TV Transformations & Transgressive Women

From Prisoner: Cell Block H to Wentworth

by Radha O’Meara (Volume editor) Tessa Dwyer (Volume editor) Stayci Taylor (Volume editor) Craig Batty (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection XVIII, 474 Pages


«Just like Prisoner and Wentworth, this book is an instant cult classic. Written with love by a collective of expert aca-fans, TV Transformations & Transgressive Women takes us on a fascinating journey through the cultural legacies of Australia’s favourite prison TV dramas. Contributors use a rich palette of methods, from genre analysis to production research, to unpack the significance of these shows. An exemplary textual study, this richly multi-perspectival collection is essential reading for anyone interested in television genres.» (Ramon Lobato, Associate Professor, RMIT University)
«This collection is a wonderful example of how certain TV shows can have tremendous impact, not only in the time of their making, but for several decades, when suddenly there’s the opportunity to travel even further in an on-demand age and meet new audiences, academics and analytical approaches. The chapters offer a wide range of interesting interpretations and discussions, not the least on the way women have been represented on screen then and now. A good read for academics, fans and aca-fans.» (Eva Novrup Redvall, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen)
A deep dive into iconic 1980s Australian women-in-prison TV drama Prisoner (aka Cell Block H), its contemporary reimagining as Wentworth, and its broader, global industry significance and influence, this book brings together a range of scholarly and industry perspectives, including an interview with actor Shareena Clanton (Wentworth’s Doreen Anderson). Its chapters draw on talks with producers, screenwriters and casting; fan voices from the Wentworth twitterverse; comparisons with Netflix’s Orange is the New Black; queer and LGBTQ approaches; and international production histories and contexts. By charting a path from Prisoner to Wentworth, the book offers a new mapping of TV shifts and transformations through the lens of female transgression, ruminating on the history, currency, industry position and cultural value of women-in-prison series.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Foreword (Kim Akass and Sue Turnbull)
  • Acknowledgements
  • Breakout Women: Introduction to TV Transformations, Gender and Transgression (Radha O’Meara, Tessa Dwyer, Stayci Taylor and Craig Batty)
  • Part I On the Inside: Voices from Industry
  • 1 Representation, Responsibility and Racism: A Courageous Conversation with Shareena Clanton (interview with Shareena Clanton)
  • 2 Repeat Offender: TV Remakes, Reboots and Revival from Prisoner to Wentworth and beyond (Tessa Dwyer and Philippa Burne)
  • 3 Scriptwriting on the Inside: The Streamlined System of Prisoner and the Collaborative Community of Wentworth (Radha O’Meara)
  • 4 ‘I Want to See Rit’ Connors. I Want to See Her Now!’: The TV Series Guest Performer as Intertextual Messenger (Helen Milte)
  • Part II She’s Got Form: Narrative, Genre and Motif
  • 5 Women in the System: Narrative Modes and Rhetoric in Wentworth and Orange is the New Black (Kim Yen Howells-Ng)
  • 6 Flashbacks and Morality in Women’s Prison TV Drama (Niall Brennan)
  • 7 Gothic Themes in Australian TV’s Women’s Prison Dramas (Kate Warner)
  • 8 ‘You Want to See Your Daughter? You Tell Me What Happened’: Motherhood and the Market Economy in Wentworth (Corrine E. Hinton and Cathrine Hoekstra)
  • Part III Tough Love: Punishment, Power and Identity
  • 9 Orange is the New Black, Wentworth and Contemporary Media Feminisms: Systemic Inequality and Individual Responsibility (Jessica Ford)
  • 10 Prison Blues and Token Truths: Inside the Reality and Fantasy of First Nations Representations in Australian Women’s Prison Drama Wentworth (Josie Rose Atkinson)
  • 11 Doing (Queer) Time in Wentworth (Whitney Monaghan)
  • 12 ‘And Then They Confiscate Her Hormones’: Trans Incarceration and/in Wentworth and Orange is the New Black (Sam McCracken)
  • 13 The Motherless Teenage Daughter: Lock Her Up or Send Her Away (Diana Sandars)
  • 14 The Stone-Cold Power Dame: TV Women in Power, State Security and National Discourse (Alex Bevan)
  • Part IV On the Outside: Fandom, Activism and Afterlives
  • 15 Telling It Like It Was: Independent Activist Filmmaking, Australian Prison Systems and Prisoner (Olympia Barron, Catherine Gillam and Alexander Gionfriddo)
  • 16 From Boys to Men via Cell Block H: Prisoner, Queer Identities and Productive Fan Nostalgia (Craig Haslop and Craig Batty)
  • 17 ‘It’s Not My Fault I Help Girls Realize They’re Lesbians’: Compulsory Homosexuality as Communication in Online Wentworth Fandom (Amanda K. Allen)
  • 18 Competing Desires, Competing Interests: Opening the Dialogue between Wentworth, Fans and Industry (Renee Middlemost and Stayci Taylor)
  • 19 Recommending Wentworth to the World: How Netflix ‘Changed the Show’ and Australian TV Drama Production (Alexa Scarlata)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

