toughens up

Prisoner (TV series)

Prisoner is an Australian television soap opera which was set in the Wentworth Detention Centre, a fictional women's prison. Because of its success in the United Kingdom, the series has become one of the most enduring in Australian television history. The series was produced by the Reg Grundy Organisation and ran on Network Ten for 692 episodes from 1979 to 1986.

It was seen as an alternative to the British television drama Within These Walls, which had achieved moderate success in Australia. Because of an injunction brought by UK-based ATV, which considered the title too similar to their own series The Prisoner, it was originally not possible for buyers to screen the show under the name Prisoner. Overseas broadcasters were able to retitle the show accordingly. It was broadcast under the title Prisoner: Cell Block H in the UK and the United States, and as Caged Women in Canada.


Prisoner was created by Reg Watson, who had previously produced the British soap opera Crossroads from 1964 to 1976, and would go on to create such popular Australian dramas as The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters and Neighbours. Initially conceived as a sixteen episode stand-alone series, the storylines primarily concentrated on the lives of the prisoners and, to a lesser extent, the officers and other prison staff.

The themes of the show were often radical, including feminism, homosexuality and social reform. When the series launched in 1979, the press advertising used the line "if you think prison is hell for a man, imagine what it's like for a woman".

The series examined in detail the way in which women dealt with incarceration and separation from their families. Within the walls of the prison, the major themes of the series were the interpersonal relationships between the prisoners, the power struggles, friendships and rivalries. To a certain extent, the misfits who found themselves within the walls of the Wentworth Detention Centre became each other's family, with Bea Smith (see below) as a mother figure.

Several lesbian characters were featured throughout the show's run, notably prisoners Franky Doyle and Judy Bryant, along with prison officer Joan Ferguson.


The viewers’ introduction to the world of Wentworth Detention Centre involved the arrival of two new prisoners, Karen Travers (Peta Toppano) and Lynn Warner (Kerry Armstrong). Travers had been charged for the murder of her husband, while Warner protested her innocence after being convicted of the abduction and attempted murder of a child. Both women are sent to the prison’s maximum security wing (H Block) where they are horrified by their new surroundings. Karen finds herself face-to-face with a former lover, prison doctor Greg Miller (Barry Quin), and is sexually harassed by her violent, bullying lesbian cellmate, Franky Doyle (Carol Burns). Lynn finds herself ostracised by the other prisoners because of her crime (prison populations are known for their intolerance towards criminals who commit offences against children) and is terrorised by the prison’s “top dog”, the self-styled “Queen” Bea Smith (Val Lehman), who “accidentally” burns her hand in the laundry steam press in one of the series’ most iconic scenes.

The other prisoners are rather less volatile, including the elderly, garden-loving “Mum” Brooks (Mary Ward), a bickering comic relief double act with teddy-clutching misfit Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann) and old lag Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance), and seductive prostitute Marilyn Mason (Margaret Laurence), who entices electrician Eddie Cook (Richard Moir) into amorous encounters around the prison. The prison officers, or “screws” as they are called by the women, comprised the firm but fair Governor Erica Davidson (Patsy King), flanked by the diametrically opposed sadistic Deputy Governor Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence), dubbed “Vinegar Tits” by the inmates, and compassionate senior officer Meg Jackson (Elspeth Ballantyne).

The early episodes are a potent cocktail of violence and mayhem; involving Lynn Warner’s punishment burning, another prisoner hanging herself in her cell, unrequited Sapphic passion, a fatal stabbing and a flashback sequence inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, in which Karen Travers stabs her abusive husband to death in the shower. The first major story arc-defining event in the series is the turf war for top dog status between Bea Smith and Franky Doyle, culminating in a prison riot in which Meg Jackson is held hostage, and her husband, prison psychiatrist Bill Jackson (Don Barker), is stabbed to death by inmate Chrissie Latham (Amanda Muggleton).

Increase in production

Prisoner premiered in Australia on 27 February 1979 and instantly struck a chord with the audience, prompting the producers to extend the series from a sixteen-part serial to an ongoing concern. This decision immediately impacted on format and characterisation, and a number of changes were made to the series.

Most significantly, the series’ production schedule increased from making one-hour long episode per week to two episodes per week. This led to the departure of the show’s first breakout popular character, Franky Doyle, when actress Carol Burns chose to leave the series, feeling that she could not continue her portrayal with the increased production rate. Introduced as a borderline psychotic given to bouts of furniture-throwing violent rage, Franky’s character was explored through her unrequited love for fellow inmate Karen Travers, who warmed to her and tried to teach her to read, finally emerging as an unloved, illiterate, deeply frustrated social misfit and a tragic anti-heroine. Franky’s exit saw her escaping from Wentworth accompanied by Doreen Anderson, and shot dead by a policeman after being on the run for several weeks.

As the series began to gather momentum, new story arcs were introduced. Karen Travers decided to appeal against her sentence and was eventually released from prison, resuming her romantic relationship with Dr. Greg Miller and becoming involved in prison reform. As original characters began to leave the series (Mum Brooks, Lynn Warner, Karen and Greg all appeared beyond the initial sixteen episodes, but had made their exits by the end of the 1979 season), new characters arrived: hulking husband-basher Monica Ferguson (Lesley Baker), sneering career criminal Noeline Burke (Jude Kuring), idealistic murderess Roslyn Coulson (Sigrid Thornton) and imprisoned mother Pat O’Connell (Monica Maughan). Chrissie Latham, a minor character seen briefly in the early episodes, returned in a more central antagonistic role, and a new male Deputy Governor, Jim Fletcher (Gerard Maguire), added a touch of testosterone to a female-dominated series.

