I love a bit of “chicks in chains” action myself, you know, those women in prison movies where every inmate looks like a Playboy centrefold and the shower facilities are in use 24/7. The wardens are usually raving lesbians, but good looking with it, and the sex mad male governor has a working hot tub in his office.
Please put all of these things out of your mind when you come to watch Prisoner: Cell Block H, though. Prisoner: Cell Block H is an Australian soap produced by The Reg Grundy Organisation which was originally devised as a 16-part mini-series. It proved so popular, however, that it ran for 692 episodes between early 1979 to late 1986.
Okay, now I know that this website is all about bad movies and TV shows, but just as there’s a thin line between love and hate there’s also a very narrow margin between what’s brilliant and what’s abysmal. Prisoner: Cell Block H may be one of the worst women in prison shows ever made, or one of the best. It’s certainly a programme that has inspired a cult following, and Sammy Davis Jr reportedly loved it, even asking to visit the set one time.
Unlike many soaps, the show was first broadcast in the U.K. late at night to reflect its adult content involving lesbianism, bullying, sadistic guards, prison gangs, drugs and even terrorist sieges. It actually made perfect post-pub viewing because viewers really needed a few pints inside them to cope with the scary look of the inmates.
Initially produced by Reg Watson, who was also responsible for Crossroads, The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters and Neighbours, the series was set in Wentworth Prison, a grim institution whose walls seemed to be made out of cardboard.
One of the main central characters – at least until episode 400 – was stocky, ginger-haired Bea Smith (Val Lehman), aka ‘Queen Bee”. She didn’t give a monkey’s right from the first episode: “Yes my name is Beatrice Alice Smith, yes I killed my husband – he deserved it. Yes I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life. Now why don’t you just check through this lot, give me a form to sign and throw me into a cell.”
Bea had a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp and was top dog at the prison, which meant she always got the biggest portions in the canteen. Anyone who got in her way was informed: “You’re history, bitch.” She shot one of her enemies in the head with a homemade zip gun and drowned another in the sink in the shower room.
Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick) was Queen Bea’s opposite number among the wardens, a nasty lesbian who loved putting her trademark black gloves on for some intimate frisking. Another warder who enjoyed sadistically tormenting the inmates was Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence), who became one of the show’s most iconic characters under her highly appropriate nickname of “Vinegar Tits.”
Of course for every bad warder there’s a good warder, and that was kindly and compassionate Meg (Elspeth Ballantyne), always trying to talk prisoners out of hanging themselves in their cell – with varying degrees of success. Elspeth was the only actress to appear in every single episode of the show.
While the majority of passing through inmates fell into the categories of raging lesbian, tarty nymphomaniac hooker or both, the regulars were slightly better developed. A viewer favourite was feisty, institutionalised old-timer Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance), who looked like Methuselah’s mother. She appeared to have been left in the sun since puberty, and smoked sixty coffin nails a day while out there. Lizzie was inside for poisoning four sheep shearers who complained about her cooking, so they stuck her in the canteen.
Patsy King was also notable as snobbish upper class Prison Governess Erica Davidson, a part originally offered to – and turned down by – Googie Withers, who had played a similar role in the UK show Within These Walls. Erica was a firm believer in rehabilitation, even after getting shot in episode 82.
Her second in command was Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire), better known as “Fletch the Letch” because of his habit of perving on inmates. He was known to be firm but fair though, and especially the former when up to his Peeping Tom larks. At one point he had sex with an ex-prisoner, but in his defence he was trying to help the police solve a robbery case, and he was in it for the reward money.
Of course you’ll already know all this if you’re a fan of the show, and chances are you’ll also have splurged on Prisoner: Cell Block H – The Largest Box Set On Earth. Digitally restored, it features 174 DVDs across 40 volumes and tons of extras and is the ultimate collector’s edition for those who can’t get enough of Australia’s most controversial soap.
If you haven’t tried the show before but this brief look at it has piqued your curiosity, you may want to start by checking out Fremantle’s box set of The Best of Prisoner: Cell Block H. Do get your beer goggles on before viewing though, it definitely helps.