←x | xi→

Kim Akass and Sue Turnbull


When I received the invitation to be a keynote speaker at the Wentworth is The New Prisoner conference – the 2018 gathering in Melbourne, Australia, where this edited collection began its life – I was so flattered that I accepted without hesitation. Very occasionally is there a conference on a TV series so dear to your heart that it reminds you just why you became a TV scholar in the first place. Prisoner: Cell Block H (1979–86) – as it was called in the UK – was one such series. The fact that I hadn’t actually watched it since it first aired, and then it was usually after a night out at the pub, didn’t faze me. I loved the series. It was a cult classic. I would find it on YouTube and re-watch. No problem. As for Wentworth (2013–21) being the new Prisoner, I was sure that if it was anything like the original series, I would love that too.

So, invitation accepted, subject proposed, I settled down to my research.

The first problem I encountered was that, even though the show had started in February 1979 in Australia, it didn’t make it to Britain until October 1984; and then it was only on Yorkshire TV, not actually making it to London until Thames TV screened it in 1987. Why does this matter? Because, the truth is that I didn’t actually watch the show after the pub. It was screened around the time of my first child being born, which meant that the first few years of sleepless nights had erased the series from my memory. It was when I discovered that there were 692 episodes of the show, and that all 692 had slipped into a black hole in my brain known as ‘new motherhood’, that I really began to worry.

No matter. I would catch up with what I could and hope that everyone else at the conference was also struggling under the sheer weight of 692 hours of TV to re-watch.←xi | xii→

I then turned to Wentworth, which was near impossible to find on British TV. Maybe it was due to the overwhelming popularity of Orange is the New Black (2013–19), but nobody I knew had seen Wentworth. It was a show that only the most dedicated fans could find as, much like its predecessor in the 1980s, Channel 5 tucked it away late at night and, to be honest, not many people that study TV in the UK watch Channel 5. To my relief, I eventually found it on Amazon Prime and began my great Prisoner and Wentworth viewing marathon.

I wish I could say that I did something other than watch Wentworth and Prisoner for the best part of four months. People often say that watching TV for a living isn’t really a job, but they clearly have never watched a series twelve hours straight, seven days a week. When I discovered that Prisoner had been remade for American TV as Dangerous Women (1981–2), I nearly lost the plot. Luckily there were only fifty-two episodes – I could easily watch them in the space of two weeks, Wentworth and Prisoner not so.

I bare my soul to you in this Foreword because, over the course of those four summer months, curled up on the sofa, pen and notebook in hand (actually laptop but you know what I mean), from nine in the morning until nine at night (only toilet and lunch breaks allowed), I became totally absorbed in the world of Australian prison drama. I learned the lingo and lived the dream. I loved Franky Doyle (both iterations), was in awe of The Freak and cried when [SPOILER ALERT] Bea died at her hands at the end of season four of Wentworth. In truth, over the course of those four months I lost any sense of objectivity and became totally consumed by and obsessed with the women in Wentworth Detention Centre. When the time came for me to get on that plane to Melbourne and address the conference, I was really worried that all pretence of academic cool was lost and I would be exposed for the fangirl that I had become.