Bea, Lizzie and Doreen

As Prisoner entered into production for a second year in 1980, the long-term format and structure to the series established the previous year was perfected. The characters were made up of a recognisable set of archetypes. The prison population comprised a core group of sympathetic prisoners – a top dog, an elderly inmate, a wayward youngster – and other characters, such as an antagonist who threatens the top dog’s control, a middle-class prisoner out of her depth in the prison, remand prisoners waiting for their trial and hired heavies used for “muscle”.

After the departures of early leads such as Franky Doyle, Karen Travers and Lynn Warner, the trio of Bea Smith, Doreen Burns (nee Anderson) and Lizzie Birdsworth emerged as the front-line prisoners. Bea was the tough, ambivalent yet maternal leader, softened after being a mostly unsympathetic character in the 1979 episodes. The death of Bea’s teenage daughter Debbie (Cassandra Lehman) from a heroin overdose not only explained her motivation for killing her husband on her release early in the series, but also explained Bea’s uncompromising hatred of drug offenders and clouded judgement whenever children were involved. Doreen was a well-meaning but inept tragi-comic figure and Lizzie was a mischievous elderly rascal with a dicky ticker and unquenchable taste for alcohol that saw her employed in comedy storylines, whilst also maintaining a more serious dimension, sometimes contemplating dying in prison. The Bea-Lizzie-Doreen dynamic was joined early in the 1980 run by Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbitt), an American ex-pat lesbian who deliberately gets herself imprisoned to be with her girlfriend, scheming drug dealer Sharon Gilmour (Margot Knight), who became a long-term central character and part of the core group of prisoners.

The mix of officers also established a template of character types. The progressive Governor Erica Davidson, whose approach to the job was to the right of warm-hearted warder Meg Jackson, but to the left of the acidic Vera Bennett, with firm but fair Deputy Governor Jim Fletcher often switching sides between Vera and Meg. Erica herself would face an uphill struggle with untenable directives from her superiors at the Department of Corrective Services, represented by bigwig Ted Douglas (Ian Smith). As such, the storylines dealing with the prisoners’ everyday lives were somewhat cyclical – depicting harsh treatment leading to organised prisoner resistance remedied by concessions and greater freedom which the women would take advantage of, thus requiring a tightening of the prison regime.

As well as capitalising on the obvious voyeuristic appeal of showcasing life in prison, the storylines which drove the series used familiar elements — smuggling, personality clashes between the prisoners, staff politics between the officers, organised prisoner resistance such as strikes and riots, a range of issue-based storylines, court cases and police investigations and escape plots. The series also made good use of cliffhangers, often involving dramatic escapes, crimes, and catastrophes befalling the prison and its inhabitants. The stories also ventured outside Wentworth with episodes featuring the private lives of the officers and the struggles of newly-released prisoners to adjust to life on the outside, including the forces that unfortunately led to recidivism. Bea Smith is released during the opening episodes, and with nothing and no-one on the outside since the drug-related death of her daughter Debbie, shoots her estranged husband dead to get revenge, thus ensuring her imprisonment for life. Elderly Lizzie Birdsworth is released when new evidence in her case reveals that she is in fact innocent of the poisoning charge she’d already served twenty years for. However, realising that there is no place for her on the outside, the institutionalised Lizzie deliberately commits a petty offence in order to return to Wentworth which, as with many long-serving inmates for whom the prison environment and rules turns into a way of life, had become home. Whilst the series did offer upbeat storylines where some characters, such as Karen Travers during the 1979 run, made it, it also made clear that for some, like Bea and Lizzie, prison life was the only option.

Unlike many other contemporary soap operas (Dallas, Dynasty, etc.), the characters and settings in Prisoner were predominantly working-class. The storylines humanised convicted criminals by showing that many of the inmates are inside for petty offences such as soliciting and theft and even those who are imprisoned for violent crime are largely depicted as victims of the system, of social inequalities and misfortune, people who never really much of a chance in life. Additionally, a majority of the characters were female, over-40 and — because of the show's setting — were not played by typically glamorous TV actors. The series was praised many times for the opportunity it gave actresses who, under more conventional TV circumstances, may not have been cast in leading roles.

The prison setting also blurred the conventional dramatic definitions of “goodies” and “baddies”. Whilst characters such as the principled, compassionate Karen Travers, the dignified “Mum” Brooks and the motherly lesbian Judy Bryant were all nominally more sympathetic than old lags Lizzie and Bea, Prisoner had no true heroines in the accepted sense and even the “villains” – bullies and stirrers like Franky Doyle, Noeline Burke, Monica Ferguson, Chrissie Latham, Sharon Gilmour and thuggish prison bookie Margo Gaffney (Jane Clifton) - were all shown to possess some redeeming characteristics.

Memorable storylines during the “Bea, Lizzie and Doreen” era of the show (late 1979-late 1981) included the 1979 cliffhanger involving a terrorist raid on the prison in which Governor Erica Davidson, an increasingly campy character somewhat resembling a St. Trinians headmistress, was shot and wounded. A long-running story arc involved Judy Bryant's vendetta against corrupt male warder Jock Stewart (Tommy Dysart) after he had murdered her lover Sharon Gilmour by pushing her down a prison staircase. Angry at the way the incident had been covered up by the authorities (a verdict of accidental death was recorded and Jock was sacked), the women rioted and held a rooftop protest in which Leanne Burke (Tracey-Jo Riley), the daughter of Noeline Burke, fell to her death from the roof. The subsequent efforts of Judy to avenge Sharon’s death and exact vengeance against Jock involved her escaping and working as a prostitute to track down Jock and kill him, and a final confrontation when Judy was out on parole that ended with the poetic justice of Jock falling down the stairs and being left permanently paralysed. The 1980 cliffhanger saw Bea, Lizzie and Doreen trapped in an underground tunnel after a mass escape plan staged during a performance of the pantomime Cinderella went somewhat awry. As Prisoner reached its 200th episode, Bea Smith suffered amnesia, with no memory of ever having been imprisoned, after a car crash during a prison transfer.

