It’s 1974. A French starlet who isn’t averse to modelling with no clothes on is seduced by an enigmatic young man who asks to take her home to meet his parents. However, his home appears to be some kind of old institution like a long forgotten prison. And this is exactly what it is. His mother is the sadistic Governor of her own prison where her son takes flagrant examples of the new ‘permissive’ society so that they can be punished and even executed because of their lax ways.
This is Within These Walls on steroids. I love the fact that there is a notice at the start of the film that reads “This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment.” This is obviously a film that is parodying and sticking up two fingers to the puritanical types who didn’t like that the society of the time was becoming more permissive and free, the ‘Bring Back Hanging’ brigade. Britain was moving away from it’s more conservative ways and some weren’t happy about this as they flocked to fill the letters pages of every national newspaper. Precedents were falling and were set to fall even further as during the 70’s. One prime example of this movement that directly affected film was Mary Whitehouse and her Caravan of Light both of which would try to get exploitation films like House of Whipcord banned. Whitehouse was massively active during the Video Nasties furore that would occur during the next decade.
But within the film’s duration there are currents of dissent as prisoners held at the institution secretly plan to overthrow the evil wardens and hopefully escape this kangeroo prison. This film adheres to but also subverts the conventions of prison genres but especially the ‘women in prison’ genre and only excludes lesbianism which maybe for the time in Britain would have been a step too far for that still conservative time. Had it have been included then the film may have fallen foul of the BBFC. The theme of an uprising is one of the prime tropes of this genre and I love that this was so brilliantly depicted. But I also love the result of this which ironically delivers back to the prison the woman who had successfully escaped.
Special mentions go out to Barbara Markham as the deranged Governor and Sheila Keith as one of the sadistic wardens. House of Whipcord was called Flagellations abroad. Quite.
Another Pete Walker masterpiece. Now, can we have a Blu Ray boxset of his back catalogue please?
Yield to the Night finds the character of Mary Price Hilton shoot her boyfriend’s lover and then spending her time in prison awaiting her execution by hanging. Her story is told in flashback during this stay.
On the 7th day God created Diana Dors. From her TV appearances on The Two Ronnies (playing the head of a female army who wish to take over and make all men subservient) through to her appearance in the Adam and the Ants video for Prince Charming, Ms Dors was a regular part of my childhood.
I then discovered the TV series of Queenie’s Castle from the 70’s (filmed here in Leeds) which fully exuded Dors’ abilities as a great actress.
Yield to the Night was the only worthwhile foray into film for Diana with subsequent vehicles being a complete waste of her talents. This film is amazing. The flashback sequences which show how a sultry goddess could be driven to murder are fully rounded, believable and achingly painful. As are the sequences in which she is in captivity. Check out the internal monologues we’re privileged to partake in and how she is far from a blonde bimbo. These observations about her plight and her fate are reminiscent of Travis Bickle’s musings in Taxi Driver.
A strong case is made for the brutality of capital punishment in a ‘civilised’ society and how wrong it is. Thankfully since the film’s release this has now been rectified. You will think of this film when someone comments ‘They should bring back hanging’ in response to a news story.
30 years ago to the day 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 it. At this point Prisoner had just entered it’s ‘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 viewers 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. If you want to experience how brilliantly funny, well written and acted this inmate was then please do investigate her scenes here.
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 character 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 for this 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 programmes 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 it’s entirety several times. It may have been rushed in places (and these occasions were few and fair between) but Prisoner was shown twice a week in Oz- thats 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 programmes 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.
All of the episodes of Prisoner are on YouTube. Start here.
As some of you may know I’m a huge Prisoner Cell Block H fan. I actually think its the best TV series ever made. If you’re into cult film, cult TV or video nasties/exploitation cinema then chances are you’ll love Prisoner.
I’ve just made a video documenting some of the most outrageous moments from the series.
All the juicy stuff is present and correct- drugs, lynchings, murders and brandings. Theres even a sequence that will have you shaking your head in disbelief.
The videos here. But beware- its not for the faint hearted!
Its amazing when a TV programme or a film conveys a message that is so powerful that it faces strong and vicious opposition from the higher echelons of the day who seek to suppress it.
