Mercado on TV Extra: Wentworth final series – The pitch that rebooted Prisoner


Foxtel’s Wentworth will go down in TV history as the best ever Australian remake

Wentworth begins the second part of its eighth season this week (Tuesday on FoxShowcase) and will wrap up its incredible run with 100 episodes. Given it was mean to end at the end of its seventh season, fans are thankful for this extra 20 hours of mayhem.

Wentworth began life inside the head of Prisoner superfan Michael Idato, the current culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. At the time, Dallas had just been rebooted with the next generation of Ewings, and discussions about which Aussie drama should come back always led to Prisoner.

Michael Idato envisioned Prisoner being remade with an Underbelly vibe and he pitched his vision to Fremantle’s Ian Hogg saying: “I’ve got a brilliant idea for a new show and best of all, you already own it!”. No doubt he also bashed the ear of Brian Walsh, given Foxtel was also keen on finding defining Aussie drama.

It’s rumoured that Brian Walsh and Ian Hogg considered Neighbours and while that would have made TV history as the first-ever Aussie drama to be made by three networks (Seven, Ten and Foxtel), a reboot of Prisoner was a much better bet.

A re-run of Prisoner on Foxtel in 2011 that got much publicity and good ratings helped seal the deal. Wentworth producer Jo Porter wisely kept on Michael Idato as a series consultant and she asked others, like me, what elements of the original series needed to be kept.

Prisoner had already been remade for US television as Dangerous Women (1981). It hadn’t worked because the Americans have a knack of removing every single ingredient that made our originals so compelling, hence their lame attempts to re-do Number 96, Kath & Kim and Rake.

Australia doesn’t have much of a history of successfully reviving its own shows either. In the 90s, Skippy (1967) became The Adventures of Skippy (1992), Boney (1971) became Bony (1992) and Kingswood Country (1980) became Bullpitt (1997). None of them worked, but at least we had moved on from bringing UK stars out to remake tired British sitcoms like Are You Being Served in Australia (1980) and Love Thy Neighbour in Australia (1979).


So, no pressure on Wentworth to get it right, but get it right they did from night one. Killing off Meg Jackson (Catherine McClements) in the first episode, when Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne) had been the longest-running character in Prisoner, was a blunt message to its audience that the original show was being used for inspiration but massive twists were coming.

Wentworth was unusual in that it was a prequel and a reboot set in contemporary times. When Prisoner began in 1979, Bea Smith (Val Lehman) had been inside for years. When Wentworth started in 2013 Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) was being admitted to prison. Some storylines were similar, with Bea’s daughter Debbie tragically dying of a heroin overdose in both, but other events would be completely flipped around.

For example, Prisoner’s original Governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King) was perfectly coifed and capable. Wentworth’s Erica Davidson (Leanna Walsman) was more unsure of herself and her secret desire for Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva) ended up unhinging her.

Meanwhile, Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick) was scary and abusive, but given she was in Prisoner for 405 episodes, scriptwriters had to keep explaining why she was so bitter (loneliness, distant father, dying dog) and find new ways to bring out her softer side (looking after a runaway kid, falling in love, talking up golf).

Cast of Wentworth in 2016

Wentworth’s Joan Ferguson (Pamela Rabe) has no such maternal instincts and is a psychopathic monster instead. Having survived several murder attempts, it would now appear that she has more lives than cinema villains like Freddy Kruger (Nightmare on Elm Street), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) and Michael Myers (Halloween).

Although Wentworth ceased to be believable in its memorable but mental fifth season, when The Freak was buried alive after she cut out Juicy Lucy’s (Sally-Anne Upton) tongue and wrapped it up in a gift box for Vera (Kate Atkinson), the series is still way more realistic than Prisoner was ever allowed to be.

When Prisoner first started on Ten, it screened at 8.30pm in what was then an AO (Adults Only) timeslot, and for about six months it even screened in the more restrictive PG time of 7.30pm. Because of this, it was decided that one of the realities of prison life would be less visible because top dog Bea Smith would be dead against drugs.

The decision to double Prisoner’s production, making two one-hour episodes per week instead of one, caused actress Carol Burns to quit over fears the standard couldn’t be kept up. Therefore, Franky Doyle died in a hail of bullets, but what was killed off with her was another prison staple, lesbianism. It would take 71 episodes for another lesbian, Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbitt), to arrive only for her then to be neutered.

That’s because at this point, Prisoner: Cell Block H (as it was known overseas) had become quite the hit on US TV. Incredibly, at one stage, it was even coming second in its competitive LA timeslot behind Charlie’s Angels, but ahead of NBC and CBS.

The Americans, however, weren’t too keen on any more lesbian action so Judy Bryant was “de-gayed”. It left Betty Bobbitt making googly eyes at extras in a silent protest from the actress that Judy was single but still gay gay gay.

There have been no such restrictions on what can or cannot be shown in the MA15+ rated Wentworth and viewers have now seen a full representation of queer characters, from lusty lesbians to female to male transgender Reb Keane (Zoe Terakes).

Wentworth will go down in TV history as the best ever Australian reboot and it will probably keep that title, despite a slew of other comebacks now. Halifax was great, SeaChange was terrible, and the Rafters and Heartbreak High are still to come.

McLeod’s Daughters seems inevitable but Grass Roots, an ABC comedy-drama about a corrupt council, would still be very relevant today.

I will refrain from begging for more Frontline with Brooke Vandenberg in the chair because Jane Kennedy doesn’t seem interested (sob). Then again, wouldn’t it be hilarious if Mike Moore (Rob Sitch) has now been relegated to Sky After Dark?

See also: More Mercado on TV columns here

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