End of an era

After a lengthy break over the festive period Prisoner was then moved to an earlier slot in the Melbourne area of 7.30pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. With a recap of the events of 1980 on Tuesday 3 February 1981, the series resumed with episode 166 in its new slot the following evening. From episode 205 onwards, the series continued in its original 8.30pm slot. During the latter half of the 1981 season, Prisoner seemed to be moving into its next phase. Central to this shift was the exit of original character Vera “Vinegar Tits” Bennett, the unpleasant warder whom viewers loved to hate, in the most high profile cast departure since the death of Franky Doyle. Vera resigned from Wentworth, having won the job of Governor of Barnhurst.

It is at this point in the show that the steady stream of supporting characters, written into the series to complement the leading ensemble, gained in importance. The officers’ ranks were augmented by the sarcastic, militant union representative Colleen Powell (Judith McGrath), and the bespectacled and somewhat ineffectual Joyce Barry (Joy Westmore). The character of Colleen was poised to gain from the departure of Vera and then of Jim Fletcher a few months later, eventually taking over as Deputy Governor. Amongst the prisoners, Chrissie Latham and Margo Gaffney, often written as antagonists of Bea Smith, had emerged as strong central recurring characters, as had prostitute Helen Smart (Caroline Gillmer).

Towards the end of the 1981 run, the old gang of Bea, Lizzie, Doreen and Judy took a back seat to the proceedings. Bea was hospitalised for a kidney transplant operation, Lizzie was briefly paroled and Doreen and Judy were temporarily transferred to Barnhurst. The main narrative focus of the late 1981 storylines was on three new characters introduced as major players: cocky gangster’s moll Sandy Edwards (Louise Le Nay) and the highly intelligent and enigmatic Dr. Kate Peterson (Olivia Hamnett) were both convicted of murder while the cunning, villainous long-term criminal Marie Winter (Maggie Millar) was transferred from Barnhurst. The cliffhanger to the 1981 run involved the newly-arrived Marie manipulating Sandy into starting an explosive prison riot to protest the increasingly oppressive prison conditions following new directives from the Department. With a copy of the prison keys and improvised weapons, Sandy leads the marauding women through the prison, and in the subsequent siege situation, new rookie officers Janet Conway (Kate Sheil) and Steve Faulkner (Wayne Jarratt) are taken hostage.

The first few months of the 1982 run concentrated on the power struggles, scheming and double-crossing between the characters of Sandy, Marie and Kate, which involved a number of murder attempts. As Sandy and Marie clashed for the top dog position, Kate plotted to secure her release from Wentworth, revealing her true manipulative colours and playing different sides against each other for her own advantage. When all three were written out of the series once their projected storylines had run their course, the focus returned once more to Bea and company. However, by this point after so many dramatic events in the prison and the Bea-Lizzie-Doreen-Judy quartet still cosily ensconced as the leading characters, the series had started to show its age. In many subtle, not immediately apparent ways, it was the end of an era and it was clear that a radical shake-up was needed to give the series a new lease of life.

Introduction of the Freak

That new lease of life was provided by the arrival of a formidable new officer – Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick). Enforcing her will through her black leather-gloved fists, molesting prisoners during unofficial “body searches” and taking her cut on all the prison rackets, Ferguson was just as corrupt, calculating and sadistic as some of the worst prisoners, but was on the other side of the bars and therefore untouchable. Bea Smith was soon awake to Joan’s villainy, and the two became deadly enemies. Joan schemed to beat Bea, while Bea plotted to oust Joan, thus beginning a new standard story arc for the series – in which the women of Wentworth try to “get rid of the Freak”. But Ferguson wasn’t going anywhere, having swiftly become an integral presence in the show, and increasingly its most iconic character, much like J.R. Ewing in Dallas or Alexis Colby in Dynasty.

Other developments during this period were the return of Chrissie Latham and Margo Gaffney to the show to bolster the ranks of the now somewhat empty-looking cellblock as Doreen and Judy were released from Wentworth. Doreen left the series, while Judy took charge of a new halfway house for ex-prisoners, named Driscoll House, after its first resident, young Susie Driscoll (Jacqui Gordon). The action was then split between the prison and the halfway house, which allowed the series to explore more issue-based storylines through the Driscoll House residents. Doomed heroin addict Donna Mason (Arkie Whiteley) featured prominently both as a remand prisoner and as a resident of Driscoll House, while another halfway house guest, young biker Maxine Daniels (Lisa Crittenden), also ended up at Wentworth and joined the regular cast.

The main driver of this period however remained the ongoing animosity between Bea Smith and Joan Ferguson. Their conflict peaked in time for the 1982 season cliffhanger, in a showdown which brought the prison, literally, to the ground. Smith decided to finish Ferguson once and for all, so she lured The Freak into a trap by falsely claiming that Ferguson's incriminating secret diaries had been hidden in isolation by another prisoner, white-collar thief Barbara Fields (Susan Guerin) (in reality Fields had hidden them in the Governor's office). As a diversion, Chrissie Latham was to light a small fire in the prison library. A recalcitrant Margo Gaffney had angrily criticised the decoy fire idea as weak and predictable, claiming that for anyone to be fooled it had better be a pretty big fire. She refused to co-operate further with the scheme, but as the plan got underway, Margo secretly went and set a much larger fire in a storeroom. Unfortunately, a large stock of mineral turpentine was being temporarily stored there.

The fire spread out of control while Bea Smith and Joan Ferguson battled it out in the isolation wing. In the confusion of the prison evacuation, Barbara Fields made her way to the Governor's office to retrieve the diaries. The fire overloaded the prison's security system, engaging the riot alarm, which caused all the prison gates to automatically slam shut and lock, leaving prisoners and staff trapped in the burning prison. Fields was overcome by smoke and collapsed in the Governor's office as the flames surrounded her (and the diaries) while two other inmates, “Mouse” Trapp (Jentah Sobott) and Paddy Lawson (Anna Hruby), found themselves trapped in the laundry. Paddy attempted to escape through the air ducts while a panicking Mouse ran through the corridor trying each door in turn. Meanwhile, Governor Erica Davidson valiantly ran back inside the prison to try to unlock the security gates.

