Reading questions from my clipboard as I interviewed Vera ‘Vinegar Tits’ Bennett I must have looked like a deer in headlights, so I was rather touched when Fiona Spence still recalled me decades later when I interviewed her for the show’s 30th anniversary.
Now as I visit the set of Foxtel’s new Wentworth it’s as if this haphazard TV journo path has come full circle.
Vera Bennett is still there, but it’s not Spence anymore (she moved on to Home and Away years ago). Now it’s actress Kate Atkinson (pictured), still as Deputy Governor.
There’s a lot that has changed in what is being marketed as a “reimagining.”
We’re no longer in Nunawading (despite the fact the prison walls of the old O-10 Network still stand), but in South Eastern Melbourne. Ironically it’s no closer to the city than the old guard was, quite a trek for cast and crew.
The location is being kept hush-hush, for fear of fanatics interrupting the shoots. Prisoner was that kind of show. Well before British backpackers were dropping by Ramsay Street, Prisoner had its devotees. The most I can divulge on the location without rankling Publicists is that the prison has been purpose-built from an old factory in Clayton, circa 1980s.
Gone are the days of the wobbly sets in a TV studio. Now the whole thing is on location and Foxtel have spent a pretty penny to dress their new-look Wentworth.
In fact the site doubles for both shooting and production offices. Upstairs the FremantleMedia team of producers and production heads work in drab offices. Downstairs actors and crew are filming scenes in cells and corridors.
While part of me desperately wants this venture to succeed, another is clinging to the past. I’m torn by the task ahead. Should TV ever dabble with a classic? How can anyone else but Sheila Florence be Lizzie Birdsworth? And what’s the deal with the early days of Bea Smith -but set in the present? I’m confused….
Of course, TV reinvents all the time.
We get sequels, prequels, revamps and rebootings ad nauseum. It’s a medium built on repeat content, especially in subscription TV. The notion of a reimagining is harder to grasp, because it’s up to the creators how much they care to nod to the past. As an audience, we are asked to put our preconceptions to one side. Battlestar Galactica was one of the best reimaginings -both the campy original and the dark, noir version worked in their own right. But there is also a risk in having a foot in each camp.
On set the red brick of Prisoner is no more. Wentworth feels like a cross between a prison and an asylum, with green walls painted in “Sabbatical” and H2 and H4 prison cells decorated with photos from home, to reflect the character of the inmate.
Reception has a working X-Ray scanner. The Governor’s Office is now much larger, but still austere, with detail right down to printed business cards for Gov. Meg Jackson (yes she’s had a promotion) played by Catherine McClements.
There’s a Dining Room where dietary conditions are written on a white board, a visitor’s centre with a creche and interview rooms, an Education Centre with a library. Hang on, is this a prison or a holiday camp, Joan Ferguson might ask?
Solitary confinement is now known as a ‘Wet Cell.’ The Laundry would be nothing without its obligatory ironing press, it’s here complete with a foot pedal. The temple of Bea Smith.
A prison yard is dwarfed by the huge wall that has been built around it. No cyclone fences here. Sorry Franky, it’s going to take more than a step-ladder and some blankets over barbed wire this time.
I’m a little shocked there is no shower block -don’t they know the brawls that went on there?- but am advised they have been able to double up on showers as part of the guards’ facilities.
The scene I watch is of prisoners (Kris McQuade and guest Ally Fowler) arguing with guard (Robbie Magasiva). Cast are working out the mechanics of the scene with a director, while a cameraman advises of his shots.
The dialogue indicates a power game dosed with sarcasm and tension. It’s the kind of struggle between authority and rebels that could easily have been cut from the script of the original Prisoner.
As Oz, Prison Break and Bad Girls have shown us, short-fuse characters, confined quarters and theatrical storylines lend themselves well to episodic television when you have a strong ensemble.
If you get it right there are fanatics who will never forget you.
Wentworth is coming soon to SoHo.