‘Prisoner’ reunion special: Woman’s Day takes you behind the scenes of Aussie TV’s most famous prison

On the inside with the top dogs of Cell Block H.
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As they spot one another across a room brimming with fans, legendary actresses and Prisoner icons Val Lehman and Maggie Kirkpatrick both let fly with exuberant, rafter-rattling shrieks of elation.

It’s been 45 years since Prisoner first sprang into life in Australia and to celebrate the milestone, Partners In Crime recently assembled a weekend of excitement for Prisoner devotees who flew in from all over the world to meet their idols in Melbourne.

“We haven’t seen each other for a couple of years, so it’s always great to share some hearty laughs face-to-face,” beams 83-year-old Maggie, a bona fide fan favourite as Prisoner’s iconic villainous warder Joan “The Freak” Ferguson.

Prisoner became a huge hit in Oz – and the world! (Image: Philip Castleton)


“There are fans all over the world convinced we hate each other, but nothing could be further from the truth. While we played vehement arch rivals, off screen I’ve always admired Maggie’s talent and her huge heart,” smiles Val, 80, who shot to fame as the show’s original top dog and queen of the steam press, Bea Smith.

“I’ve always said my best scenes were opposite Val. She was brilliant to work with,” adds Maggie.

Val and Maggie were joined at the legend’s lunch by Patsy King, loved as the impeccably coiffed Governor Erica Davidson, and Amanda Muggleton, a popular fave as inmate Chrissie Latham – the “tart with a kind heart”.

The special event took place at Melbourne’s Burvale Hotel, not far from the studios where Prisoner was taped, and was the local watering hole for cast and crew.

Patsy King portrayed Erica Davidson in Prisoner. (Image: Supplied)

Patsy, fabulously funny and spry at 93, recalls the reason she wound up tottering about the corridors of Wentworth Detention Centre on stilettos and with big hair is that Prisoner creator Reg Watson wanted someone to tower commandingly over the inmates.

“So high heels and a French roll did the trick. Erica was on the phone so much during her four and a half-year run, it’s a wonder I didn’t wind up with a cauliflower ear,” she jokes.

“I did many intense scenes with the wonderful Fiona Spence, who played prison officer Vera “Vinegar Tits” Bennett. The dialogue was heated, the drama always full throttle, but when the director yelled cut, we’d fall about, laughing ourselves silly.”

It was also a genuinely heartwarming reunion for Maggie and Patsy, who, incredibly, hadn’t seen each other in “nearly 40 years”.

“I loved working with Maggie, who joined the series in 1982 and made such a lasting impact as Joan Ferguson, but when I left in 1984, we just lost touch,” explains Patsy, who is quickly distracted when her co-star and close friend Amanda Muggleton sweeps into the room.

The character Chrissie Latham was known on the show as the “tart with a kind heart”. (Image: Supplied)


“I was only 28 when I joined the Prisoner cast,” recalls Amanda, 72, who says her character Chrissie “endured enough over-heated drama to fill a dozen lives”.

Indeed, inmate Chrissie couldn’t stay out of strife!

From stabbing Bill Jackson, the husband to actress Elspeth Ballantyne’s beloved officer Meg Jackson, during a prison riot to having a baby with a prison inmate Mick O’Brien and the heartache of having her baby Elizabeth, named after Lizzie Birdsworth, snatched away.

“The storylines were wild, but I loved every minute. We can all laugh at the wobbly sets, but the series was ground-breaking, and I’m so proud to have been part of it,” adds Amanda.

Val, Maggie, Amanda and Patsy concur, unanimously saying that Prisoner – which has screened in 30 countries and garnered a cult following in the UK – provided so many wonderful actresses with work and the chance to shine.

“Until then, Australian television drama was dominated by men. Prisoner was all about women – and real women, not just mannequins swishing around in designer frocks and jewellery, acting as handbags,” says Val.

Bitter enemies on screen, Val and Maggie are close friends. (Image: Apple TV+)


Maggie, a much-loved stage and screen stalwart, says she originally auditioned for the role of Vera Bennett, the show’s first tough-as- nails warden.

“The brilliant Fiona Spence landed the role. So I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’ Then I got a call to say a role had been specially created for me – that of a vicious, imposing lesbian officer.”

“I leapt at the offer. On went the black leather gloves, the hair was slicked back, and Joan Ferguson became the character viewers loved to hate,” smiles Maggie.

Amanda, a stage and screen veteran, recalls being unable to secure a Prisoner audition, so, full of bravado, she rocked up to the offices of producer Reg Grundy unannounced.

“I fibbed and bluffed my way in. I knew it was a show for me. I was determined. From that, I’ve made some lifelong friends. I speak regularly to dear Patsy and Val, and always love catch-ups with Maggie when we run into each other.

“On the flipside, I miss so many of the show’s great stars who are no longer with us, from Carol Burns and Judith McGrath, to Betty Bobbitt, Gerda Nicholson and Anne Phelan. There are times I cry for their loss,” shares Amanda.

“What I love about these reunions is we all come away with big smiles on our faces. My sides ache from laughing so much,” says Maggie.

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