Today marks 40 years since Prisoner hit Australian TV screens.
The ground-breaking 1979 drama created by Reg Watson ran for 692 episodes across 8 years, winning Logie Awards, making household names of its stars, spawning international adaptations, a Wentworth reimagining and a fervent fanbase which persists to this day.
But ‘top dog’ Val Lehman (pictured top right) won’t rest until the series has been recognised in the Logie Hall of Fame, and points to its ground-breaking success overseas as a testament to its achievements.
“We had a huge viewing audience in America, but Grundys never told us. We found out because the fans started ringing the studio and sending fan mail. But we had to take Grundys to court to get paid,” she told TV Tonight.
“We had a massive audience -in primetime- and we were the first Australian show to achieve that. Which makes me wonder why has Prisoner not been put into the Logies Hall of Fame?
“What other Australian show has achieved what Prisoner has… to the point that it became so successful there were other series worldwide that copied it.”
When it debuted in the US in the early 1980s as a two-hour special, Prisoner was viewed by a quarter of all television viewers in the Los Angeles market. It was then syndicated into New York City, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Albuquerque, Tampa, and Washington, D.C. and went on to multiple reruns in the UK amassing a huge fan base. It was remade as Dangerous Women in the US, Behind Bars in Germany, and as Wentworth (which has since had its own Euro-remakes).
On Sunday fans flew in from the UK, US, Sweden, Ireland and around Australia to see veteran cast members share their memories of the show.
Producer Ian Bradley recalled how Channel 0-10 were very nervous about this new series with rough women.
“The network was absolutely terrified, ” he recalls. “They didn’t think it would work at all. They brought in an American executive producer who suggested we tighten the girls’ costumes and my response was ‘This will never work’ and we had a big fight over it.
“Eventually they said ‘The only thing we can do is some audience testing’ and I went off on holiday. When I left it was a 16 x 1 hour series, but they got such a strong reception that before I got back they said ‘We want 52 hours.'”
Lehman, Sheila Florence (Lizzy Birdsworth) and Carol Burns (Franky Doyle) all won Logies for their performance. Lehman still recalls the reception she got from a visiting American star for her acceptance speech,
“I said ‘Grundys took a risk. They took character actors out of supporting roles and put them into leading roles.’
“Ernest Borgnine gave me a standing ovation, because he won his Academy Award playing a very different role (for 1955’s Marty).
“But when I tell American actors we were doing 92 x 1 hour episodes a year, they just don’t believe me.
“We were contracted for 12 hours a day but I generally worked 15, and sometimes 18. It’s one of the reasons my daughter said to me, ‘Mother you have no life. You spend all week at the studio and on weekends they fly you to Sydney, Brisbane & Adelaide to do PR!’ Mind you I was being very well paid for it, at the time.”
In its 40th anniversary Lehman is hopeful the show may join Four Corners, Play School, Neighbours, Home & Away, and 60 Minutes in the Logie history books, but such recognition is up to an undisclosed industry jury.
“For a start someone has to nominate it, so Channel 10 or Fremantle Media. Grundys would never do it, because Grundys hated me!” she laughs.