Play For Today was a BBC1 drama anthology series which ran from 1970 until 1984. Alan Clarke directed an episode about life in a borstal- now known as young offenders centres. The programme was the first time the general public had seen inside one such institution and the disturbing events therein that unfolded in this episode. The programme fully depicted the brutality, racism and dehumanisation of its charges not to mention it’s warders. This was hardly a glowing commendation for the borstal system. However the programme makers shot this drama with no interference whatsoever from the powers that be in the Beeb.
That was until just before the programme was due to be shown. There were suddenly rumblings from up above and a diktat received by the programme makers that cuts needed to be made to the drama prior to it being televised. Producer Margaret Matheson states the appropriate cuts were made and whilst they weren’t happy doing this they were still proud of the programme in its trimmed state. It was still powerful and still hit its mark artistically.
But then the programme was pulled from broadcast. Matheson said that Scum was even listed in The Radio Times which shows how close to broadcast it was when it was pulled. Matheson also said that there was a change in personnel with Bryan Cowgill, the controller of BBC1 being replaced by Bill Cotton. Scum’s writer Roy Minton would later refer to the tv play version of Scum as The Billy Cotton Banned Show (Cotton’s father used to host The Billy Cotton Band Show years before).
A screening of the TV play had been organised in Soho for the day after it was due to be televised but this was before the BBC had pulled the plug. However this viewing still went ahead. In fact because the work had been banned by the BBC this screening was extremely well attended and seen as an opportunity to see something forbidden and risque. Afterwards various members of the audience had approached the programme makers to express how great it was and that such an important work should be seen by as many people as possible. There was a clause in force that if the BBC didn’t show a piece of work within a certain amount of time the rights lapsed out of the BBC’s control and so when this happened it was decided that a film of Scum would be made instead. The film would be almost the same as the TV play including many of the cast and crew except that the scenes that were cut would be now left intact. More importantly, one person who was at this screening would end up producing the film version of this TV drama, Clive Parsons.
So, what had frightened the executives at the Beeb so much that they decided to shelf the play from being shown?
The plot of both the TV play and the film of Scum concerns a young prisoner, Carlin being transferred to the borstal that the programme is based in. The ‘Daddy’ (the toughest prisoner who is in charge of the other prisoners) of the borstal is named Pongo Banks and is shown to be in cahoots with the screws (wardens) of the borstal and is depicted to be a bully as he actively terrorises and bullies anyone who he sees as weaker or different. The Daddy working in tandem with the system makes the Bostal experience an even more dehumanising one for the majority of the inmates and also the few decent screws working at the institution.
Carlin was the Daddy at his previous institution and has been transferred because he beat up two officers in retaliation. Thus he arrives at this borstal already with a reputation with both the screws and Pongo and his gang both desperate to prove that they are in control on their turf and to prove that they are more powerful than he is and that he should know his place. Carlin is forced to share a dorm with Pongo and his acolytes and is given a beating by all three after lights out.
However Carlin then takes over. This scene of Carlin taking control from both Pongo and pals and the bent screws who they were working with has now gone down in cinema history. Its almost operatic in power.
The line ‘I’m The Daddy!’ has now entered the popular vernacular in the same way ‘You talkin’ to me?’ has.
The power has now been taken away from the bent officers- and they’re not happy about it. With a prison or borstal in which the bent screws and bent Daddy work in tandem, brutality can prosper unchallenged so much easier. With a fairer head inmate in control who also has a healthy disregard for authority the officers and system in general will get a much harder time with a ‘Them vs us’ mentality now replacing the old regime.
Another challenger to authority and the system is the character of Archer. He decided early on that he was to learn the rules and regulations inside out and give the officers and prison department as hard a time as possible- even if it meant he serves his full sentence. He becomes vegetarian, refuses to wear leather boots and converts to Islam to rile the Christian Governor. One particular scene involves him trying to illustrate to an officer that some of them are just as institutionalised as some of the inmates. Unfortunately this goes badly wrong-
Archer is a thorn in the side for the authorities. He becomes a close friend and supporter of Carlin from Day 1. Carlin is courted by the housemaster (the borstal system seems to be run along the lines of a public school- which is ironic) as they see that he has taken control of the inmates. To reap the rewards of his new status, Carlin seems to go along with this to get the best for himself- he asks for a single cell and gets it only because of his Daddy status. But theres a feeling that Carlin is only going along with this to make his stay much easier whilst making sure that the other inmates have a more humane stay also rather than running the borstal in conjunction with the screws.
