To put it mildly, WENTWORTH, Australia’s (fictional) notorious maximum security women’s lockup, is a rough place. The joint is rife with rape, drug-dealing, lesbian debauchery, torture, blackmail and murder. And that’s the staff! Now, it’s all here for us Yanks to (safely) see and relish in the smash, engrossing series’ first three seasons, currently available on multi-disc DVD sets from Acorn Media RLJ Entertainment/Fremantle Media/FOXTEL.
The show, as created by Lara Radulovich, is quite brilliant in its concept and execution. It’s both a remake and homage to Reg Wilson’s 1970’s Aussie cult hit Prisoner, Cell Block H. Personally, I can tell you that when that series crept over the airways on our local WOR-TV station, it killed the major network competition, especially among high school and college students, and particularly film students. I was a recent NYU graduate at the time, and can verify that the almost religious effect of the show on we Big Apple denizens had not been seen since the advent of Uncle Miltie. Whatever we were doing came to a halt when Cell Block H reared its ugly, addictive head. Glad to say that a similar vibe can be experienced over forty years later. Again, God bless Acorn for providing access to this nasty treasure trove.
In Cell Block H, the most fascinating character was Franky Doyle (Carol Burns), a foul-mouthed, Sinead O’Connor-looking sadistic lesbian con who essentially owned the yard – dictating what, who, how things went down. In WENTWORTH, Franky’s character remains the same, except she’s undergone a physical change. She is a now a less butch, heavily tatted more “girly dyke” (to quote her roomies), magnificently enacted by the stunning Australian/Portugese actress Nicole da Silva. As in the original, the “official” star of the show is virgin prisoner Bea Smith, played by Danielle Cormack (Val Lehman in the original). Incarcerated for the attempted murder of her abusive husband (Jake Ryan), she’s really a fish out of water, entering the pen like Eleanor Parker had in 1950’s Caged – practically with a target on her back. But she’s as smart as Franky, and, while they often lock heads, they occasionally team up; soon a gradually hardened Bea becomes a leader of her own mob.
The first episode begins with a bang – well, a stab, as a supposedly beloved warden (Catherine McClements) is murdered. This has a pronounced effect upon guard Will Jackson (Robbie Magasiva, the male lead), as he was the victim’s spouse. In rapid fashion, he degenerates into a hopped-up-on-goofballs lifestyle that infringes greatly upon on his ability to maintain the general atmosphere of chaos throughout the facility. None of this sits well with the new warden, Erica Davidson (Leeanna Waisman), like Bea, another beauteous newbie to the prison world; unlike Smith, she harbors a suppressed lesbian jones which surfaces during her frequent Franky fantasies. Then there’s Matthew Fletcher (Aaron Jeffery), a jocular guard, who enjoys shagging both cons and staff, the latter being a repressed mousey Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson), who lives in her own prison, badgered by her ailing mum (Lynette Curran), whom she dreams about killing to gain her freedom.
While Jackson searches to find out who offed his wife (we find out before he does), Wentworth undergoes a drastic change: the arrival of a malignant lady crime boss Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade). This, like the series tends to do throughout, sends narrative tentacles spreading in all directions, and one that directly affects Bea. Her lovely, virtuous daughter Deb (Georgia Flood) visiting the same time as Holt’s apparently innocent son Brayden (Reef Ireland), hook up. Turns out, he’s as big a monster as his mater; soon, he’s got the girl on heroin, pimping her out and causing her demise. Bea doesn’t take this well (it was all arranged via Jacs), and vows vengeance (indeed, the “running gag” of the show is ending each season with Smith’s murder of Holt family members – including one where she briefly breaks out to do it).
That’s Season One!
In Season Two, we learn that Warden Gorgeous couldn’t take her carnal yearnings, and has been replaced by the horrendous bisexual Joan Ferguson (Pamela Rabe). This character is so grotesque that she makes Hope Emerson in the aforementioned Caged look like Aunt Bee. Ferguson is a psychopath, out to seek vengeance on the killer of her GF (an inmate at another prison). Wait till you see who it was. Warden Joan knows no bounds and blackmails inmates to do her bidding, installs surveillance cams in everywhere (and I mean EVERYWHERE), punishes hold-outs with hot shots, and even has Fletcher run over by a truck (he now remains on the job, a down under version of Lennie in Of Mice and Men). True, Ferguson gets hers, but not before two seasons of pure evil.
Notable supporting forced residents on the show include Doreen Anderson (Shareena Clanton), who gets impregnated by a male work crew lover, bussed in to do some heavy labor (another tries to rape Franky, and gets a shiv in his groin), and Liz Birdsworth (Celia Ireland), a good-natured con – until she comes within sniffing distance of alcohol (she’s been incarcerated for a DUI killing); Liz lives for the day when she can be reunited with her estranged daughter Sophie (Edwina Samuels), a wish the comes true early when the girl is arrested and locked up in the same cellblock with mum. Gotta mention Boomer (Katrina Milosevic), a gargantuan sex-starved capo, and Maxine Conway (Socratis Otto), the slams’ first transgender inmate (and the most likeable person on the show).
On the staff side, there’s Dr. Bridget Westfall (Libby Tanner), the smoking new shrink who, too, desires Franky. Franky, who knows how to use people, immediately feels the connection, and nurtures it to reap the many perks sensuality can provide. Almost as a dare, Doyle starts to hang in the library, reading law books, and realizing that lawyering is a scam easily mastered to manipulate suckers. Encouraged by Dr. Tanner (who still hides her overt feelings), Franky actually prepares for the bar (doubly serving as a non-narrative exit strategy for da Silva, who achieved superstar status because of her portrayal, becoming a drastically cooled-down hetro lead in the smash dra-medy series The Heart Guy). Toward the end of Series Three, a now paroled Franky officially trades bars for the bar and has moved in with Libby. Da Silva, I believe, still makes sporadic appearances on WENTWORTH, as the show continues to draw, and is now preparing for Season Eight!
Unlike its Cell Block H ancestor, which was cheaply made, WENTWORTH is an A+ production, lavishly designed (Kate Saunders, Adrian Dalton), written (Pete McTighe, John Ridley, Timothy Hobart, Marcia Gardner, Adam Todd) and directed (Kevin Carlin, Catherine Millar, Toni Garrett, Jet Wilkinson, Steve Jodrell, Dee McLachlan and Pino Amenta). The series is likewise stunningly photographed (Craig Barden, Kathy Chambers) with effective stereo audio that showcases a fine score by Richard Pleasance. The ancillary offshoots of WENTWORTH have resulted in friendship/partnerships between several of the excellent actresses. McCormack and da Sylva have formed their own production company, while the former and Miloservic journeyed to New Jersey this past spring to attend a WENTWORTH fan gathering (with another planned in L.A. this November)!
The widescreen Acorn DVDs of WENTWORTH are excellent, and fully up to the company’s standards. As I’m already on the second runs of the first three seasons, I hopefully keep my fingers crossed that Season 4 and beyond are waiting in the corridors for parole into my custody.
WENTWORTH, SEASONS 1-3. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Fremantle Media/FOXTEL. SRP: $59.99@
SEASON 1 (3 DVDs): CAT # AMP-2533
SEASON 2 (4 DVDs): CAT# AMP-2537
SEASON 3 (4 DVDs): CAT# AMP-2538