Friday 27th February 2009 is the 30th Anniversary of Prisoner hitting Australian television screens.
Last weekend many of the stars gathered at Global Studios, formerly ATVO and widely recognised to fans of the show as ‘Wentworth Detention Centre.’
In the lead up to the reunion, TV Tonight spoke with actress Fiona Spence about her role as Officer Vera ‘Vinegar Tits’ Bennett, the show’s original villain (this photo is from the actual scene when Frankie Doyle first dubbed her with the name).
Spence was even kind enough to remember that thirty years ago ‘yours truly’ visited the set of Prisoner to write an article for the school newspaper! It was my first venture behind the scenes of television, and on a show which was still wet behind the ears, it was a fascinating experience.
In celebration of the show’s endurance, today I am also re-publishing that original article, in all its raw high-school naivety, along with the 10 x 8 actor glossy portraits. Serving as a time capsule, this article has only ever been published twice. It is accompanied by two never before published behind-the-scenes photos from the set in 1979.
Finally there are some images of ‘Wentworth’ as it stands today, taken from a recent visit to Nunawading.
FIONA SPENCE 2009:
Fiona Spence looks back on her days on Prisoner with fascination and fondness. She is immensely proud of what the show achieved for Australian actresses and that it still holds a place dear in the hearts of its fanbase. Back in the days of shooting at ‘Nuna’, however, life was never quite so romantic.
“We went out to Channel TEN where the elephants go to die,” she laughs. “Thirty years ago there was nothing, it was bush. There was a pub, The Burvale, and a Chinese Restaurant. But you left civilisation and you went into the bush. We went to work in the dark and came home in the dark because we worked long hours.
Vera Bennett was the show’s first villain, years before Maggie Kirkpatrick came on the scene as Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson.
“Vera was a disciplinarian and she was by the book. There was no way that she was corrupt. Whereas I think Maggie’s character was bent. I spent a lot of time saying ‘this is a prison, not a holiday camp!’ and ‘what’s going on here, clean up that mess!’”
So popular was the show that fans would often flock to the cast in public. But Spence says out of her grey uniform only the more observant viewers would recognise her.
“There were always kids on their bicycles and as they saw me they would pedal faster and would race past me yelling ‘Vinegar Tiiiiits!’” she laughs.
“I was never really one to want the attention on me, but the kids that’s fine. People were really nice to me. I think Maggie (Kirkpatrick) was hit with an umbrella or something but nobody ever did that to me! They were just really nice.”
As the show moved into reruns and pay television new legions of fans began to spring up.
“The big shock was when I as with Caroline Gilmer and she was in the stage musical Nine, and I was standing at traffic lights and kids would go past yelling ‘Hi Vera’ and I didn’t know it was being run on Pay TV.
“That was such a culture shock, because I’d forgotten.”
After the series finished Spence did a stint as Celia Stewart, the town gossip in Home and Away, before stage roles in the UK, including a regional tour of the Prisoner stage play years after the show had concluded.
“I played some of the most beautiful theatres in some of the most exquisite cities and then I went back and did a couple of pantomimes. When we were doing the play people used to dress up in uniforms. Someone even had the original Vera costume.”
Aside from attending the reunion party, Spence says her recent re-acquaintence with the show was via the DVD series.
“I’ve seen some of the DVDs and it’s really quiet,” she remarks. “There are lots of people sitting around. These days the soaps have lots of short, sharp scenes.
“I’ve got quite a bit of memorabilia too, because I’m a little bit of a magpie and I collect things. Somebody was telling me that I’ve probably got one of the only complete sets of black and white fancards.”
Spence says she can’t put her finger on why the show seems to still inspire such passion amongst its fans, over 200 of whom gathered for the celebration last weekend. But she’s grateful to have been part of a modern television classic.
“You had a very high profile when you were in the show, but I was always very proud of the fact. It was such a buzz to be associated with such a success.”
PRISONER ARTICLE RE-PUBLISHED FROM 1979:
Channel O’s latest success, Prisoner, is not at all the fast-moving serial that takes an hour to film, as it appears to be. In fact the cast and crew can be working from as much as dawn until dusk seven days a week.
On Good Friday when I visited the “prison” the cast were rather uneasy because they had discovered they were not receiving double-time wages. But they struggled through the morning and later were not as tense. Before filming a scene they try three or four run throughs and if they are lucky, the complete sequence will be over in thirty minutes. And so, often the cast are seen sitting in chairs with long faces. As Pieta Toppano (Karen) assured me, it’s not because they are bored but because some of them have been working since 6am and are naturally quite tired. “It’s more enjoyable when you have dialogue to say than when you’re just sitting around in the tunnel,” she said.
The tunnel, as they call it, is an underground dressing room where they change costumes, receive make-up and usually spend their time when not acting. Colette Mann (Doreen) chooses to learn her lines down there while Val Lehman (Bea) learns hers slouched over a television set upstairs. She also kills time by delighting in graffiti writing and reading “John and Betty” from one of the show’s props!
Fiona Spence, who plays Vera the prison officer, paces the studio with hands behind back, keys jingling, and jokingly she orders everyone around as if she really is a warden.
Meanwhile Kerry Armstrong (Lynne) sings “You Light Up My Life” to a pot plant and Sheila Florence (Lizzie) snatches forty winks on the couch. The Director echoes through the studio resembling the ‘great master’s voice’ and it’s back to work.
They spend Mondays and Wednesdays rehearsing, and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays filming. If by then they’re still not finished then everyone’s back for Saturday. Outdoor scenes (known as ‘on location’) are filmed simultaneously with the indoor scenes.
Because they are producing two one hour episodes a week they are working to a heavy schedule. At the moment they are two months ahead of the current episode programming.
When they began work on the show last year some of the ladies decided to visit some of Melbourne’s Prisons as part of their research. Carol Burns, the inimitable Frankie, had to spend time with characters who in real life are a Frankie themselves. But Carol is no longer in the series and will soon vanish from our screens.
And the cell doors are silent as the guard locks the security doors and the theme song begins.
“He used to give me roses…”