Wentworth

2013-04-26_1919In writing this review I should declare my interest: I’m a ‘Prisoner tragic.’

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.

19 Comments:

  1. Not having pay TV here, I’ve just viewed the show via the Soho website. As a Prisoner fan from way back I was looking forward to this but I just couldn’t cope with seeing the names Vera, Erica, Meg, Bea, Doreen, “Liz” and Franky associated with different characters and personas. Vera Bennett *is* Vinegar Tits, she is harsh, she’s not Meg Jackson 2.0. Bea Smith was someone who was not ever going to be intimidated by Franky Doyle over drugs. The re-working of characters all just sat awkwardly with me no matter how much I tried to disassociate the names from the original… I just don’t get why they wrote it like that… it does no favours to fans of the original, and offers nothing of significance to new viewers.

    Production-wise the program was very good but I found the opening episode very slow going until about the last 15 minutes when Jacs Holt makes her entrance. That’s when it got interesting. But if Soho put further episodes online (which I doubt) then I may check it out again but other than that I don’t know if I’ll be offering bribes to family members with Foxtel subscriptions to tape it

    Apologies for the long comment, David.

  2. Just watched Wentworth. Spent the first half comparing it to Prisoner and wondering why they bothered ‘reimaging’ it. I decided to not bother with the rest of the series, but then something amazing happened.
    From the moment Jacs arrived it became bloody brilliant, the flashback scenes were great, the battle between Frankie and Jacs, and then the riot. Wow. Cant wait for next week.

  3. I know this is not Prisoner part two – but without it there would be no Wentworth.
    So when the hell will be Prisoner be inducted into the Logie hall Of Fame?
    Surely it’s time to pay homage to our most famous drama.

  4. I’m just glad this has finally happened so everyone can move on. I’m looking forward to an original production from the SoHo channel proving they have what it takes to step up into an HBO/Showtime for Australia.

  5. I wouldn’t worry about the changes; the original went from a serious drama when watched in the 70s to a campy comedy when rewatched nowdays.

  6. Hi. I am a massive Prisoner fan and have seen the complete series a few times, I am currently watching it every evening on 111 Hits.

    I have just watched the first 15 minutes of Wentworth, it was very good, I can’t wait to waith the full episode and the series. I hope it does well.

  7. Some good insights there but what I would be interested in is if it has the same “magic”, that wow factor that is present in the early episodes/years of Prisoner. If it has that it will be an instant hit but I seriously doubt a show in 2013 can achieve that.

  8. After watching the 15 minute preview, trying to put any preconception s aside, it actually struck me how similar this was to the first episode of “Prisoner”.

    Essentially both serve the same purpose – to introduce viewers t the brutal and confronting world of the prison. The big difference here is that it’s usinng a. Character named Bea Smith to do it. The original did exactly the same thing with Karen Travers and Lyn Warner, including a handheld scene in a police van. Here, Bea seems to be taking on Karen’s role – terrified and overwhelmed, but also intelligent, strong with a clear sense of morality.

    Of course visually this seems very harsh and confronting, it’s a long time since 1979 and I’m sure Carol Burns’ version of Franky and the other original inmates were just as shocking to an audience used to more traditional and prosaic female characters in things like “The Sullivan’s” and “The Young Doctors” and there was no such thing as HBO.

    Remember, in 1979 Franky stroking Karen’s face or destroying the rec room was just as full-on as a lesbian sex scene and a woman urinating is now.

    Ultimately, “Wentworth” looks like a promising series, but it might just reinforce exactly how strong those opening episodes of “Prisoner” really were and why they are so much better than the tripe from 1985 currently screening.

  9. @Rach31. I can see where you are coming from. Meg later on could resign as Governor because she feels she is not making a difference. Erica then becomes Governor and Vera upset that she missed out morphs into vinegar tits.

    The preview looks good, the only real concern I have is that, it has been promoted for such a long time, that people may have been put off by it already.

  10. Thank you so much for this review David, I had been eagerly awaiting it all month. I just wonder if the first episode will strike the same chord with viewers as the original did all those years ago.

    One thing I don’t like about it is how most of the actresses look like models, making it just like any other show made these days. Also I think the original had a certain feel to it through the use of music, camera angles etc that can never be matched. Still can’t wait to see it though.

    It’s funny that Channel Ten first spruiked the idea of a Prisoner remake all the way back in the mid 90’s with Inside Out but it never came to fruition and they have had low rating dramas since. With all the buzz surrounding Wentworth, they should have gone with something like this rather than ‘Reef Doctors’, so it can be on free to air and everyone can see it.

  11. Great review, thanks David. Looking forward to it!

    I’m assuming (or perhaps hoping!) that as this is set when Bea first arrives at Wentworth that the characters will slowly begin to morph into those that were seen in Prisoner, like Bea becoming top dog material, Vera gets tougher, Meg softer etc.

  12. daveinprogress

    For me the concept of women in 2013 being named Doreen, Bea, Vera etc is incredulous. I am ok with a re-imagining, but why the need for such anachronistic elements to begin with. That said, i will wade in and see for myself. Kris McQuade is made for a part like this, although she was one sexy woman in 1970’s ‘Certain Women’ (hubba hubba). Prisoner, is just too much larger than life for me to approach this fresh or as a blank canvas. The Ballinger Breakout this month is testament to what a brave and quality show Prisoner was 30 something years ago.

  13. They probably counting more on the brand for PR to launch it, and not necessarily the fanbase.

    Not really any point in repeating a show that is still screening. They are looking for a sexy modern drama for the Soho audience.

  14. Vera is empathetic? Meg is bitter? Erica is a social worker? Bea deals with drugs? Doreen is Indigenous? Next you’ll be telling me the freak is a nun. If they’re going to use the name at least use their personality. I don’t have Foxtel but ill go to a shop front to watch it I think. I’ve seen the ads on you tube and I was surprised in the way it looks and the whole spin on it. Thanks for the review David. Interesting

  15. Interesting review. I watched a 15 min preview on foxtel on demand and was glued….. But came away thinking similar thoughts David.
    Danielle is convincing and in those first 15 mins is her own ‘Bea’trice Smith. Not sure how I feel about Meg and Fletch yet…..and Vera….. No more ‘vinegar tits’ from that softy
    Looking forward to thing the rest of the episode. 5 days and counting

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