to play up her health as well and was always going on about “me ticker” – although on some occasions her complaints about her heart actually turned out to be genuine! Other classic Lizzie catchphrases (in her typical caterwauling voice) included: “Aaaaah, fair go!” “Bloody hell!!”, You rotten flaming mongrels!!” and “Bugger me gently!”

As you might have guessed, Lizzie definitely proved to be the comic relief of the prison (if not the programme) but her heart was in the right place and she usually looked out for the younger, more innocent inmates, like Doreen and later Pixie and Maxine.

And Lizzie’s crime? When the series opens, she has already served 20 years for poisoning four sheep shearers during her time working as a cook (although for some bizarre reason she is still allowed to work in the prison kitchen). It turns out that Lizzie is in fact innocent and didn't poison anyone, even though she believes she did. She is immediately released with the promise of compensation but finds it hard to cope, having become so climatised to life “on the inside” and missing her “mates”…

However much later there is a happy ending for Lizzie when she’s reunited with her long-lost family.

Frankie Doyle

One of Prisoner’s original characters and the show’s very first lesbian. Frankie was a dyke in the true sense of the term, a markedly masculine, short-haired, cigarette-smoking, gum-chewing, dungarees-wearing, butch-acting, trouble-making lesbian (I can’t think of any more hyphenated words to describe her but that’s more than enough). Frankie also vied with Bea Smith for the position of top dog, making for some great dramatic scenes (particularly when Frankie thinks Bea has left the prison for good but then ends up back inside, leading to more conflict…)

With her gravely voice and swaggering manner to boot, Frankie was a kind of less attractive female version of James Dean. Not too much of a stereotype then. And yet, like Joan “The Freak” Ferguson who appeared later on, Frankie became an icon to many. Actually that comparison is probably a little unfair, as unlike The Freak, Frankie wasn’t actually evil or corrupt, just a bit of loose canon and a frequent source of unrest within the walls of Wentworth. If someone said the wrong thing to Frankie, she was liable to upend the nearest bookcase in the rec room, or start chucking billiard balls at people. In only the second episode she instigates a riot amongst the prisoners, which results in prison psychiatrist Bill Jackson getting stabbed to death!

Yet Frankie’s volatile, aggressive nature stemmed from her basic sense of inadequacy and low self-esteem (God I’m make a good prison psychologist) not to mention her shame at being illiterate. When the sultry and well-educated Karen Travers arrives, she becomes Franky’s teacher, helping her to read and write. However Frankie wants more than just a teacher/pupil relationship with Karen…In fact she has a definite thing for the prettier, “femme” girls and also forms an attachment with the easily influenced Doreen. Later, Frankie and Dor break out of Wentworth and go on the run together, even dressing up as nuns to avoid detection. But when the police catch up with the Wentworth escapees, tragedy beckons…Frankie’s final defiant words: “Bloody bastards!” as the police shoot her down, are not forgotten and we cannot help but mourn the passing of this most interesting of misfits.

Jeanette Mary Brooks aka Mum

One of the prison’s most elderly inmates and rather genteel and kindly with it, Mary was like a surrogate mother to the prison women, hence the nickname "Mum". She takes new arrivals Lynn Warner and Karen Travers under her wing with some words of advice and wisdom. She’s also released from prison fairly early on, but her snobbish daughter Lorraine (played by none other than Madge from Neighbours) can’t stand the thought of her jailbird Mum coming to live with her and virtually puts her out on the street. The bitch! Poor old Mum has to go in a dilapidated old guest house but falls ill and Lorraine and her husband have to come and take her away. To make matters worse, Lorraine insists that Mum pretend to her granddaughter i.e. Lorraine’s daughter, that she is really her Aunt, so ashamed does she feel. It all gets too much and Mum runs away and gets arrested for shoplifting, so she can be put back “inside”.

