Whether that makes me an ‘expert’ or ‘biased’ is up to others to decide.
So it was with much excitement and nervousness that I sat down for the first episode of Wentworth, Foxtel’s reimagining (not remake) of this iconic TV series.
There has been talking of trying to revive Prisoner across the years, most recently with Inside Out, a Prisoner-inspired project that never saw the light of day on TEN.
Wentworth is produced by FremantleMedia Australia, parent group of the once-glorious Grundy Organisation (the show’s original producer). In this version we enter the world of incarceration through the eyes of a young Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), set in present time.
Things begin with a sense of dread as Bea is transported by van to Wentworth Detention Centre. Peering out through the window she sees life on the streets of Melbourne -it will probably be her last glimpse for many years. A fellow prisoner in the same van is far more seasoned and brash than Bea. She gives a prison officer a free ‘gobby’ for a packet of smokes.
With its handheld camera, ominous themes and lowlife characters, I’m already thinking this could be a scene from the next Underbelly instalment.
Upon arrival at Wentworth, the handcuffed Smith tries to take in the unforgiving surrounds of her new home. There’s a lot of green, prisoners in tracksuits, very little natural light.
She is inducted by Will Jackson (Robbie Magasiva) but panics, screaming for her daughter, resulting in a needle sedation. After recovering she is given a tour by a benevolent Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson), familiarising herself with the routine, the cells and a panic button she will learn should never be pushed.
Opening one cell door she discovers a naked Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva) in a lesbian tryst with another prisoner. Liz Birdsworth (Celia Ireland) is a ‘peer worker’ who offers to give Smith the lowdown on prisoner etiquette. “Don’t borrow anyone else’s stuff without asking. But if Franky wants any of yours don’t argue,” she says.
Smith even manages to offend Doreen (Shareena Clanton), who also has a young infant in her care in the prison.
Governor Meg Jackson (Catherine McClements) takes a dim view of her charge. She is concerned about crystal meth being smuggled inside and rides her staff hard, telling social worker Erica Davidson (Leeana Walsman), “We don’t negotiate with prisoners.”
But it doesn’t take long before Franky pressures Bea into acting as a go-between between her drug supplier, insisting she meets with him as a visitor. If Smith ever wants to talk to her daughter via the prison phone, she’d better do as she’s told.
As the action progresses we see more spirit from Smith in facing up to situations or calling the bluff of others trying to suppress her. There are black and white flashbacks of her crime, a violent domestic situation involving both husband and daughter, Debbie (Georgia Flood).
Another key character is Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade), the prison’s top dog, introduced late in the episode due to being confined in solitary. She is at odds with the young Franky Doyle and Smith will be compelled to choose sides.
The debut of Wentworth, written by Pete McTighe and developed by Lara Radulovich and David Hannam, loads its episode with a fistful of tough moments. Cormack personifies a woman struggling to adjust to an environment with its own rules and hierarchy, where trust is traded like a packet of cigarettes.
The cast of largely-character actresses makes an impressive debut as both inmates and officers dealing with a hotbed of emotions and rules.
Let it be said, the first episode engages from start to finish -in itself reason enough to tune in.
But there are some curious choices that will be a challenge for a generation of devotees.
Wentworth asks its audience to leave all their pre-conceptions about Prisoner at the gatehouse. There are so many changes and updates that it requires the viewer to come to it with a blank slate. So why the need to draw upon Prisoner in the first place?
In this sense it risks having a foot in each camp: asking the audience to embrace a new drama in its own right, but hoping to piggyback off a fanbase and a legacy of firebrand characters.
Reimaginings are a big ask but they can work. Battlestar Galactica is the best example I can think of where both series existed in their own right (truth be told the later series improved on the original anyway).
Wentworth looks at the early days of Bea Smith through a 2013 prism, and we’re asked to overlook that she was top dog in 1979 in Prisoner (and killed off in an off-screen riot at Barnhurst years later). It’s one of many leaps of faith asked of the audience. Amongst the others: Vera is empathetic, Meg is bitter, Erica is a social worker, Bea deals with drugs, Doreen is Indigenous….
Interestingly, the new character of Jacs Holt is probably the most impressive achievement of all. Kris McQuade makes a powerful, homage entry and dominates from this moment on. It leaves me wondering what might have been achieved were this pitched as a new prison-based drama, rather than ‘not-Prisoner.’
As a Pay TV drama it also needs to take greater steps towards realism with more adult themes, nudity, language and violence. So far it has only dipped its toe in the water. Oz showed us a man urinating in full frontal over a decade ago. Pay TV needs to remember to deliver content that would never be tackled by Free to Air, and on that front Wentworth is still in Underbelly territory.
To be clear, these misgivings do not detract from a well-produced hour of television, buoyed by a strong cast.
It’s hard to know whether the fanbase will embrace this new world and whether new viewers will feel like it’s aimed at Prisoner fans, potentially leaving the series somewhere in between both.
But the fact I am dead keen to see where it goes next probably says it all.
Wentworth premieres 8:30pm Wednesday on SoHo.