I need not have worried. The Wentworth is the New Prisoner conference was quite possibly the best conference I have been to since The Sopranos: A Wake (2008). Not dissimilar in its approach, and as committed to its ‘fandom’ as the Sopranos conference, there were whole sessions devoted to cast and crew, no pretence of objectivity, a photo shoot outside the walls of a former prison, and a conference dinner and quiz that were even more fun than the Sopranos location tour of New Jersey. I lived the Wentworth Detention Centre dream.←xii | xiii→

The essays in this collection reflect that passion. From the two Craigs recollecting their coming out to Prisoner, Alex Bevan’s celebration of the stone-cold power dame and Alexa Scarlata’s investigation into how Netflix and America changed Wentworth – to name but three – the essays contained within the following pages are excellent examples of the engagement of the aca-fan, or fan scholar, of Prisoner and Wentworth. Embracing the subjective within research, each of the essays demonstrates a love of the series and the medium that reminds me of why I began writing about TV. Every now and again, a series comes along that speaks directly to (and for) the dis-enfranchised – the queer, female, Black and trans members of the audience traditionally excluded from dominant TV narratives – and in response, powerful scholarship emerges.

As everyone in Australia will have, at the time of writing, seen the latest season of Wentworth (and the return of Joan Ferguson), spare a thought for those of us that are still waiting. Until then, watch some re-runs of Prisoner, refresh your memory of Wentworth, put the kettle on and settle down with this book. Reading these essays has not only re-ignited my love affair with Wentworth but also with TV in general. I hope it does the same for you.

Kim Akass

Professor of Radio, Television and Film

Rowan University, USA


Like Kim, I was thrilled to be invited to speak at the Wentworth is the New Prisoner conference, not least because Prisoner was not only the first TV show I ever wrote about as a postgraduate student, but also because it introduced me to the pleasure – and pain – of doing audience research. Let me explain.

I first encountered Prisoner while teaching in an American high school just outside Philadelphia in 1980. At that time, I became aware that my students were racing off to the cafeteria to watch a series called Cell Block H, which they thought I would like. ‘They talk funny, Miss’, they told me, ‘just like you’. A comment suggesting that my North of England ‘Geordie’ accent was just as foreign to their ears as the Australian. It’s ‘wild’, they told me, ‘all these women fighting and swearing’. To my shame, I didn’t investigate ←xiii | xiv→further, other than to note in passing that it certainly didn’t look British to me. It would take a change of career and a change of continents before I encountered Prisoner, aka Cell Block H, again in Australia, in 1984, while studying for a PhD in Media and Education.

At that point, my then supervisor showed me a letter he had found in the Channel Ten archives from the headmaster of a girls’ high school in outer Melbourne, complaining that a group of girls were copying the antisocial behaviours of the inmates, including aggression towards the authority that the school imposed. I specifically recall that the headmaster was most offended by the fact that the students had started referring to the teachers as ‘the screws’. The possibility that, like a prison, the institution of a school imposes regulations on a student’s time, occupation of space and on appropriate dress and behaviour, was clearly lost on the headmaster – though clearly not on the girls. Prisoner, I concluded after interviewing this group of students for myself, served as a metaphor in their resistance to the forces seeking to make them conform to feminine ‘niceness’ and being ‘good girls’. But this wasn’t the whole story. How could it be?

As Alan McKee has suggested, citing Thomas (1980), Palmer (1986), Fiske (1987), Hodge and Tripp (1986), Docker and Curthoys (1997) and my own unpublished research on the show, Prisoner might just be the Australian TV show to have inspired more audience research than any other (McKee 2001: 184). And McKee may well be right, since other successful Australian exports in the 1980s, such as Neighbours (1985–) and Home and Away (1998–), appear to have passed almost unnoticed (though there was a great deal of press speculation about their projected appeal to audiences in the UK).

Perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that while the original Prisoner attracted so much attention because of its presumed effects on a vulnerable young audience, when the re-imagined Wentworth arrived on Australian screens via the SoHo streaming service, concern was raised not about the portrayal of violence, the sex, the swearing or the unladylike behaviour, but whether or not it would live up to the expectations set by the original. In other words, Prisoner was now regarded as one of the great, trail-blazing Australian series that changed the way women were represented on screen. While it would take a much longer essay to properly account for how and why the reception of these two series has changed over the last fifty years, ←xiv | xv→I think this trajectory serves to illustrate some significant differences in the TV landscape more generally.

In the beginning, Prisoner was shown on network TV in Australia, in an early evening family viewing timeslot. Over the years I have encountered many students, now adults, who have told me that they were not allowed to watch Prisoner by their parents because of the ‘violence’ and presumed negative effects. Wentworth, on the other hand, was commissioned by Foxtel (the Australian branch of the Fox Network) in 2012 and launched on the streaming channel SoHo in 2013, before moving across to Fox Showcase in 2017. As executive director Brian Walsh suggested in a press release at the time: ‘Wentworth will be a dynamic and very confronting drama series, developed and stylized specifically for subscription TV audiences. We have told producers to push all boundaries and honestly depict life on the inside as it is in 2012’ (cited by Dallas 2012).

The key phrase here is ‘subscription TV audiences’, which signals a perception that Wentworth will cater to a specific ‘niche’ audience, one that can possibly afford what were at the time high subscription fees for Foxtel. In commissioning Wentworth, Foxtel content producers would also be well aware of the global cult following for Prisoner, and how the re-imagined Wentworth might meet the needs of a global niche audience who would be inspired to subscribe to their streaming service in order to watch the show. I know I did.

From the moment in 1980 when fifty female motorbike riders converged on the offices of KTLA-5 on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, to protest the death of Franky Doyle, the lesbian prisoner who had been shot by police during a riot in episode 20 of Cell Block H; to the enthusiastic online fan reception of Wentworth when it was shown in the United States; it is clear that both shows have inspired the kind of participatory engagement that begs the question ‘why?’.

There are, as this collection reveals, so many reasons why Prisoner and Wentworth have continued to engage viewers all over the world and inspire the kinds of personal and critical responses represented here. Let us not forget what Sarah Cardwell has described as an aesthetic response to TV, which ‘entails a heightened alertness to the formal, sensory and “design” qualities of the artwork’, allowing the viewer to experience ‘a specific kind of fulfilling emotional engagement with the work’. While it may have taken ←xv | xvi→some time for TV to be considered ‘art’, Prisoner and Wentworth can be appreciated as much for their ‘artfulness’ as for their portrayal of women struggling to survive in a system that is weighted against them.

As this collection clearly demonstrates, Wentworth matters as much today as Prisoner did some forty years ago. Now read on and find out why.

– Sue Turnbull

Senior Professor of Communication and Media

University of Wollongong, Australia

←xvi | xvii→


We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to all participants of 2018’s Wentworth is the New Prisoner conference, which had the goal of uniting those who study and are fans of Wentworth and Prisoner, with those who are or who have been involved in making these shows, with the aim of generating a lively exchange of critical and creative ideas. The participants not only made the event the success it was in (and beyond) achieving those goals, but also set us on the path to producing this book. Participating organizations, keynote speakers, moderators, industry panellists and presenters (some of whom have authored chapters for the book) included the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Research Collection, Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive, Kim Akass, Amanda K. Allen, Olympia Barron, Michael Beets, Alex Bevan, Michael Brindley, Philippa Burne, Kathy Chambers, Adrian Danks, Faye Davies, Jessica Ford, Catherine Gillam, Alexander Gionfriddo, Miguel Gonzalez, Craig Haslop, Kate Hood, Jessica Ive, Renee Middlemost, Helen Milte, Whitney Monaghan, Monash University, Jan Russ, Diana Sandars, Kate Saunders, Alexa Scalata, Kirsten Stevens, RMIT University, Ros Tatarka, the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Sue Turnbull, Terrie Waddell and Kate Warner. Thank you for the dynamic presentations, passionate dialogues, lively collegiality and interpretive dance!

