Thursday, 23 April 2009
Prisoner Cell Block H and other prison drama's
The first television drama to be set inside a prison was Within These Walls. A British series, it focused on the lives of the prison staff as opposed to the prisoners. The series lasted for 72 hour long episodes. The first two series are now available on DVD, rated PG.
The success of Within These Walls in Australia apparently inspired Reg Watson to produce Prisoner. Depending on which source is correct Prisoner was produced as a 12 to 16 part drama for Australia’s network ten. Commissioned in 1978 and shown in 1979 Prisoner was an instant success among viewers and the series was immediately extended-it ended up running for 692 episodes, each of which lasted about 50 minutes long. Set in the fictional Wentworth detention centre, Prisoner went much deeper than Within These Walls, focusing on the prisoner’s themselves rather than just the officers. Prisoner gave us some very memorable characters such as top dog “queen” Bea Smith, violent lesbian Frankie Doyle, old alcoholic Lizzie Birdsworth and nasty by-the-book officer Vera “vinegar tits” Bennett. In episode 287 Prisoner introduced one of the most iconic characters in television history-Joan Ferguson. Nicknamed “The Freak” by the inmates, Joan Ferguson was a corrupt, vicious lesbian prison officer who ruled over all the inmates, beating them up, and conducting strip searches with her black leather gloves! Prisoner was subtitled Cell Block H for overseas sales to differentiate it with 60s British spy series The Prisoner. It was the first Australian programme to be sold outside of Australia and was a massive success in America where it won awards for it’s lighting and camera work and ratings wise, was only beaten in it’s time slot by Charlie’s Angels. The course of Prisoner’s seven year run saw fights, murder, rape, escapes, riots, fires and even a terrorist siege! The feel to Prisoner Cell Block H is similar to that of a 70’s and 80’s B movie but that’s no bad thing, particularly if, like me you’re into B movies! The difference is that Prisoner was much more character driven rather than just being about violence. Prisoner wasn’t shown in Britain until 1986, the year after it finished in Australia. As such the 1978 episodes looked dated to be shown on British TV in 1986 and the programme came under a lot of critical panning. Elitist British critics have come down hard on Prisoner, mainly for having a false looking set. Prisoner’s set is it’s main failing but all programmes from that era have a false looking set, including Doctor Who and Star Trek. Yet those two programmes have always been fully accepted by the British mainstream media. You know why snobby British critics and the British mainstream media have always been so accepting of Doctor Who? Because it’s British! It’s only fairly recently the set’s for TV programmes have become realistic, even then it’s only American programmes-the set’s for British soaps still look 2 dimensional and false. Another reason British critics mocked the series was for having “ugly” actresses but that’s not fair on the actresses who appeared in the programme. And British critics would have been the first to mock the series credibility if it was filled with Barbie doll types. Characters such as Bea Smith and Frankie Doyle may be the most associated with the series but I prefer the latter, more modern era of the series which had better music and a younger cast of characters. Such as tough biker Rita Connors and violent but vulnerable top dog Lou Kelly. Controversial for it’s time, Prisoner pushed the boundaries of acceptability and as such it’s legacy can still be seen on television today. The Quality of Prisoner varied not only from episode to episode but from scene to scene. For example one scene could be a brilliantly dramatic, gritty fight sequence combining brilliant incidental music with ahead-of-it’s-time, hand held style camera work. Then the next scene could be cringe worthy because of a false set or forced “comedy.” I think this polarising change in quality accounts for such differing views of the series-you either love it or you hate it! The programme had a lot of outlandish plots, such as The Freak being drugged and having a surreal hallucination, people breaking into the prison to kill or free a high profile prisoner and drugs being smuggled in to the prison using a remote controlled car! Prisoner can be put under four categories, it’s a soap, a drama, a cult programme and one of the weirdest programmes ever made. Prisoner Cell Block H has had a few “best-of” releases in Britain and America and in Australia all 692 episodes have been released in the “largest box set in the world.” Tapes of Prisoner originate from tapes shown on Australian television but the series was cut before it was even shown in Australia so it’s unlikely the series will ever be seen uncut. The series is also being released in DVD volumes in Britain now. Although some content from DVD releases was cut by the DVD distributors before release, such as the cold blooded shooting of Bongo Connors by a prison guard.