Ferguson had beaten Smith to an unconscious state, but when the gates slammed shut, she was trapped in the cell block with Smith - along with Ferguson's dropped keys - lying just out of reach on the other side of the locked gate. In the final scene of the episode, a vengeful Smith regained consciousness, and, realising that having beaten Ferguson she would now be ineligible for parole, vowed she would not pass the key to Ferguson and that the two would die right there in the fire. The opening episode of the 1983 season concluded the story, with the rescue services at work but with two corpses brought out of the prison on stretchers. The “Great Fire of Wentworth” story arc now ranks amongst the most popular with Prisoner fans.


The 1983 season was mainly characterised by a high turnover of short-term characters and storylines, but continued the rivalry between Bea and the Freak. More core cast departures took place as Chrissie Latham, Margo Gaffney and Erica Davidson all left the series, and a major new player, the callous, menacing and brutal double murderess Nola McKenzie (Carole Skinner), entered the fray as a new adversary for Bea and a partner in crime for Joan, becoming the first prisoner to actively collude with the Freak, running contraband rackets and plotting to seize power from the “good” top dog.

The Bea-Joan-Nola conflict reaches its height in a memorably bizarre storyline in which Joan and Nola attempt to drive Bea either insane or to suicide through the memory of her dead daughter Debbie, coercing tarot reading medium and remand prisoner Zara Moonbeam (Ilona Rodgers) to assist them. But the plan backfires, and it is Nola, not Bea, whose corpse is taken away from Wentworth. A few months later however, Joan finally triumphs over Bea after a major confrontation in which the sadistic screw succeeds in having her old enemy transferred to Barnhurst. Having played Bea Smith for 400 episodes, actress Val Lehman had tired of the role and resigned from the series. Shortly afterwards, the series had another major loss when actress Sheila Florance also decided to leave, leading to the departure of Lizzie Birdsworth. This now left actress Elspeth Ballantyne, alias officer Meg Morris (nee Jackson), as the only original cast member still in the series.


With Prisoner heading towards the 1984 season and the recent high-profile cast departures, the series was retooled once again. New characters had been introduced during Bea Smith’s final few months on the show, and they now enjoyed prominent roles in the series. Ann Reynolds (Gerda Nicolson) replaced Erica Davidson as a spirited, no-nonsense new Governor and amongst the prisoners, previous background bit player Phyllis Hunt (Reylene Pearce) was given a more expanded role amidst new arrivals, such as dreamy romantic and serial bigamist Sandra “Pixie” Mason (Judy McBurney) and cool, villainous vice queen Sonia Stevens (Tina Bursill). Judy Bryant was brought back into Wentworth as a “stopgap” top dog – the Driscoll House plotline being phased out of the series after Judy had committed euthanasia on terminally ill former inmate Hazel Kent (Belinda Davey).

Other new additions to the cast included Cass Parker (Babs McMillan), whose slow wit and gentle nature was offset by her immense physical strength and murderous bad temper, middle-aged con artist Minnie Donovan (Wendy Playfair) and volatile but vulnerable street kid Bobbie Mitchell (Maxine Klibingaitis). The major players of the 1984 run, however, were antagonistic Reb Kean (Janet Andrewartha), a dynamic but troubled young woman who had been the brains behind an armed robbery, having turned to crime after rebelling against her wealthy family and the series’ new central top dog – Myra Desmond (Anne Phelan), a thoughtful but tough ex-prisoner of Wentworth who had previously made sporadic appearances in the show as a representative of the Prison Reform Group, now back inside for a long stretch after killing her husband. Both Reb and Myra made enemies of the Freak – and of each other – and the series continued. During the first half of 1984, this period of transition and the storyline developments with the new cast were complemented by return appearances from departed characters such as Wally Wallace (Alan Hopgood), Helen Smart, Erica Davidson, Doreen Burns, Margo Gaffney and Marie Winter (though this also marked the final appearance of all these characters).

The 1984 and 1985 seasons are characterised by a number of jarring cast reshuffles, preventing the series from re-establishing the continuity and focus it had enjoyed in earlier years. Mid-1984 saw the exits of recently introduced characters such as Minnie Donovan, Sonia Stevens and Cass Parker as well as the departure of long-time Deputy Governor Colleen Powell. In their place came juvenile prankster Marlene Warren (Genevieve Lemon) and elderly inmate Dot Farrar (Alethea McGrath), who was in turn replaced by another old dear, Ettie Parslow (Lois Ramsay). More enduring inmates introduced during this period were sneering troublemaker Lou Kelly (Louise Siversen), who developed from a bit player to becoming a sociopathic wannabe top dog and the series' main villain, dopey offsider Alice “Lurch” Jenkins (Lois Collinder) and streetwise card sharp Lexie Patterson (Pepe Trevor). The series also introduced a trio of male inmates – Geoff Macrae (Leslie Dayman), Matt Delaney (Peter Bensley) and Frank Burke (Trevor Kent) – transferred to Wentworth for their own safety after preventing a riot at their men’s prison. After a few months, the male prisoners were also gone, together with Marlene Warren and long-serving character Judy Bryant.

The series became more and more violent as it went on, perhaps stretching credulity as it did so. The 1983 cliffhanger had involved the mass murder of inmates by psychotic warder David Bridges (David Waters). Twisted psychologist Jonathan Edmonds (Bryan Marshall) arrived at Wentworth to conduct research, brainwashing Cass Parker into trying to kill her best friend Bobbie Mitchell. During her final stint in 1984, the villainous Marie Winter colluded with the Freak and organised another major riot - a scheme intended to ensure the dismissal of an already reprimanded Ann Reynolds with Ferguson to take over as governor of Wentworth - in which the cellblock was again set on fire, before being involved in a spectacular set piece escape by hanging from the landing gear of a low-flying helicopter.