Regarding the book in particular, we first wish to thank Lucy Melville at Peter Lang, who – also being a Prisoner fan – invited us to work with her team when she heard about the conference. Thanks to Laurel Plapp, also at Peter Lang, who guided us through the process – and was understanding when we needed extensions.

Thanks also go to Steven Chong, for services to copyediting, Yaron Meron, for services to photography, and Adrian Danks, who gave us permission to quote the speech he gave to launch our conference in the editor’s introduction to this book.←xvii | xviii→

On behalf of our authors, we extend our gratitude to the many industry practitioners and expert informants who generously gave their time and shared their knowledge in interviews conducted by contributors to this volume. Thanks to Martha Ansara, Michael Brindley, Shareena Clanton, Andreas Fuhrman, Marcia Gardner, Pete McTighe, Robynne Murphy, Pollo de Pimentel, Jan Russ, Mark Stiles and Daniela Torsch. Thanks to Cath Moore for her work transcribing and editing the interview with Shareena Clanton.

Additionally, we would like to thank the many academics who acted as peer reviewers for the chapters in this collection. In generously sharing their time, expert knowledge and constructive criticism, they aided immensely in shaping and fine-tuning the research in the chapters that follow.

Thanks also for institutional support provided to the conference and book by Monash University, the School of Culture and Communication in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne, and the University of Technology Sydney. Monash University provided Special Project funds to enable inclusion of an Indigenous Australian perspective. Other university support went towards proofreading and associated costs.

Finally, and most importantly, we acknowledge that our daily work and the work of this book takes place on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and on Kaurna Country. We recognize that these are places of age-old ceremonies of celebration, initiation and renewal, and that the local Indigenous Peoples have had – and continue to have – a unique role in the life of these lands. We pay respect to Wurundjeri, Kaurna and other Aboriginal Elders past, present and future for their custodianship of country and culture. We acknowledge that our work at universities around Melbourne and Adelaide benefits from an uncompensated and unreconciled dispossession that began over 230 years ago, but which continues to be resisted today. As we consider televisual fictions of Australian prisons in this book, we must reflect on the twin facts that Indigenous people are vastly overrepresented in Australian prison populations and vastly underrepresented in Australian screen production, facts that are consequences of ongoing colonization. We hope that readers will reflect on this as they read through the pages ahead.

Radha O’Meara, Tessa Dwyer, Stayci Taylor and Craig Batty

Breakout Women: Introduction to TV Transformations, Gender and Transgression

The editors of this book are academics and self-confessed fans of the Australian women’s prison TV dramas Prisoner (Cell Block H) (1979–86) and Wentworth (2013–21). This book is part of the ‘aca-fan’ tradition that blurs the boundaries between knowledges and practices of academia and fandom, eschewing a quasi-objective perspective for an up-close and personal critical analysis (Cristofari & Guitton 2017).

TV Transformation and Transgressive Women emerged after we, the ‘aca-fan’ editors, convened the 2018 international conference Wentworth is the New Prisoner in Melbourne, Australia, the home of these TV series. Fond of a pun (as will soon become very obvious), we were of course echoing the title of another women-in-prison drama, Orange is the New Black (2013–19). Wentworth is not the ‘new’ Prisoner so much as a re-imagining, as is discussed in many of the chapters throughout this book. But Wentworth’s popularity, in part, opened the (cell) door for scholarship to turn its attention to both shows.

