Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Don't Put Me In The Shoe!

1988: Just after I finished my GCSE exams, I noticed an intriguing entry in the TV Times, on Thursday night after the 10 o'clock news. It was for a late 1970s Australian soap opera set in a women's prison (the Wentworth Detention Centre) called Prisoner Cell Block H, and I watched it, not expecting it to be very good. In some ways it wasn't - the acting was often camply melodramatic, the sets looked like sets and the storylines sometimes dragged and sometimes didn't make much sense with characters appearing to be written out for no reason. But it was riveting stuff all the same. In the first episode, a pretty young woman checks into the prison, accused of trying to kill the baby she has been employed to care for by burying it alive. She claims she's innocent, and sure enough we find out that she's telling the truth and the baby's still in danger from its insane mother, but the other prisoners don't believe her and the episode ends with the top dog of the prison, Bea Smith, burning the girl's hands in the steam press. During my student years, the soap was often pre-empted for sporting events (boo!), and when I moved across country to go to university I missed 2 years of it, as different regions were all showing it on different schedules. I remember during my first week at university, feeling disoriented and lonely, turning on the tv on Sunday night to see the welcoming faces of Bea, Lizzie, Doreen, Meg, Erica et al. And things didn't seem so bad. When Sheila Florence who played old lag Lizzie Birdsworth, died, my friends and I lit a little candle for her. I even started watching the series all over again on DVD a few years ago and kept a blog about it, although I have been remiss in keeping it up to date.

So it was with some interest that I realised that the show has been recently rebooted - and is now on Channel 5 - simply called Wentworth, it takes the same characters as before, but places them in the here and now. It's more of a retelling - or rather, a badly remembered retelling - as the storylines of characters deviate from the original. The actresses have a lot to live up to, and perhaps because it is filmed like a professionally done drama, it doesn't have the bumbling DIY feel of "Pris" as we called it. And in any case, I'm already hooked on another women's prison drama, Orange is the New Black. Orange follows middle-class New Yorker, Piper who goes to prison for trafficking drug money ten years previously when she had a drug-dealing girlfriend and a very different life. It is through Piper's eyes that we encounter the prison and its inmates, and each episode gives the backstory of a different character through a series of flashbacks which document some of the events that led to that prisoner being locked up. Even characters who are extremely unsympathetic are gradually fleshed out and shown to have a complex side - these are not women who have chosen a life of crime (as is the case for the reprehensible characters of Grand Theft Auto) but have often been forced into it via circumstance. Every character is believable and the acting, even from the minor characters, is compelling, particularly considering how young and relatively experienced some of the women playing these roles are.

My fella has an instinctual hatred for the drug-dealing girlfriend (who - spoiler alert - of course, happens to be in the same prison), calling her a "traitor" - which is the worst thing you can be in his eyes. But he also disapproves of those tv property buying shows like "A Place in the Sun: Home and Abroad" which follow people who are thinking about leaving the UK to start a new life. (He calls that show "Traitors".)

Although the cast of Orange are mostly not well known, it is fun to see Kate Mulgrew (Captain Kathryn Janeway) playing the prison top dog - a Russian chef with mad red hair (called Red) and a cold temper. Episode 2, which shows some of Red's backstory - is called "Tit punch", and has to be seen to be believed (episode 3 is called Lesbian Request Denied).

One of my favourite characters is Suzanne (aka Crazy Eyes). Here's why.

Even ol' Crazy eventually gets a sympathetic write-up after she is initially painted as mad and sexually predatory. And there is a heart-rending scene where she asks Piper, "Why do they call me crazy eyes?"

As the inheritor of Prisoner Cell Block H, I'd say Orange is the New Black wins the prize.

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