Serial murderess Bev “The Beast” Baker (Maggie Dence) terrorised both staff and inmates with her thrill-seeking antics, which included almost throttling Marlene Warren, cutting open Bobbie Mitchell’s hands with a razor blade, stabbing a visiting social worker in the heart with a knitting needle and finally committing suicide by injecting herself with an empty hypodermic syringe to induce a coronary. Officer Meg Morris was brutally raped in her own home by a masked intruder on the orders of psychopathic inmate Angel Adams (Kylie Foster). Joan “The Freak” Ferguson faced off against her murderous male counterpart Len Murphy (Maurie Fields) in a “bad” screw’s turf war. Towards the end of the 1984 run, as Myra Desmond and Reb Kean had a final confrontation over the top dog position, Governor Ann Reynolds received poison-pen letters and death threats. This eventually led to both her and Meg Morris being kidnapped and left gagged and bound in a crumbling warehouse laden with bombs and lethal trip-wire booby-traps.


The 1985 run was no less action-packed. “Pixie” Mason was raped by male inmate Frank Burke and went into a coma from the shock. Lou Kelly tried to kill Myra Desmond on several occasions in her bid to become top dog, and even made an attempt on Joan Ferguson's life armed with a home-made gun. The Freak was hospitalised for emergency brain surgery after having a prison library bookcase dropped on her head. Prior to her operation, Joan had been suffering from blackouts, which Myra Desmond used in an unsuccessful scheme to get rid of her, bashing Lou Kelly and framing Joan for the assault.

To fill the now empty cells, a mass transfer from Barnhurst after a riot there had burnt out a cellblock (and had apparently ended in the offscreen death of Bea Smith) introduced five new inmates to the series – Nora Flynn (Sonja Tallis), a reformed murderess, ageing cat burglar May Collins (Billie Hammerberg) and her partner in crime, former fence Willie Beecham (Kirsty Child), garden-loving misfit Daphne Graham (Debra Lawrance) and shy but highly intelligent thief Julie Egbert (Jackie Woodburne).

Other characters introduced during the 1985 season were Ann Reynolds' daughter Pippa (Christine Harris) and her former schoolmate Jenny Hartley (Jenny Lovell), who ended up in H Block on remand after being accused of murdering her grandmother. The physical threat of the character of Joan Ferguson was also toned down, and she was utilised in storylines that explored her more vulnerable flipside, such as her doomed relationship with fellow officer Terri Malone (Margot Knight). However, after yet another cast clear-out six months later, the “Barnhurst Five” was down to one, with only Julie Egbert remaining in the series. At around the same time Terri Malone, Pippa Reynolds and Jenny Hartley also departed in quick succession.

Perhaps the most striking story arc of this period is the infamous “Ballinger siege”. The storyline occurred a few weeks after the introduction of the Barnhurst Five and saw both staff and inmates held hostage by armed mercenaries who had broken into the prison to spring high profile remand prisoner Ruth Ballinger (Lindy Davies) on the orders of her drug baron husband. Holed up inside Wentworth by the police, the terrorists take the women and officers Joan Ferguson and Joyce Barry captive, threatening to shoot one hostage every hour until they are given safe passage out of the country while outside the police and Governor Ann Reynolds argue over sending in the local SWAT unit. The siege climaxes in an airfield shoot-out with Joan as a hostage, but not before the shocking murder of top dog Myra Desmond, who selflessly sacrifices herself to save the other women.

The subsequent post-siege storylines were rather more low-key with Nora Flynn's run as a pacifist top dog following Myra's death. By the end of the 1985 episodes storylines began to become more lively. This included the return to Wentworth of former hard case Reb Kean, now a timid and meek figure having gone through 27 rounds of ECT. Meanwhile officer Joyce Barry was beaten half to death by malevolent remand inmate Eve Wilder (Lynda Stoner) who then pinned the blame on the erratic and forgetful Reb. When Nora herself tired of the top dog power struggles in the prison and escaped, she was tracked down and murdered by a criminal-hating psychotic. Her corpse was subsequently dumped outside the prison gates.

Final season

The final year of Prisoner is mostly based around the conflict between the Freak and a new challenger, brash biker Rita “The Beater” Connors (Glenda Linscott) who takes over as the series’ new top dog, when previous incumbent, the vicious Lou Kelly, clashed with tough temporary Governor Bob Moran (Peter Adams) and overreached herself by igniting a bloodthirsty riot that threatened the lives of both staff and inmates. After the riot (which marked the series' 600th episode), Lou’s former stooge, Alice Jenkins, switches sides and becomes friends with Rita, who forms a new prison gang – the “Wentworth Warriors” - including Lexie Patterson, Julie Egbert, demure housewife Nancy McCormack (Julia Blake), on remand for killing her husband but actually covering up for her son, biker chick "Roach" Waters (Linda Hartley) and vivacious con-woman Lorelei Wilkinson (Paula Duncan).

As well as the Freak, Rita’s chief adversary is Kath Maxwell (Kate Hood), a middle-class woman who retaliates against Rita for her brutal initiation into prison life because of her crime – the mercy killing of her terminally ill daughter - and toughens up, becoming a serious rival for the top dog role with her new hard attitude and monopoly on contraband rackets in the prison. Kath is backed up by her retarded, comic-loving cellmate Merle Jones (Rosanne Hull-Brown). Other new inmates to arrive in 1986 include sneering racketeer Rose “Spider” Simpson (Taya Straton) and blackmailing prostitute Lisa Mullins (Nicki Paull/Terrie Waddell). The officers’ ranks are bolstered by the arrival of new trainees, including Meg Morris’ son Marty Jackson (Michael Winchester) and the mean Rodney Adams (Philip Hyde).

