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Prisoner Cell Block H (1979-1986) – DVD Review

prisoner cell block h dvd cover


Created by: Reg Watson
Starring: Maggie Kirkpatrick, Val Lehman, Anne Phelan, Elspeth Ballantyne, Sheila Florance, Betty Bobbit, Glenda Linscott


  • Twelve episodes from the series included: 166, 287, 327, 400, 536, 550, 551, 552, 600, 601, 691, 692
  • Interviews with actresses Lehman, Phelan and casting director Jan Russ
  • Behind the Scenes Continuity Photo Galleries

Released by: A&E Home Video.
Region: 1
Rating: NR
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.

My Advice: Find it on cable.

It’s interesting to find out that Britain, the exporter of many TV cult series, imports some too. And from all places Australia. For instance the women behind bars soap opera Prisoner Cell Block H. Forget glamour and freakishly beautiful people; life inside Wentworth Women’s Detention is hard and dangerous. The constant threat of riots, crooked guards, fires, terrorist attacks, and extreme overacting is a fact of everyday life. We see the trials and tribulations of the inmates like Top Dogs Bea Smith (Lehman) and Myra Desmond (Phelan) battling to keep their position and the prisoners tearing each other apart. We also look at the personnel of the prison from the kindly Deputy Governor Meg Morris (Ballantyne) to prison guard Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Kirkpatrick) and her infamous “body searches”.

[ad#longpost]At first glance, the concept of setting a soap inside a women’s prison is a bit odd. But like Dark Shadows before it, the basic themes of soap opera fit well in the setting: power plays, stormy relationships, and plenty of opportunities for high (or low) drama. Of course the plots can get convoluted, repetitive, and downright silly, but that’s not the point per se. Like actual opera, the plot is there to give the performers chances to emote. And while the performances are broad, befitting the genre, they rarely reach the point of completely hamming it up. The plots can get repetitive with constant rounds of riots, escape attempts, and beatdowns, but this show dealt with subjects like assisted suicide, drug abuse, and lesbianism before many shows, even Australian ones.

prisoner cell block h ferguson fricks
Prison Guard Ferguson gives the bad touch

The problem with reviewing this box set is that A&E decided to give a sampler of some of the more juicier episodes in the series. Since the series went to 692 episodes, it makes sense to put out a test as it were to see what the interest is and maybe drum up some new. The problem is, because of the soap format, we see plot lines in the middle. So we are not aware why some characters are acting the way they do and we never see how they are resolved. This makes it very hard to really get involved in the show. The episodes offered are compelling, I kept saying to myself “Well, what’s going on?” or “Well, what happened?” I’m not sure what format would work, but I don’t think this is the right one.

The extras don’t help much either. There are several interviews with cast and crew. You get the usual reflections on working on a show that becomes a cult classic, some behind the scene anecdotes, and a little self promotion. The continuity photo gallery does show how the production team kept track of what actors were wearing and what wounds they had. But without any context about what episodes or any additional info, it’s hard to see why this was included.

prisoner cell block h bad girl
She's a bad girl. She smokes!

What would have been a good extra is a documentary about the show itself, a retrospective or anniversary show. Something to provide some context and help the new viewer understand the characters and plots and why this show became such a campy hit. Or even an overview of the various metaplots going on so when you are dropped into the middle, you can at least figure out what the hell’s happened. So if you’re interested in Prisoner Cell Block H, see if can find it on cable, since this DVD box set isn’t the best introduction you can get.

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