Prisoner Cell Block H got quite a few spin-offs. Punishment was a male version of Prisoner and the first episode featured a young Mel Gibson before his film career took off. Sadly Punishment was axed after only 26 episodes. A theory put forward for Punishment not being embraced by viewers is that it was too uncompromising, too dark and serious, and viewers just weren’t ready for that. Where as Prisoner Cell Block H had a lot of comedy relief. HBO's Oz would later prove Punishment could have been a success if TV executives had stuck with it. An American version of Prisoner was also made called Dangerous Women which starred Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers). Dangerous Women was sadly also a flop and neither Punishment nor Dangerous Women are likely to be made available on DVD (though you never know!). There was also a pilot for another American version of Prisoner called Willow B: Women In Prison. Germany also made a version of Prisoner Cell Block H called Hinter Gittern, which is available on dvd but without English subtitles.
When Prisoner Cell Block H finished on ITV the channel needed another prison drama to cover the hole left in it’s schedule (and it’s ratings!) And so they commissioned Bad Girls. And so we’ve come full circle- a British programme, inspired by an Australian programme, which was inspired by a British programme. Bad Girls was an extremely poor imitation of Prisoner which seeked to copy it without realising what made Prisoner special. Bad Girls suffered from bland, still camera work and it’s difficult to know what was more annoying about it, the horrendously irritating characters (the two Julies!) or the abysmal incidental music, which was pretty much unbearable to listen to. One of the main failings of Bad Girls is that it never pushed the boundaries at all. It didn’t push the boundaries of acceptability past what Prisoner Cell Block H had already done between 1978 and 1985! Bad Girls was unbelievably tame, there was very little on screen violence, there was no sex or nudity, the style of it wasn’t over the top enough to keep you from realising how tame it was and it wasn’t intelligent enough to take seriously. Bad Girls was abysmal, it was always too rigid and not fluid enough. The series’ one saving grace (aside from a couple of attractive actresses) was the character of prison officer Jim Fenner, kind of a male version of Joan Ferguson (he even has the same initials). We watch Jim Fenner rule over all the inmates until he buries one inmate alive and inevitably get’s killed off. The entire series of Bad Girls is available uncut on DVD, whether that’s a good thing I’ll leave for you to decide! There’s absolutely no need for the programme to be described as “uncut” other than marketing reasons as the series is remarkably restrained in it’s content and style (there was no way the British board of film classification where going to cut anything out!) Bad Girls made the same mistake of Within These Walls by focusing far, far too much on the lives of the prison officers. Britain is such an authoritarian country it’s typical of Britain to waste the opportunity offered by the setting of a prison and focus on the dictators rather than the rebellious. A mistake not made by America with their prison drama’s, Oz and Prison Break who realised the potential of programmes which would appeal to a young audience, eager for something more subversive than most programmes on TV…
In 1998 Oz exploded on to the screen. Short for Oswald penitentiary, Oz focused on the fictional Oswald maximum security prison. Named after Russell G. Oswald, the prison warden during the real life Attica riots. Oz was the first hour long drama produced for HBO, paving the way for The Sopranos. As well as being a highly entertaining crime drama, Oz is filled with philosophical conversations about love, life, death and religion and raises many questions about the judicial system. After prisoner Ryan O’ Reily gets caught for murdering the husband of the female prison doctor (who O’ Reily is in love with) a character tells him love’s not a reason to commit murder-to which O’ Reily replies “maybe you’ve never been in love.” A deeply cynical programme, Oz is about deep inner pain people go through that even those closest to them don’t understand. One of the many ironies of Oz is that all the prisoners in Oz are remarkable people from their deviousness to their resilience at surviving in prison. Some prisoners, such as Arian brotherhood leader Vern Schillinger are so feared they feel comfortable, maybe even at home in prison. Pre September the 11th, Oz was the first programme to have a muslim as a main character and launched the careers of Harold Perrineau and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje who both later starred in Lost. It Occurred to me, while watching Oz that everything that happens in prison also happens outside of prison. So as extreme as the violence and betrayal is in prison, it happens in our everyday lives, maybe to a less exaggerated extent. Oz acts as a Parable for society as a whole, using the incarcerated to hold up a mirror to outward society. At the end of each hour long episode you’ll find yourself taking in a long deep breath and wanting to sit and think for a while about what you’ve just seen! The influence of Oz can be seen in all of the American drama’s made since. Lost, for example is about a group of people closed off from society, it has big, movie style production values and some hand held style camera work, it has a muslim character and features long conversations between non English speaking characters. Oz creator, writer and producer Tom Fontana seems to realise the power and potential of television, using the power of sight and sound to their full potential, to shock, to entertain, to provoke thought and discussion and to surprise the viewer. The shocking violence, thought provoking dialogue, hand-held style camera work and screeching music make Oz immensely entertaining and infinitely re-watchable. American television became braver after Oz. The picture quality of Oz, particularly in the first season is grainy and even pixilated, performances are very enthusiastic and there seems to be synchronicity issues with sound. For the most part though the first four seasons are perfect television. Season 5 was only OK and season six didn’t offer a satisfactory conclusion to the series. All six seasons of Oz are available to buy on DVD.
Prison Break was promoted as a real prison drama, like Oz, and as such was a real disappointment. Where as Oz took prison drama and TV drama in general a step forward Prison Break took it a step back. It’s pretty much the very antithesis of Oz. Prison Break just isn’t bolstered in any reality. The programme combines elements of different programmes and films. It’s basically a much toned down rip-off of Oz combined with the conspiracy element of The X Files and Michael Scofield is basically a modernised, American version of James Bond…in prison! The feel to the programme is similar to a Saturday morning adventure series, since a run of absurd coincidences constantly occur which keep the main characters alive and as a viewer you “know” Michael Scofield will survive until the end. This makes it very difficult to get into and take seriously. It’s so unbelievably far fetched it’s insulting to the viewer’s intelligence. One of the most annoying things about it for me is how it’s constantly filmed through wide angle lenses, it just doesn’t look realistic enough. Not a real drama at all but rather a far fetched adventure series, Prison Break is an absurd guilty pleasure that’s entertaining despite itself.
A few more, short lived, less memorable prison dramas worth noting are Corelli, an Australian drama about a female prison psychologist, it starred Hugh Jackman before his movie career took off, The Governor, A British drama written by Linda La Plant and Buried, another downbeat, pretentious British drama.
Prison dramas are generally much more “over the top” than most programmes and films, not just in content but in style (offbeat camera angles and loud, bold incidental music) and as such more entertaining than most other programs and films. It’s been said conflict is the main component of a good drama, and you couldn’t find a better setting for conflict than a prison! A prison is the ultimate setting for a drama because it allows for maximum scope for drama and conflict between many varying characters, all in an enclosed environment where emotions are heightened and things happen at a faster pace and to a greater extent. A theory put forward for the fascination of prison drama’s is that we enjoy watching the underdog struggling for survival. Exploiting voyeuristic human nature, prison drama’s allow us to peer behind the walls, to a world unfamiliar to us.
There are four more prison drama’s rumoured to be coming soon. Eden is being touted as being like a female version of Oz. A female version of Prison Break, entitled Prison Break: Cherry Hill, An American remake of Bad Girls (I’m sure they’ll do a better job than us Brits!) and most interestingly of all Women In Chains by From Dusk Till Dawn writer and director Robert Rodriguez, which will have a deliberate B movie feel like those old women in prison exploitation movies. It’s ironic Women In Chains will have a deliberately kitsch feel to it, the very thing Prisoner Cell Block H has been mocked for all these year’s. So your TV might be holding you prisoner for some time yet…