Theres a feeling that if the authorities step out of line with Carlin he will intervene and give them what for. And indeed this happens- in brutal style. A prisoner named Davis is raped in the borstal greenhouse and then commits suicide by slitting his wrists in his cell. These two events were also willfully ignored by the guards on duty- one officer watches the rape with sadistic glee and only intervenes when the borstal gardener is seen to be approaching.
He then lets the rapists go free and admonishes the victim. When the victim is in his cell he rings the bell and complains of nightmares to the officer who responds. This officer then ignores any more calls for help from Davis who then ends his life.
This sees the prisoners take part in a riot instigated by Carlin over the treatment of Davis. Carlin and the inmates have taken away the reins of power from the officers and prison authorities over this tragic event and are letting it be known that they have gone too far. They take over the dining room and destroy everything inside it.
The next scene is one of Carlin, Archer and another inmate, Meakin being dragged bleeding and barely conscious into solitary confinement. The prisoners exerted their power and now its been reasserted by the authorities in the way it knows best- through violence and brutality.
This power struggle is a staple of the prison genre but in this case life seems to imitate art. Just as Carlin and crew are intent on engaging in a power struggle for control with their captors and their superiors the programme makers had to endure the same. Authority in the guise of The BBC and Billy Cotton had spoken and expected that to be the final word on the matter.
Whilst the film version was almost identical to the Play For Today version there was one scene that was omitted. This scene saw Carlin ask a fellow prisoner to be ‘his missus’- a practice in which inmates would have a male sexual partner but only for their stay in detention. These inmates are also known as ‘gate gays’ in prison/borstal circles. This scene was left out of the film version of Scum and it could be argued that Carlin would be less of a role model to certain audience members because of it. Writer Roy Minton says that he felt it was a massive flaw of the film that the scene was left out as it shows a vulnerability to Carlin’s character. He also states that it was the actor depicting Carlin, Ray Winstone who persuaded Alan Clarke to omit the scene from the film.
However, as the film was a runaway success at the box office its power to upset members of the establishment was never diminished. The film was televised for the first time on the 10th June 1983 on the new ‘radical’ TV channel Channel 4. Its transmission upset no one except for one person: Mary Whitehouse.
Whitehouse was a campaigner who detested what she saw as the increasing wave of sex and violence within the media. She wanted a promotion of traditional Christian values in the arts especially within film (and video) and television. As you can tell she didn’t exactly like social change.
She found out that when Channel 4 televised the film version of Scum, a copy of the film hadn’t been sent to every member of the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority- a regulatory board) to see if it was suitable for broadcast. Rather the decision was handed to the board’s Director General. However in this case the Director General was also one of the founders of a prisoners trust and stated that he thought Scum was ‘a serious dramatic work based on tensions and violence that are a feature of a closed prison society’. He thought Scum was a serious work that needed to be seen by a wider audience. Whitehouse won the first private case against Channel 4 but lost on appeal when the case reached The House of Lords.
The previous year in 1982 The Criminal Justice Act eradicated borstals and replaced them with youth custody centres- this system was hoped to be less brutal or inhumane as the borstal system. Was this because of Scum? It may well have been.
Both the TV play and film versions of Scum are examples of gritty and uncompromising art that certainly pulled no punches. They are now available uncut on DVD and serve as a reminder to audiences of today that the not too distant past was tough on many levels and that serious lessons could be learnt from these times. Scum was such an important piece of work that social reform of the system it portrayed followed not long after its release. And all this from a TV play/film that the powers that be didn’t want audiences to see.
There are still many people who would love to see the brutal borstal system brought back and that a ‘short sharp shock’ is what the youth of today deserve. There was even a reality TV show centred around this idea. There are also members of the public whose first impulse on seeing something they don’t understand or approve of is to say ‘this should be banned’. The spirit of Mary Whitehouse certainly lives on. Be careful what you wish for.