Judy Bryant

Big, cuddly dyke and the second major lezzer character in Prisoner. Judy had a much warmer, caring personality than Frankie, even if she did start out as a bit of a hard case. For more on Jude, see here and scroll down to the “Prisoner” section…

Chrissie Latham

Classic tart with a heart, and a cockney in Aussieland to boot (well almost), well-played by Amanda Muggleton. Chrissie was always on the lookout for an attractive fella in order to ease the boredom of prison life and starts out trying it on with Dr Greg Miller, then Bill Jackson, Meg’s psychiatrist hubbie. When the latter doesn’t oblige she stabs him with a pair of scissors (like you do). She gets shipped off to another prison but returns later on, to the horror of Meg, who hoped she’d seen the back of her.

As befits her personal interests, Chrissie’s choice of career usually entailed making a dollar for lying on her back, which inevitably got her sent back to Wentworth. However, even prozzies are capable of reform and Chrissie later gives birth to a baby daughter, Elizabeth, who becomes the love of her life. Given her less than stable lifestyle however, she’s frequently involved in battles with social services to stop Elizabeth from being taken away from her. There’s also a good plotline when she gets involved with the new prison Dr, who is not all he seems…

Myra Desmond

The next major top dog after Bea Smith (well there was Minnie Donovan but she didn’t last long…) Some critics find Myra a bit of a bore – it’s true she didn’t quite have the mischief-making qualities of Bea – and was more of an earnest, “do the right thing” type but Anne Phelan who played her still did a fine job. Myra’s seriousness probably stemmed from her background working for the Prison Reform Group (PRG). Before she became a regular character we did in fact see her in a number of cameos, visiting Wentworth to assist with various reform programs. Ironically, much later she ends up behind bars herself after accidentally killing her abusive husband and soon assumes top dog status in Wentworth.

Sandra Louise Mason aka Pixie

Ditzy blonde beauty with a love of men and weddings – so much so that she gets married several times without divorcing any of her “previous” partners! Hence her arrest for bigamy and fraud and the gates of Wentworth soon beckoned…

Pixie was one of my favourite characters and a genuine “innocent” – an old-fashioned, decidedly romantic girl who believed in proper courtship between a man and a woman and definitely no sex before marriage – although the concept of divorce did seem to be beyond her! Excellently played by Judy McBurney, Pixie was another source of comic relief in the series. When she first arrives at Wentworth, she’s desperate to get out and stages a series of stunts to try and get herself transferred to a mental hospital (from which she plans to escape) – pretending to be Joan of Arc, dying her hair red and claiming that she was kidnapped by Martians, and so forth.

Much later she becomes the focus of Judy Bryant’s attentions, who writes a song about her – “Pixie’s Song”. At first finding it hard to comprehend how Judy feels about her, she eventually appears to come to some kind of understanding.

Pixie’s departure from the programme is one of the most horrible (and undeserved) things to happen to a character – a trio of male prisoners come to stay at Wentworth, and one of them starts making nasty advances towards Pixie…I won’t say any more.

Margo Gaffney

Bit-part prisoner with a mullet haircut who later graduated to proper character. A fly in the ointment for Bea, Margo was one of the first women to challenge Bea’s “top dog” status. Had a face like a baboon and an unpleasant manner, although she did “swap sides” quite often and wasn’t always nasty. When she was, she was trouble. A great villainess though and even got to demonstrate her singing prowess on occasion (Jane Clifton, who played her was a real life performer).

Nola Mackenzie

One of Wentworth’s most memorable and nastiest villains, played to perfection by actress Carole Skinner (although the character did possess a bit of an unflattering “80s rock star” hairstyle, prompting a friend of mine to comment that Nola resembled a member of Status Quo). Nola was on death row in Western Australia for murdering her husband and his friend, but managed to escape cross-country to the East where the death penalty wasn’t enforced. We first saw her escaping from a freight train, then going to hide out at Judy’s half-way house in a bad wig and calling herself Jean. However she soon gets banged up in Wentworth and her true identity is revealed. The authorities then decide to ship Nola back to WA but to avoid extradition she takes matters into her own hands, leading to one of the programme’s most chilling scenes. When Paddy Lawson wanders into the shower block, Nola drowns her in a sink, later insisting that she didn’t do it as revenge, but because Paddy was the first person to come along. Brutal! Her wish is granted and she becomes a permanent resident of Wentworth.

