Mister SF’s Prisoner of Melbourne
Dateline: (02/22/09) Melbourne, Victoria, AU, where Mr. and Mister SF are emissaries of compassion and Justice in the land of Oz as we await the California Supreme Court. The Court rules this spring on whether the state’s voters may remove the inalienable right of people like Jeff and me to marry. In light of Russian political scientist Igor Panarin’s assertion in March, 2009 that America will self-destruct in the next year because of gays and criminals, we were prescient in planning our trip through the heart of Melbourne as it celebrates the highly anticipated 30th anniversary of the acclaimed television series, Prisoner: Cell Block H.
“Prisoner” is like Ute Lemper – famous all over the world except in America. And, although it was seen in several U.S. cities including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston – where I saw it as a lad – Mister SF finds himself re-introducing this endlessly entertaining Aussie TV drama to American audiences. Shot in Melbourne beginning in 1978, the drama was produced by Grundy for Australia’s Channel 10. It was informed by real-life reports of life inside women’s prisons and was preceded by a British drama, Within these Walls, which centered on a prison governor. Prisoner was immediately successful with its fast-moving grip on the emotional lives of the suburban Melbourne women of its time, many of whom are prisoners long before they are ever sent to live behind bars. Likewise, a uniform is no way to tell the difference between a criminal and a law abiding citizen in Cell Block H. In fact, Prisoner confronted crime and punishment on all socioeconomic levels while dealing with issues of rape, abuse, literacy, drugs, recitivism, lesbianism, familial abandonment, euthanasia, cults, alcoholism, unemployment, and more in its 692 episodes from 1979-1986.
The Wentworth Detention Centre is, like all prisons, an unnatural environment. As a result, the writers have created a raft of fun-to-follow setting and story conventions that lay down the rules of engagement, starting with no lagging (snitching). The Top Dog is a harsh enforcer but also the group den mother, union rep, and sometimes social worker. The enduring Prisoner cult rose after the show became such a phenomenon in the UK in the early-1990s that many of its stars took up residence there for work and for new fame stemming from a project they had wrapped years earlier. And, because its bricks, bars and uniforms help give it a timelessness, Prisoner has aged better than Dynasty. Logo network, are you listening?
Prisoner employed some of the most well-known actors in Australia. Many came from stage backgrounds and could create characters who appear richly developed from their first moments onscreen. Attending the 30th Anniversary Celebration on the grounds of Wentworth on February 22nd, 2009 were: Maragret Laurence, Will Deumer, Gerard McGuire, Fiona Spence, Judith McGrath, Lisa Aldenhoven, Jentah Sabbott, Amanda Muggleton, Jane Clifton, Carol Burns, Kirsty Child, Colette Mann, Anne Lucas, Peta Toppano, Patsy King, Anne Phelan, Val Lehman. (Barry Quin also attended.)
Prisoner saved my life
(Hank Donat and Fiona Spence.) I’ve been around people who have fans all my adult life, but this is the first time I’ve ever been to a fan event as such. Though some reports had led Jeff to expect something like a gay Star Trek convention, we found the fans and stars equally appreciative on both sides of the rope, if not always in on the same joke. Of course, a few of the performers are so cast to type you wonder if they had to act at all and some Prisoner Queens, by all evidence, think it’s real. When the series was cancelled after running its course on Central Television in the UK, an Irish woman, one of many protestors at the Birmingham TV station, told reporters, “Prisoner: Cell Block H is my whole life. Prisoner has given my life meaning.”
One of the actors told us that in 1979, when the Doreen and Franky characters were on the run, neighbors called police on the actresses, Colette Mann and Carol Burns, who happened to be visiting at Mann’s apartment at the time the escape episodes were airing. They’ve all encountered people who take the show too seriously, so I wasn’t surprised when I got vinegared by Fiona Spence, who played officer Vera Bennett aka Vinegar Tits. Speaking with Spence and Patsy King, who played Governor Erica Davidson, about people who got into social work because of Prisoner and the fact that it was extremely anti-drug, King says, “Especially in the episodes with Bea Smith, who was against drugs because of her daughter.” “It was an unambiguous message,” says Mister SF, “I was a young teenager when I saw Prisoner and I stayed off drugs.” Says Spence, “I guess you could say we saved your life.”
Prisoner on the Streets of Melbourne
Follow the yellow… brick… road?
We found getting around was like going to Oz and through the looking glass at the same time. Friendly locals appeared at every crossroad. Melbourne is a fun, diverse, casual, sophisticated city with incredible public transportation and a vibrant arts community. Plus, it hasn’t lost all its independent bookstores like SF has!
The first stop on our tour of Prisoner: Cell Block H locations was the Driscoll House, a halfway house named for its first guest, the troubled teen Susie Driscoll. As he does at home, Mister SF spares no effort to deliver an original, comprehensive gallery of location photos and updates. Here, the Shoe Factory seen from Driscoll House comes to life.
On our search for symbols of justice in Prisoner’s Melbourne, these destinations were also signposts along our journey: Wentworth Detention Centre, Dr. Miller’s Office, Barnhurst Prison, Woodridge Prison, 28 Collins Street, the Courthouse, Blackmoor Prison, Joan Ferguson’s house, the Brick Works, Burvale Hotel, Pizza Hut, and the aforementioned Driscoll House.
On February 23, 2009, the UK based fan club and web site On the Inside hosted Prisoner star Maggie Kirkpatrick (right) and surprise guests Reylene Pearce, Lois Collinder, Maggie Millar, Maxine Klibingaitis at Leo’s Restaurant in St. Kilda. (Louise Siverson also attended.)
Pentridge was a real-life men’s prison – gallows, graveyard and all – but you can call it home and own a part of this $530 million residential and retail development. Prisoner’s 1981 musical special, for which the closest American cultural equivalents are the Star Wars Christmas Special and the Brady Bunch Variety Hour, was recorded at Pentridge. Colette Mann‘s resume includes a stint as a choreographer with a group of performing prisoners here.
Disturbia: We caught Maggie Kirkpatrick at the Regent in the SF-originated musical Wicked. I don’t think the Defying Gravity number was enough to give me Stendahl’s Syndrome. However, after experiencing the people and personalities – real and unreal – behind Prisoner while jumping in and out of its city-wide soundstage, it was enough to put me over. Could Prisoner have turned out differently if they hadn’t called one good and the other, the Freak?
There’s no place like home. More than anything else, Prisoner is a show about freedom – what happens when you lose it, what you’ll do to get it back, what it means to keep it. As always Jeff and I find justice in the life we lead together.
Mr. and Mister SF