The intention of our conference was to bring scholars together from various fields – TV studies, screenwriting practice and fandom studies, to name a few – to share their work on these two particular Australian (and subsequently internationally adapted) TV shows. What soon became very clear was that not only did the assembled participants have exciting insights into the role and relevance of these shows but also that all of us in the room were very clearly aca-fans. Which is to say that none of us needed an excuse to travel internationally or interstate to chat about all things Wentworth and Prisoner with other equally passionate devotees. As noted by attendee (and author of chapter ‘Orange is the New Black, Wentworth and contemporary media feminisms’) Jessica Ford in her review of the conference for CST Online, the blog of Critical Studies in Television:

←1 | 2→

A common thread that emerged in discussions over tea and coffee was the general bewilderment (from those outside the conference) that an ‘entire two days’ could be dedicated to Prisoner and Wentworth. Yet what the Wentworth is the New Prisoner Conference proved is, not only are these series fertile spaces for a wide range of discussions pertinent to contemporary television studies, but also the value of an intimate highly-focused conference is unparalleled. (Ford 2018)

Our two keynote speakers Professors Kim Akass and Sue Turnbull (who we are delighted to have as the writers of the Foreword to this book) ‘challenged each of us to see Prisoner and Wentworth as part of a larger discussion about women and television’ (Ford 2018). This emerged as an important aspect of the conference, hence the title of this book not focusing solely on the two shows but instead framing them with the context of feminist TV and the concept of the transgressive female.

Running parallel to the traditional scholarly stream of such a conference was a series of panels with industry professionals from both shows. These comprised actors, producers, writers, art directors, cinematographers and casting directors, including those responsible for the Wentworth VR experience. This was possible partly because the conference was held in Melbourne, where Prisoner was shot in the 1970s and 1980s and where Wentworth was also produced. As Adrian Danks (then Associate Dean, Media with the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University) pointed out when he launched the conference, the host university was:

[A]‌ completely appropriate venue considering that the main building of our School overlooks Melbourne’s and Victoria’s oldest jail – opened in 1845 – as well as the law courts that ‘served’ it, and that the University itself incorporates aspects of the jail into its vast portfolio of buildings and spaces […] But this staging of the conference at RMIT also recognizes the centrality of Melbourne to the production of both Prisoner and Wentworth … the vast space of the city that takes in both the large sets built to house each show and the immediate environs of the suburbs that surround them. We also have to thank another successful show of the period, The Young Doctors, for tying up studio space in Sydney commonly used by [production company] Grundys, and necessitating that the production of Prisoner be carried out at Channel 10’s Nunawading studios […] Both shows traverse the city, making use of its disparate, varied and often-abandoned spaces.

←2 | 3→

Associate Professor Danks was also able to share with us the story of a friend for whom Prisoner was such an obsession, he procured one of the cell doors from the set of the show after shooting wrapped finally in 1986. As Adrian reminisced:

This was duly delivered, slightly resized and then screwed into place as his bedroom door – we (and, I imagine, he) got some pleasure in sliding back the peephole on the door & shouting: ‘Get back in the cell, Barnes.’ I have no idea what happened to the door, whether he took it with him from house to house or whether it still sits incongruously grafted into place in a suburban backstreet of East Ringwood. I hope it does.


XVIII, 474
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (May)
Women-in-prison TV drama series Television Gender TV Transformations and Transgressive Women Radha O’Meara Tessa Dwyer Stayci Taylor Craig Batty
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XVIII, 474 pp., 3 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Radha O’Meara (Volume editor) Tessa Dwyer (Volume editor) Stayci Taylor (Volume editor) Craig Batty (Volume editor)

The editors of this volume are screen studies and screenwriting scholars with specialist skills in a range of areas and practices, including script development, gender studies and television studies. Radha O’Meara is Lecturer in Screenwriting at the University of Melbourne. Her critical research concentrates on serial storytelling and industrial authorship in contemporary film and television. Tessa Dwyer is Lecturer in Film and Screen Studies, Monash University. Her research focuses on screen media and language difference, and she has published the monograph Speaking in Subtitles (2017). Stayci Taylor is Senior Lecturer, Master of Media, RMIT University. Her research focuses on screenwriting practice, and she has co-edited two books on script development. Craig Batty is Professor and Dean of Research (Creative) at the University of South Australia. He has published fifteen books and many articles on screenwriting and creative practice research.


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