Pamela Rabe indulges her nasty streak
The characters had ripper nicknames like The Freak, Queen Bea, Boomer and Vinegar Tits.
The sets were cobbled together from hardboard so flimsy you could see the walls wobble if someone slammed a door.
To heighten the mood and disguise the low-budget sets, the lighting was dimmed down until everything looked as grey as an incoming storm cloud.
There were steamy lesbian liaisons in the prison laundry, heroin overdoses in the dunnies, pervy prison wardens, amorous electricians. There were drug-induced flashbacks, gratuitous cavity searches, riots, suicides, arsons, and alarming outbreaks of forced cunnilingus.
There were bashings for Africa; if a new inmate clashed with the tough old chick who was "top dog", she might find her life leaking away on the shower-block linoleum, having been stabbed through the heart with a sharpened toothbrush.
A melodramatic soap opera that recalled a badass Neighbours, set behind bars, cult Aussie series Prisoner ran for a marathon 692 episodes between 1979 and 1986, its far-fetched stories derived from the power struggles of inmates and staff within a women's prison in Melbourne. Viewers loved it. Like Acca Dacca, budgie smugglers and shark nets, the thing became an Australian institution.
"Oh, good god, yes," says Pamela Rabe, one of Australia's greatest actresses. "And not just here in Australia, either. It screened all over the world. I grew up in Canada, but my Australian husband got me watching it over there on late-night TV. When we moved out here in 1983, I discovered just how much people loved it and the huge effect it had on popular culture."
Speaking from her Melbourne dressing room, Rabe has just finished shooting a scene in the series two of hit Prisoner remake Wentworth. The show is billed as a "contemporary re-imagining" of the original series - part reboot, part prequel, fleshing out the backstories of many original characters and throwing a few new ones in for good measure.
Rabe plays fearsome new prison governor, Joan "The Freak" Ferguson, reprising a role delivered with considerable relish in the original series by Maggie Fitzpatrick. Soft-spoken, sadistic and corrupt, her icy stillness interrupted by random outbreaks of cruelty, The Freak has been drafted in to restore order after former cell block matriarch Jacs Holt was stabbed in the neck with a pen, dying in a fountain of fake blood at the end of series one.
I picture Rabe sitting there between takes, dressed for the part: the crisp uniform; the trademark black leather gloves; her hair in a bun so tightly sculpted that it looks like a glossy black military helmet. Give her a whip and she could double as a dominatrix.
"Yes! Ha! Precisely. I can indulge my nasty streak, and get paid for it. I often get strong roles, and nasty roles, too. It's because of the way I look, I think, and my stature. I mean - I've been hired to play the wicked witch of the west, twice! But yes, The Freak is one of the most iconic characters in Australian television. I once played Maggie Fitzpatrick's daughter on stage, and I have a huge amount of respect for what she did with this role. It was an honour to be offered the chance to slip on her gloves."
Rabe's portrayal of The Freak has something of Margaret Thatcher about it - that sense of calculated calm, the soft voice, the curdled maternalism, the undercurrent of insincerity and threat.
"Politics is a perfect analogy, I think. The Freak is someone who's employed to step into a disorderly environment and display strong leadership. And the very day before I was offered the job, Julia Gillard was ousted from office here as prime minister of Australia. I thought a lot about how this character might try to be a good leader. I wondered how, as a woman, you might lead a team of difficult staff members, head up an institution, and create a strong architecture in which to prevail over female inmates whose only real power is in the chaos they create. It's quite a challenge. And, as more of my character's backstory is revealed, these things only get murkier and more sinister."
If anyone can transmit a nuanced sense of dark developments, it's Rabe. This is a woman who inspires more than a little awe in other actors. Rabe was once described by Melbourne theatre critic Alison Croggon as having the sort of presence that "makes shy people swallow hard and lesser mortals involuntarily bow".
This steely self-assurance is unmissable, even down the phone. She speaks about her craft with great intensity, with a palpable reverence for acting's dark arts and sacred texts.
Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Brecht. Noel Coward, Patrick White, David Mamet. While Rabe has done a scattering of TV and won wide praise for films such as Cosi, Sirens, Paradise Road and The Well, she's best known for playing lead roles in some of the greatest stage plays of our times.
She famously played Richard III in Sydney Theatre Company's acclaimed gender-bending production of The War Of The Roses, with Cate Blanchett at her side playing Richard II, and starred alongside Hugo Weaving in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Interspersed with blockbuster 2000-seater stage shows, she also still takes on tough roles in small experimental theatres. Rabe once signed on for a gruelling role in a piece that lasted eight hours, and was the sole actor in Woman-Bomb, a controversial Croatian play in which she inhabits the body and mind of a suicide bomber.
Playing strong or deeply damaged women seems to be a speciality. Is that what drew her to Wentworth?
"It's the perfect show for me in many ways. Prison is a great setting for drama, because there's volatile characters, all manner of power plays and allegiances, a lot of tension between order and chaos. Also, the dynamic of a group that's nearly all female is fascinating; it gives audiences the chance to see a parade of wonderful female actors without confirming to the usual dolly-bird stereotypes. The women in the show are young, old, compassionate, ruthless, all shapes and sizes, and not behaving nicely! Through this world and these characters, you can give yourself permission to indulge in some less socially acceptable forms of femininity."
The show has strong New Zealand connections. Auckland actor Robbie Magasiva plays a troubled prison warden whose wife was killed in the line of duty. And future "top dog" Bea Smith is played by New Zealand actress Danielle Cormack, fresh from a breakthrough role as crime boss Kate Leigh in another Australian series, Underbelly: Razor.
"Robbie is a gorgeous man, and Danielle's extraordinary in her role, too. It's a great cast, all working under high pressure to produce quality drama on a budget that's minuscule compared to American productions."
The tight budget is far less evident than it was in the original Prisoner, but one aspect of that pioneering series remains. Despite better writing and acting, improved production values and more graphic violence, Wentworth still has something of the soap opera about it.
The overlong pauses. The Days Of Our Lives lighting. The implausible plotlines and overly expository dialogue. That borderline farcical scene at the end of series one of Jacs Holt dying with a Bic jutting from her jugular, the blood pumping out in lurid red squirts, as if some over-zealous production assistant was standing behind her squeezing a giant chip-shop bottle of tomato sauce.
"Yes, there's a lot of melodrama being explored, that's true. But I hope we're investing it with enough grit and truth that we take the audience with us when we venture into extreme territory, so they're gasping at the same time as they perhaps laugh a little. If there's a theme that runs through the series, it's about the things this horrible environment does to a person's moral compass. Ultimately, a lot of the characters are just archetypes.
"It's a drama that's Jacobean in its scope, like a 17th-century tragedy set in a modern prison. It's that ancient idea of being trapped in a close environment with forces you cannot control. People can easily die, and they do. The stakes are very high."
Series Two of Wentworth screens at 8.30pm from tomorrow on TV2.
Sunday Star Times