Nola isn’t very popular amongst the women to begin with and soon shows her unpleasant side, bashing up various women and bullying poor old Lizzie (referring to her as “birdbrain” - well, slightly truthful I suppose). She also incurs the wrath of Bea Smith by setting up a number of rackets in the prison, including drug dealing and wins many of the women over onto her side, then ousts Bea from her position as top dog. A disgusted Bea breaks out of Wentworth but later returns and the war with Nola continues. Eventually Bea wins back the support of the women but both officer Joan “The Freak” Ferguson and Nola decide they want to dispose of Bea permanently and join forces to come up with a cunning plan…Suffice to say all does not go according to plan and Nola gets her comeuppance in one of Prisoner’s most dramatic scenes! See my forthcoming post on Wentworth plotlines if you really want to know what happens to the evil Mrs Mackenzie…

Marie Winter

Another Wentworth baddie and fan favourite. We first encountered Marie at Barnhurst where Bea is temporarily transferred. She’s top dog there and doesn’t waste any time making Bea’s life a misery, doping her soup with magic mushrooms and heaving her. Marie is a bit of a nasty piece of work and loves to boss people around. With her loud voice, short white barnet and swaggering attitude, Marie would make a good dyke, except she isn’t.

Later on she gets transferred to…guess where? Wentworth, just as Bea is carted off to hospital for an operation. Taking advantage of her absence, Marie, Sandy Edwards and some of the other women orchestrate a full prison riot. Naughty! She also gets embroiled with the “mad” Dr Kate Peterson and there’s a great scene when Kate realises she’s going to be sharing a prison van with her and totally freaks out at the prospect, with a laughing Marie proclaiming: “G’day Doc! Looks like you and me are going to be making this trip together!”

Marie makes yet another return to Wentworth later on and…helps to organise another riot (surely a talent which should be listed on her CV). Highlights include her throwing plates at Judy Bryant: “You fat mongrel bitch, Bryant!” and then escaping from Wentworth by scaling the fence and dangling from a rapidly ascending helicopter! Make that Marie, stuntwoman extraordinaire!! (Actually it was a blow-up doll of her, but that’s beside the point). Rather an about turn to see Maggie Millar, who played the devious Marie, turning up years later in “Neighbours” as a female vicar!

Well, I reckon that's more than enough about the female inmates of Wentworth. You'll see I've left quite a lot of characters off the list, but then, one heck of a lot of ladies passed through the gates of the Aussie prison during its 692 episode run, and there just ain't enough room to consider all of them here, mate. However a few other favourite inmates I could have mentioned are Minnie Donovan, Cass Parker, Helen Smart...some deliciously diabolical villainesses like Dr Kate Peterson, Sonia Stevens, Reb Keen and Lou Kelly....as well as other top dogs like Sandie Edwards, Nora Flynn and Rita Connors (but the latter two just didn't cut the mustard for me like Bea did...) There were also some truly annoying characters like Gail Summers, Sally Dempster, Alison Page, Ettie Parslow...

Anyway, I'd love to know who all of YOUR favourite Wentworth inmates were, so if you want to redress the balance, drop us a line here, me old maties! Your blood's worth bottling!

Next time on Cheeser's Choice: The Warders of Wentworth - some straight...some bent...in more ways than one...

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  • At 7:20 am , Blogger Steve said...

    Blimey, apart from Sandra they're all a very grim faced bunch of women aren't they?! Mum looks like Honor Blackman which is a bit strange! It looks like a hefty boxed set to wade through - for die-hard fans only, I'd guess!

  • At 3:02 pm , Blogger Old Cheeser said...

    Hi Steve

    It's actually really funny you should say that cos after I'd finished the post and stuck up all the pics I thought the same - i.e. a rather depressing looking bunch of portraits...I seem to have had difficulty finding some "smiley" Prisoner photos! Believe it or not there are laughs on the show.

    Mum = Honor Blackman, ha ha! I know what you mean. She is a very dignified character actually.