Despite these new developments and storylines including a work release project on a boat out at sea and a stay at the high security prison Blackmoor for Rita, the programme's viewing figures were falling. Ratings had been in decline for some time, falling to even lower levels during 1986, resulting in Network Ten deciding in July 1986 to not renew the series for another year. Production on the series finished on 5 September 1986 and the final episode aired, in Melbourne, on 11 or 16 December 1986.

The show's producers had several weeks notice the series was ending, allowing them to craft suitable storylines leading to a strong conclusion, one which involved the final defeat of the villainous Joan “The Freak” Ferguson. The final episodes of Prisoner deal with the redemption of the misunderstood Kath Maxwell as well as concluding the ongoing dynamic between Rita Connors and Joan Ferguson. Shockingly diagnosed with terminal cancer, Rita conspires with a jaded Joan, totally disillusioned by the prison service, to rob a building society. But all is not what it seems.

List of top dogs

The struggle for the position of "Top Dog" (unofficial leader) amongst the women was always a key storyline in the series. The incumbent top dog would normally operate the large steam press in the laundry. The following characters were top dogs at one stage or another in the series' run:

  • Bea Smith (Val Lehman) Bea was transferred to Barnhurst in episode 400 and in episode 536 we are told she died trying to stop a riot at Barnhurst.
  • Franky Doyle (Carol Burns) Franky escaped with Doreen in episode 11 and was shot dead later on by a Police Officer.
  • Monica Ferguson (Lesley Baker) Monica was released.
  • Clara Goddard (Betty Lucas) Clara was transferred.
  • Antonia McNally (Pat Bishop) Toni was shot dead by Ros Coulson.
  • Sharon Gilmour/Chrissie Latham (Margot Knight) Sharon was pushed down the stairs by bent screw Jock Stewart and she died. Chrissie and Sharon basically functioned as a duo to get Bea transferred to isolation and to keep Margo at bay while they ran drugs to buy off the women. Chrissie was later sent to maternity and made periodic returns to the show.
  • Margo Gaffney (Jane Clifton) Margo was transferred to Blackmoore for attacking Myra Desmond. She had originally tried to set up Reb Keane but Reb doublecrossed her and was punished instead.
  • Sandy Edwards (Louise Le Nay) Sandy went to the bins outside with Kate intending to kill her but only Kate returned. Kate became mentally unstable after the event, and later implied she had murdered Sandy, placing her corpse in the rubbish bin minutes before it was collected. As no body was ever found Sandy's exact fate remained unclear. This was done intentionally to allow the possibility of Le Nay, who left due to her real-life pregnancy, of returning to the series. She never did and the question was never resolved by the show.
  • Marie Winter (Maggie Millar) Marie was Top Dog in Wentworth three times and was Top Dog at Barnhurst too. Marie was eventually transferred to Blackmoore. According to a conversation between Doreen and Judy - Marie was Top Dog before Bea took over, she then became Top Dog again after Sandy Edwards' riot and a third time when Myra Desmond had escaped.
  • Nola McKenzie (Carole Skinner) Nola attempted to get Bea to kill herself but Bea shot her dead with a zip gun instead.
  • Sonia Stevens (Tina Bursill) Sonia escaped and was last seen stood on a cliff top.
  • Minnie Donovan/with Cass Parker (Wendy Playfair/Babs McMillan) Minnie was transferred to B wing and Cass was sent to a mental institution.
  • Judy Bryant (Betty Bobbitt) Judy Bryant was eventually paroled. It should be noted, though originally an enemy of Bea, once Judy and Bea became friends, Judy often stood in temporarily for Bea as well as Myra, whenever Bea or Myra were out on escape, transfer, work release or for any other reason they might have been missing. Judy functioned basically as a "deputy Top Dog," for Bea and Myra. She also filled as Top Dog in her own right in the time between Bea's transfer to Barnhurst and Myra's arrival at Wentworth.
  • Myra Desmond (Anne Phelan) Myra Desmond was shot dead during the terrorist siege in episode 552.
  • Reb Kean (Janet Andrewartha) Reb was released.
  • Nora Flynn (Sonja Tallis) Nora was hunted down by an ex-cop with a grudge against prisoners, her body was unceremoniously dumped outside the prison grounds in a black bag (only her hand was seen).
  • Lou Kelly (Louise Siversen) Lou Kelly was murdered in solitary by Janet "Maggot" Williams.
  • Rita Connors (Glenda Linscott) Stepped down after contracting cancer- handed over power to Kath Maxwell twice and Alice Jenkins once.
  • Alice Jenkins (Lois Collinder) Was appointed Top Dog by Rita after she felt like taking a break, was knocked out in a fight with Kath and quickly disposed.
  • Kath Maxwell (Kate Hood) Was Top Dog on and off during the final year of Prisoner in an ongoing power struggle with Rita Connors, she initially took over whilst Rita was on work experience, she then took over again when Rita got transferred to Blackmoore and at the end of the series was recommended by Rita to take over and voted in by everyone. She is the last serving Top Dog of the series.

The 3 most popular "Good" Top Dogs amongst fans are considered to be Bea Smith, Myra Desmond and Rita Connors mainly due to the length of their reigns and because they were considered to be the main voice of the inmates. It should be noted that when Sharon Gilmour was Top Dog she was doing it jointly with Chrissie Latham and when Minnie Donovan took over it was jointly with Cass Parker who provided the muscle for Donovan. Another Top Dog featured in the series was Roo Morgan who was Blackmoore's reigning boss until beaten twice by Rita Connors when she was sent there. There were also numerous attempts to take over by inmates who weren't as successful - Nolene Burke for example and Bev Baker. Some fans also believe that Kay White tried to set Bea up for bashing her so that she could take over herself whilst Bea was in solitary although this was never confirmed in an episode. Kay and Judy make a final bet where Kay states if she wins she's Top Dog, if she loses she's had it. But Judy cons her and so Kay loses. But Kay was conned so didn't lose fair and square, this is where the dispute come in. Kay is killed off shortly after before Bea and Margo return to try to stop her.

