This weekend fans of Prisoner are flying in from across the globe for a sold-out reunion with cast members from the series, to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of a soap opera that broke all the rules.
Produced from 1979-1986, Grundy’s serial made household names of its inmates and cast members at a time when female roles in television drama were largely incidental, submissive or decorative. On Prisoner actresses from repertory theatre were given meaty roles with malevolent storylines on subjects including feminism, homosexuality and social reform.
Viewers rallied behind characters such as Bea ‘Top Dog’ Smith, Lizzie Birdsworth, Doreen Burns (nee Anderson), Frankie Doyle, Karen Travers, Lynne Warner who faced off against Governor Erica Davidson, Meg Morris (nee Jackson) and Vera ‘Vinegar Tits’ Bennett. More favourite characters would follow with Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson, Jim ‘Fletch the Letch’ Fletcher, Margo Gaffney, Judy Bryant, Governor Ann Reynolds, Colleen Powell. The list is endless.
Another long-running character, Chrissie Latham, was played by Amanda Muggleton, who had arrived in Australia in 1974. She told TV Tonight she looks back on her years in Prisoner with a great deal of pride.
“The original idea came from England in a series called Within These Walls with Googie Withers as the Governess. And that was quite good. When Grundys got hold of it they put their own stamp on it, which was far more in your face than the British one ever was.”
Indeed, some of it was so confronting it made an instant impact here and won fans in the US years before other soaps such as Neighbours (also written by Reg Watson) had even been thought of. Part of the success of the show, says Muggleton, was its depiction of real women on television with character faces -many of whom had never graced a TV magazine cover before.
“That’s what made it so real, we were real women. I used to put cochineal on my lips, or Vaseline,” she laughs.
Muggleton played the saucy Chrissie Latham in 107 episodes interspersed with other acting engagements.
“I was in and out. I didn’t ever get typecast, because I was always going to Grundy’s and saying ‘the Melbourne Theatre Company have asked me to play Isabella in Measure for Measure can I go?’
“And they loved it because it’s hard for the writers to write stories for the same people all the time. So they could create a great story of either how I escaped or how I was sent to another prison, and that’s how I got pregnant… it gave them great scope to play with my character.
“Also I was fresh when I went back in. I’m not saying the others got stale because they were in it for however many years at a time. But I think the most I ever did in one trot was 9 months,” she said.
While many actresses are now basking in the anniversary light, it wasn’t always so embraced. For years many actresses felt that talking about the series diminished their chances of further work, with fears of typecasting.
“Some were typecast because they were on the television twice a week. I think Elspeth Ballantyne (Meg Morris) was in it from beginning to end.”
The 30th Anniversary Reunion has been put together by Prisoner‘s ‘Top Dog’ Val Lehman. To this day she maintains a reputation as a forthright actress. Muggleton remembers working with her as absolutely professional.
“If something was wrong in the script she could pick it up like no-one else. She’d say ‘I’m sorry, we can’t be saying this because in episode 223, we were saying that.’
“She’s a very strong woman, and people mistake that for someone being difficult to work with,” she said. “I found her utterly professional and a very, very generous soul, off camera and on camera. When you were doing a scene with Val, you knew you were doing a scene with someone who was bloody marvellous. And didn’t ever ring her performance. And neither did Maggie Kirkpatrick.”
Bea Smith formed a long-running alliance with her cellmates Doreen (Colette Mann) and the cantankerous ‘Lizzie Birdsworth’ (Sheila Florence).
“The joy of working with Sheila Florence was so wonderful,” she remembers. “It’s so awful that she’s not with us anymore.”
These days Muggleton continues her work in theatre, where she has garnered rave reviews, including for her one woman performances in Shirley Valentine and Master Class.
“I’m in the thick of rehearsals for the 30th Anniversary for The Man from Mukinupin by Dorothy Hewett. We open here in April and play until May 17 and then I bring it to the Melbourne Theatre Company. And then I have one week off and I’m back doing a play for the Ensemble Theatre called Ruby Sunrise. And it’s about the invention of television in America. The Americans want to claim it for themselves, but of course it was the English.”
Last year she had an AFI-nominated guest role in City Homicide. She also runs a Sydney drama school called Scene and Heard.
“And I’m absolutely in awe of the fans who go into my website at www.amandamuggleton.com.au and ask me questions and I answer all of them.
“I’m very proud of my work in Prisoner and very proud I was part of it and I never rubbished it. And I want my Australian fans to know how much I love them.”
The 30th Anniversary of Prisoner‘s on air debut is February 27th.