Pamela Rabe locked on a new Joan Ferguson
"Joan Ferguson is going to piss a lot of people off," admits actress Pamela Rabe.
Mindful that Maggie Kirkpatrick’s original creation of the role in the iconic Prisoner would elicit hostile reactions from fans on the street, she concedes, “I’m sure even this incarnation of the 21st century Joan Ferguson is going to piss a lot of people off.”
But what a role to play.
“With this character being so iconic in its creation, the execution in Maggie’s hands and peoples’ memories of how Officer Joan Ferguson existed, I get the sense that how Joan Ferguson, now Governor, enters into the prison environment is with a few more noticeable nods to the original creation,” she says.
“So you will see black gloves, an element of a fairly delicious disjunct with what people would consider a ‘sociable emotion of feeling’ and her strategies and objectives.
“She’s described by some other characters as a psychopath. There’s something in the way Joan has risen amongst the ranks that taps into those original characteristics of Joan Ferguson.”
Rabe hadn’t seen the first season of Wentworth when she was approached for the role, but she had seen some of Prisoner on Canadian TV where she grew up.
“They used to play Prisoner: Cell Block H on television, right after Don Lane, late night.
“They went to 24 hour programming before Australia so there was a lot of hours to fill.
“By the time I arrived in 1983 it was already part of Australian culture.
“I was aware of the characters, and particularly Joan Ferguson, enough to know I needn’t have any hesitation.”
Her work in Australia has been dominated by stage more than film and television, but she has performed in telemovies, miniseries, “Mostly in the 1990s for the ABC” and an ongoing role in The Secret Life of Us.
“Mostly it’s because I don’t have the balls (to wait). Given that theatre, television and film are completely different timetables, when something gets the greenlight for TV it’s often very close to when they go into production. But theatre is often planned 18 months – 2 years at a time. When those interesting projects would come up in theatre I would just take them. So I really haven’t been available to put myself on the line to see if anything would be there,” she explains.
“The phone call for this one came just at a time when any projects I was involved in people were gracious enough to let me extricate myself from.
“The moment I got the phone call asking ‘Would you be interested?’ I just said ‘Oh my God! That’s the one I’ve been waiting for!’”
In addition to a recent photo opportunity with Maggie Kirkpatrick, Rabe has previously performed with her in the theatre, including as mother and daughter.
“We were in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Patrick White’s The Ham Funeral that Neil Armfield directed, although our characters didn’t interact.
“But we had a very long time in a prison of our own in an Irish play by Martin McDonagh called The Beauty Queen of Leenane and we toured major cities of Australia.
“Maggie is an adored friend and I have great respect for her.”
Yet Wentworth seeks to be its own beast, using Prisoner for inspiration but allowing its cast to bring their own spin on the characters.
“We as actors tend to not concern ourselves too much with how this series speaks to the original series. We are now responding to what’s coming from the writers, really. The elements of the original series are a springboard for ideas that come out of their own developments,” she insists.
“In the end they cast a very strong and varied team of actors and actresses to perform in this. The springboard now unleashes us to bring what we can bring to this project.”
Viewers will be able to watch in fascination as Joan Ferguson serves as a mentor to Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson) who, until now, is yet to evolve into ‘Vinegar Tits.’
“Trying to get the two of us in the same shot is a challenge. We’re pissing ourselves laughing, it’s hard to stay away from the unintentional comedy of it all,” she admits. “But I adore Kate.”
So what can we expect to see of this new-age Joan Ferguson, propelled to the role of Governor from Day 1?
“She arrives having been newly instated, she knows she’s got a job on her hands and she has work to do and how she’s going to achieve it,” says Rabe.
“She’s brought in because she’s known as someone who fixes things.”
And what of her sexuality? Has she been written as a lesbian character?
“I don’t think we can say, but I find that interesting in terms of a character… the nature of somebody who seems so successful at cutting herself off from what people would perceive as acceptable human emotion and feeling.
“Sexuality comes into that but also ambition and deeply buried human drives. There are a lot of good, meaty stories based on that stuff.”
It’s pretty clear Rabe is poised to repeat the impact of an iconic television character with fans already excited by early online teases. While Prisoner fans are indeed a vocal bunch, still burning the candle more than three decades after it first appeared, many have given Wentworth their blessing.
“It’s extraordinary devotion and then with Series 1 of Wentworth it’s a new generation of fanatical fans. There’s also a very strong posse of original Prisoner fans commenting or applauding or being disparaging of their iconic series,” she says.
“I’m just very aware of how important the series is as an idea, and hope that we don’t disappoint them. I have great respect for them. It’s that interest that keeps us going.”
Wentworth returns 8:30pm Tuesday on SoHo.