Spin-offs and remakes

  • In 1979, a telemovie titled The Franky Doyle Story was produced. It was made using material edited from the first two dozen episodes of the series, with emphasis on the character of Franky Doyle (Carol Burns). It was the first of an intended series of telemovies. The plan was shelved when the cast took the matter to the industrial commission, who ruled that they were not being fairly compensated for what amounted to a "second use" of their work.
  • After the Prisoner cliffhanger of 1981, a further TV special was screened: Prisoner In Concert. Cast members Val Lehman (Bea), Sheila Florance (Lizzie), Colette Mann (Doreen), Betty Bobbitt (Judy), Jane Clifton (Margo Gaffney), Patsy King (Erica Davidson) and Gerard Maguire (Jim Fletcher) appeared in a live stage revue at Pentridge men’s prison in Melbourne, performing various songs and sketches. Something of a curiosity piece, it has never been repeated since its original transmission.
  • In 1981, Ten launched Punishment, a drama set in the fictional Longridge prison, a men's prison. The new show had a similar structure and range of characters as Prisoner. The series, which was produced by Bruce Best and Alan Coleman, was a ratings and critical failure. Only 26 episodes were produced. It is noteworthy for the presence of a young Mel Gibson as inmate Rick Monroe in the first episode.
  • As Prisoner finished production in 1986, Grundy’s began circulating plans for a spin-off revolving around Wentworth’s sister prison Barnhurst but Channel Ten did not entertain the idea. A further idea, Inside Out, set in an open prison and featuring certain Prisoner characters a decade or so on, also came to nothing.
  • Anne Phelan (Myra Desmond) co-ordinated a cast reunion event in 2000, which saw the largest gathering of ex-Prisoner cast members ever at the Forum Theatre in Melbourne, in order to raise money for AIDS charities.
  • At one stage the producers considered a comedy spin-off featuring Pixie Mason, but again, this idea came to nothing.
  • In 1991, the series was re-versioned for the American market as Dangerous Women. The US version borrowed heavily from the Australian original for characters, but not storylines. In Dangerous Women the emphasis was shifted outside the prison, and focused on the prisoner relationships at a half-way house. It is remembered now mainly for the early appearance of actor Casper Van Dien in the role of Brad Morris.
  • In 1997, the series was re-versioned for the second time, this time for the German TV market. The German language version of Prisoner was titled Hinter Gittern - Der Frauenknast (Behind Bars) from 1997 to 2007 and has run for 16 series and 403 episodes, Also in 1999 ITV unveiled a British equivalent of Prisoner entitled Bad Girls, which has since garnered a considerable following on its own merits. It ran for 8 series and 107 episodes from 1999 to 2006.
  • This is not really a spin-off but was a special for the show and in 1997, Five shown a special edition of 100% during a special Prisoner Night which featured five back-to-back episodes and this special quiz show featured three contestants who battled for the top prize and all 100 questions were about the Australian prison drama.
  • A stage musical version with songs by Peter Pinne and Don Battye was produced in 1995, and this played in the London West End and toured provincial theatres. Maggie Kirkpatrick played Joan "The Freak" Ferguson, Lily Savage played the inmate, and Linda Nolan played the Governor (and sang "I'm in the mood for Dancing" during the show). Val Lehman was critical of the show, particularly the casting of a drag queen, sending the show up.
  • Episode 693 was a fan-made new episode of the series which was exhibited at a 1995 "Prisoner: Cell Block H" convention in Durham in the UK. The convention was organised by the editors of "The Block", the now defunct unofficial fanzine, which ran from 1993-1998. Episode 693 featured Joan Ferguson, Dennis Cruikshank, Erica Davison, Lizzie Birdsworth, Myra Desmond, Bobbie Mitchell, Reb Kean, Frank Burke, Barbara Fields, Vera Bennett and Joyce Barry. The storylines centred around Vera Bennett's incarceration inside Wentworth after being convicted of fraud at Barnhurst, and her attempts to escape in a hot air balloon with the help of Barbara Fields. The Freak uses Reb to sell acid pills to the women disguised as smarties and Top Dog Myra ends up being chucked into the washing machine by Reb and Frank. Bobbie and Lizzie's booze-making hi-jinks come to a sticky end for Barbara when the whole lot explodes in a fire bomb, just as Vera is making her escape!


There have been several tie-in books, and video and DVD releases. The show's theme song, "On The Inside", sung by Lynne Hamilton, was released in the UK as a single on May 6, 1989, and peaked at number three in the pop charts. The song was later featured as a B-side on punkabilly group The Living End's breakthrough EP Second Solution/Prisoner of Society which earned some radio play on alternative radio stations, in particular Triple J.


In 1980, the Prisoner cast, led by Equity representative Val Lehman (Bea Smith), went on strike due to the publication of a number of tie-in paperback novels in the United States. The cast's objection was to the books was the inclusion of exploitative soft-core pornographic content incongruent with the actual series. Six books were published in total, entitled "Prisoner: Cell Block H", "The Franky Doyle Story", "The Karen Travers Story", "The Frustrations of Vera", "The Trials of Erica" and "The Reign of Queen Bea".

Two 'behind the scenes' books were published in the UK in the early 1990s. Prisoner: Cell Block H - Behind The Scenes was written by Terry Bourke and published by Angus & Robertson Publishers, who also released similar books about Neighbours and Home & Away. Bourke documents the show's genesis and development, and is decorated with many stills and 'character profiles'. Prisoner Cell Block H - The Inside Story, written by Hilary Kingsley, puts more emphasis upon the plot and characters. However, both books contain many factual errors.