    The full boxset is very hefty indeed and will literally take years to watch from start to finish! But I'm such a fan of the show I don't mind...I love the sheer indulgence of it all! You did say before you thought about buying one of the "single" boxsets by way of introduction and I reckon that's a good idea. I think you'd enjoy it once you got into it.

  • At 10:09 pm , Blogger PATSY KING IS A GODDESS said...

    What a wonderful post!

    I guess I won't have to tell you who my favourite inmate is? Noeline Bourke has a very special place in my heart haha. But I also love Margo Gaffney, Marie Winter, Clara Goddard, Antonia McNally, Lizzie Birdsworth and Franky Doyle.

  • At 11:49 pm , Blogger The Sagittarian said...

    I used to watch that show, loved the theme song...and yes, a right bunch of stern looking jail-fraus if ever there were any. "Pixie" later turned up in Young Doctors as some bimbo nurse.

  • At 9:00 pm , Blogger matty said...

    Oh, I wanna see these shows!!!!

    (i FINALLY got my blog pour vous done!)

    Sandra, uh, I mean - Matty

  • At 12:41 pm , Blogger thomas said...

    well, I estimate I'm at least a couple of days worth of viewing behind with our bloody DVD collection by now but I think you might have overtaken us with that ;-)

    I remember watching Prisoner when I first lived in England in the early 90s, it was one of those things people used to watch and talk about in the gay soc, didn't they? Such a long time ago now...thanks for bringing it all back! have you started your new job yet?

  • At 5:07 pm , Blogger Old Cheeser said...

    Eva - Thank you m'dear...and an Erica tribute will be forthcoming (that's Erica Davidson the first governor of Wentworth, if not the first lady of Australia, for those of you who DIDN'T know).

    I like your choices of favourite characters...interesting that they all hail from the early period of the show. I'm coming up to the Clara Goddard episodes soon and look forward to seeing how she fares as a character.

    Amanda - Glad you were a fan, but then as an Antipodean I guess you couldn't really escape the show...there were actually a good few NZ actors in the programme I think. Pixie was actually in Young Doctors BEFORE Prisoner in case I'm much mistaken? Oh I am such a geek...

    Matty/Sandra?! - Hello! Yes I would be interested to hear what you think of La Pris. Will pop over and look at your blog v soon!

    Thomas - Hey Mister! And what is in your DVD collection pray? Probably something much more serious and arty than some of the trash that I watch, I'd warrant a guess....! Not that Prisoner could be classed as trash though, of course...(!)

    You're right, the show was big in the early 1990s...and yes very popular amongst the lesbians and gays! The kind of programme that was perfect viewing after rolling in from the pub and students liked to discuss in an "ironic" way. Glad you enjoyed the memories!

    I start the job in about 2 weeks time - aaaah!!

  • At 8:36 pm , Blogger Flaming Nora said...

    Bring back Googie Withers and Within These Walls! :-)

  • At 8:40 pm , Blogger Old Cheeser said...

    Nora - Indeed, chuck! Although I confess I have never seen an episode of "Within These Walls". Googie was apparently the UK equivalent of Prisoner's first governor, Erica Davidson, though...

  • At 1:13 am , Blogger Andrew Glazebrook said...

    A friend of mine moved to London to live about a month before Prisoner Cell Block H finished here on Tyne Tees TV, so I had to record the episodes on a night and post them down to her so she could see the final !!

  • At 11:11 am , Blogger Old Cheeser said...

    Andrew - Oh my goodness!! That's a funny story. Talk about obsessive. And how nice of you to indulge your friend's wishes. Mind you, it's the kind of thing I'd probably ask someone to do for me...

  • At 9:39 am , Blogger thomas said...

    (My) Simon gets a lot of trashy stuff too, old TV series, box sets, etc. and that's mainly what i was talking about, though yes, of course, we've got some arty stuff, and lots of music DVDs too. i absolutely love some DVDs and watch them a lot wheras other stuff doesn't even get watched once, confusing! i just try not to get too many as it frustrates me when you haven't got the time and patience to really delve in and they just stay on the shelf. Right now i'm working my way through a Fassbinder box set that i got for x-mas...(ok, that is a bit arty...) xx


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