She’s the woman credited with steering Wentworth‘s killer scripts to multiple awards, critical acclaim and fan frenzy.
But Script Producer Marcia Gardner (pictured, top) has never seen an episode of Prisoner -the show which was reimagined by Foxtel to become their most successful local drama series.
“I was living in the States when Prisoner was on air in Australia so I’d never seen it. It had just completely passed me by,” she tells TV Tonight.
“When I got this gig I deliberately didn’t watch it, because I didn’t want to be influenced by it. (Writer) Pete McTighe is the external hard drive of all things Prisoner. So whenever we really need somebody I ask Pete, ‘Is there a heritage character that could fulfill this character function?’
“I have the best of both worlds.”
Gardner joined the series for season two, after creator Lara Radulovich departed. Each season begins with 4 writers, Gardner, McTighe, John Ridley plus a rotating fourth. Together the team maps out the season arc, which takes 4-6 weeks.
“We work a little bit differently from most shows in that we do pretty much everything together,” she explains.
“We look at the entire season and what that might encompass: what the big story pillars are going to be… what the big character arcs are going to be for all our core characters. We look at that on a big whiteboard and break it all down, in not much detail. Just big story movement and character movements. So we get a sense of the patchwork quilt across the entire season.
“Then we write a ‘Bible’, which is what we deliver to the network. It’s basically our pitch for the season and we get some feedback from them. ”
Episodes are then plotted, remarkably with just 2 days allocated for each. Individual writers will then script each episode.
“When we come to the plotting stage we can move fairly nimbly”
“Because of all that big picture work that we’ve already done, when we come to the plotting stage we can move fairly nimbly through that. In the States shows have 2 weeks! They’re horrified how little time we’ve got.”
But Gardner is very clear on this: it’s the initial development time that is the key to Wentworth scripts.
“We have managed to maintain such a high standard on the show because we have the time to really do that development work, which is so important. I think a lot of shows fall over because they get shortchanged in development. That process is really rushed. The key to making a quality show is development time.”
There are now 15 core cast members for Wentworth but the world of the prison, whilst limiting in its containment, also affords for sudden departures and arrivals.
“The challenge we have on the show is the more cast we have, the more difficult it is to juggle all of those elements, finding the cause and effect between all those character threads,” she continues.
“Being in such a confined space with so few tools at your disposal, the risk is that you may repeat a dynamic. So that’s what we try to avoid. If we feel like we’re running into that territory with a character, we have the luxury of being able to write them out.
“The prison world is like a crucible”
“The prison world is like a crucible where the stakes are so incredibly high.”
But she also acknowledges her top-notch cast.
“We’ve been so blessed with an amazing cast. A lot of the storylines and characters wouldn’t have been as successful, I think, if we hadn’t scored the magnificent cast we have. Pamela Rabe, Leah Purcell, Susie Porter…
“We have the freedom to write really extraordinary stuff that you wouldn’t get away with from anyone else. But you know they can do it, so you go there.”
Gardner nominates Season 7’s siege and the burial of Joan Ferguson (Pamela Rabe) amongst her personal highlights. The latter was a storyline she always planned to revisit.
“When we buried her alive I said to Pam, ‘It’s our intention to bring you back. We just need to rest the character for a couple of seasons.’ It was always my intention to bring her back. The only tricky bit was figuring out a way of doing it!”
Rabe’s cameo at the end of Season 7 was filmed belatedly, after Foxtel’s initial decision to conclude the series was reversed. Gardner reveals producers had actually filmed final scenes to wrap up characters (which were never screened) at the end of the siege. But she was also hopeful it would resume.
“I just never believed it was over”
“I just never believed it was over. I just kept saying to Jo (Porter, Fremantle Director of Scripted), ‘We’ve set this up.’ At the end of season four, (Series Producer) Pino Amenta and I went in to Foxtel and we wanted to pitch 4 more seasons. It was always in our mind that there were 8 seasons.
“I came up with an idea for 100 episodes. We put a birthday cake on the pitch document – the first Foxtel drama series that’s gone to 100.”
Filming of 2021 episodes will conclude in Melbourne this week. In something of déjà vu, Gardner is again preparing to say goodbye.
Given the fandom for the show continues, I can’t help but wonder -is it really the end this time?
“I believe that anything is possible. But that’s out of my hands. It’s entirely up to Foxtel.”
Wentworth airs 8:30pm Tuesday on FOX Showcase.