Exactly 30 years ago today, something extraordinary happened. Let me elaborate. I grew up in York in the UK. My local TV station was Yorkshire Television who were the first UK regional station to transmit twenty-four hours a day. Because of this during the night and early hours of the morning, they would show some of the most eclectic fare imaginable. One night they might show Spawn of the Slithis, another they might show a Warhol movie, the night after it might be a series of rare Scorsese short films. In between whatever they showed they would transmit 70’s and 80’s Public Information Films and ads for sex lines.
It’s Monday 3rd Oct 1988. I forget what I was recording on my VCR but it was what was after it that made my jaw hit the floor. I was suddenly watching a late 70’s/early 80’s drama depicting Australian women in denim serving time in a Melbourne prison. The programme was, of course, Prisoner Cell Block H, a programme that I had seen listed plenty of times but never thought of taping to investigate. For a fan of exploitation cinema and cult movies, the discovery of this programme was the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. This was also my first taste of ‘Ozploitation’.
This first episode that I watched was (I later found out) episode number 125. This was a great point in the whole trajectory of Prisoner’s history to start watching the series. At this point Prisoner had just entered its ‘Imperial Phase’- characters had been clearly defined and established, there was a firm nucleus of these characters who the audience recognised and had grown to love. Hence there were viewer’s favourite prisoners (Bea, Lizzie, Dor and relative newcomer, Judy) and favourite ‘screws’ even if some of them weren’t ‘goodies’ (Vera ‘Vinegar Tits’ Bennett is far from a pleasant character but audiences loved her being vile and sour just as much as they did fellow officer Meg Morris being all ‘sweetness and light’). These characters were eagerly watched by viewers as they moved through different situations and encountered opposition from various characters who entered their orbit.
This was also a great episode to act as an introduction as it featured one of Prisoner’s greatest characters- Noeline Burke. Burke was the perfect combination of expert writing and amazing acting colliding with this incredible character being brought to life with real gusto by actress Jude Kuring.
I started to watch every episode after this. I had my fingers crossed that this first episode that I had recorded by mistake wasn’t some kind of fluke. I was relieved to find out that it wasn’t. Every episode was consistently brilliant. The characters were hugely likeable, the dialogue crackled with electricity and the storylines were by turns intelligent, perceptive, daring and sometimes downright outrageous. I was looking for sex, violence and gritty fare. I had found the motherlode in Prisoner Cell Block H.
Yorkshire TV’s history of showing Prisoner (as it was called in Australia) was very good. They were the first UK regional TV station to show the programme in the UK.
They had started showing it in 1984 when the programme was still being made and shown in Australia (it ran from 1979 until 1986 in Oz).
My friend who I had grown up with had actually told me about seeing the first episode when it was first shown and gleefully regaled the plotline to me involving the ‘baby that was buried alive and found by tracker dogs just in time’.
After watching Prisoner for several months on Yorkshire TV I suddenly had a brainwave- what if other regions had started showing Prisoner from different time points. One region could have just started showing it from the very beginning whilst another might be up to a later point in the programme’s history. I had another TV aerial which allowed me to watch programmes on another regional station (Tyne Tees). I found out that they showed Prisoner on a Thursday as opposed to the Monday in Yorkshire. When I tuned in I was astounded to find out that they were showing episode 30 and so I had the luxury of almost starting from the beginning of the programme’s history.
In no time Prisoner was starting to gain popularity as seemingly everyone from students (Prisoner regularly featured in the NME end-of-year Reader’s Poll in the Best Programme category) to OAPs started to religiously tune in every week. There were estimates that weekly viewing figures for the programme in the UK ranged from anywhere between 3 to 10 million. When shown in America it had primetime viewing figures of 39 million.
But there were still those who didn’t get the programme and just saw it as cheap trash. They probably came to see Prisoner after hearing that it was another Aussie soap and so surmised that maybe it would be like Neighbours and Home and Away. Rumours of wobbly walls started around this time. Which is very strange as Prisoner was filmed in the headquarters for Channel 9, the company that made it in Australia. And for what it’s worth, I’ve watched Prisoner in its entirety several times. It may have been rushed in places (and these occasions were few and far between) but Prisoner was shown twice a week in Oz- that’s two hours of telly to be made and so the cast and crew never had the luxury of multiple takes and plenty of time to shoot these in.
Also, if you watch other soaps from this time period you will see similar techniques, imperfections and production practices at play. I’ve seen shaking sets and moving bannisters/staircases in Coronation Street before. But then maybe this is why Prisoner was criticised as sub-par or cheap in the early days of it being shown on ITV- it’s Australian and maybe this was pure snobbery on the parts of the minority of British critics and viewers who didn’t like it. The same criticisms would never have been levelled against home-grown fare.
To understand Prisoner and enjoy it is not just to recognise the conventions of the ‘Women in Prison’ sub-genre but also to understand ‘cult’ viewing in the first place. Prisoner is so sophisticated that it can fit into multiple categories with their own viewing demographics all at once- soap opera, drama, exploitation vehicle with heightened storylines and a pessimism/realism not seen on many other TV programmes at that time.
Another great thing about Yorkshire TV showing Prisoner before any other region was that they didn’t think to check the programme’s content. When word spread that there were some scenes or storylines that were close to the bone and needed to be possibly cut, they had already been shown on Yorkshire and devoured by yours truly. Hangings, decapitations, brandings, shootings- they all featured and in many cases in graphic detail.
Even 30 years on Prisoner Cell Block H is still my favourite TV show. Do yourself a favour- if you’re a fan of all things exploitation, ‘cult’ and extreme watch Prisoner. You’ll be glad you did.
The DVDs of the series are as cheap as chips with all episodes being released.
My Prisoner clip YouTube channel is here.
Yer bloods worth bottlin’.