Cultural impact

The show continues to have a massive world-wide audience following. After years of campaigning, led in no small part by Val Lehman, who played top dog Bea Smith; fans of the show were rewarded with the news that the whole 692-episode series of Prisoner (Cell Block H) would be released on DVD, uncut* and digitally restored over 174 DVDs and 40 volumes.

An official online Prisoner fan club website 'On the Inside' was established in 2005, with the blessing and support from the series makers, FremantleMedia. The website houses a huge Prisoner Forum and Chat Room, and sells official Prisoner merchandise. In December 2007 'On the Inside' launched an official online yearly subscription membership, with members having exclusive access to cast interviews, Prisoner Out-takes and rare cast and production images. The website plans for the future include among other things the launch of an official Prisoner magazine. The website itself gets about 80,000 hits a week.

The show has a cult following in Sweden, where it has been shown on TV4 for many years under the title Kvinnofängelset (The Women's Prison). An unofficial fan club organises an annual get-together, and also gathered several thousand signatures (including that of actress Elspeth Ballantyne) to convince TV4 to continue airing the show in 2000. After this second run of the show ended, work began to persuade TV4 to air the show a third time with start in 2005. The attempts were futile and the show has since not been aired in Swedish television. TV4 originally screened the series in a late night 01.00 slot three times a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. During the repeat run, the show was accommodated in a slightly later slot around 02.15 four times a week on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. All episodes were repeated at the weekend - Friday night had the Monday and Tuesday episodes and Saturday night had the other two.

A stage version of Prisoner was produced in 1989, based on the original scripts, and enjoyed a highly successful tour in the United Kingdom. Original actors Elspeth Ballantyne (Meg Morris) and Patsy King (Erica Davidson) reprised their original characters, while Glenda Linscott (Rita Connors) played a new character, Angela Mason. A second tour followed in 1990 starring Fiona Spence (Vera Bennett) and Jane Clifton (Margo Gaffney). Jacqui Gordon (Susie Driscoll) also appeared, as new character Kath Evans.

A musical version followed starring Maggie Kirkpatrick reprising her role of Joan "The Freak" Ferguson and Lily Savage as an inmate. The new musical was essentially a send-up of the purported kitsch aspects of the original show, and again was successful during both a tour and a West End run in 1995 and 1997.

Due to the huge popularity of the show when shown in the UK in the late 1980s, the British Prisoner fan club organised successful personal appearance tours for several actresses, including Val Lehman (Bea Smith), Carol Burns (Franky Doyle), Betty Bobbitt (Judy Bryant), Sheila Florance (Lizzie Birdsworth), Amanda Muggleton (Chrissie Latham) and Judy McBurney (Pixie Mason). A one-off programme, "The Great Escape", was produced in 1990. The programme featured Val Lehman, Sheila Florance, Amanda Muggleton and Carol Burns on their visit to the UK in 1990 and includes extensive footage of their on-stage interview with TV presenter Anna Soubry in which the cast members talk about their time 'inside'. It was recorded at the Derby Assembly Rooms, Derby, UK and was made available in the UK on VHS video for a short time but has since been deleted.

Several Prisoner actors have also trod British stages appearing in pantomime, such as Val Lehman, Fiona Spence, Maggie Dence (Bev Baker), Debra Lawrance (Daphne Graham), Linda Hartley (Roach Waters), Ian Smith (Ted Douglas) and Maggie Millar (Marie Winter).

ITV Regional Scheduling

Prisoner was the first Australian soap opera screened late night in the UK. As in the US, it was billed in the UK as Prisoner: Cell Block H to avoid confusion with the well-known British series, The Prisoner, although it always remained as simply Prisoner on-screen. It screened on ITV from the mid/late 1980s until the mid/late 1990s, depending on the region. A great many sources incorrectly state that the series did not begin being run in the UK until 1987, but in fact the Yorkshire region had been showing it since 1984. However, most other regions didn't start to broadcast it until 1987 at the earliest, with it not starting in the Ulster region until late 1989. By June 1985, the series was "going like a rocket" in Yorkshire.

It achieved enduring success in the UK despite much negative criticism from reviewers, and the fact that the series never received a network screening on ITV. Some ITV companies such as Yorkshire Television showed the series once a week whilst others such as Central and Granada Television stripped the series across three nights. Most ITV contractors though screened it twice a week in as had been the pattern in Australia.

Because the series was shown on all ITV companies late at night (just before closedown at first, then as the first programme of night-time programming with the advent of 24-hour broadcasting in the late 1980s), it became a favourite of the local continuity announcers. The announcers would often joke about characters and plots before and after the programme and during the end titles.

On Central, Mike Prince was fond of satirical announcements linking the previous promotion to the Prisoner episode following, leading to announcements like "But Ayer's Rock pales into insignificance compared to the might of Joan Ferguson next tonight on Central in Prisoner: Cell Block H." Over the credits of an episode where Vera discovers Pat O'Connell communicating with her son a Granada announcer came to the conclusion that "Australia IS a VERY strange place." UTV announcer Julian Simmons, well known for his Coronation Street introductions, commonly referred to the "lusty big wee-men of Cell Block H" when introducing the series. Many other continuity announcers on the then-regional ITV stations made similar announcements before and after the programme, helping to boost its cult status.

This style of announcement was later borrowed by the UK's fifth channel to accompany episodes of Sunset Beach, with a similar effect. Channel 5 also repeated Prisoner in a late night slot from 1997 to 2001, granting the series its first ever networked screening on British TV. These broadcasts featured the same kind of jokey comments and reading of viewer's comments over the closing credits, usually from senior announcer Bill Buckley, whose camp delivery, but with an obvious fondness for the series, somehow suited the show perfectly. As the large percentage of the audience recorded the programme, broadcast in the early hours, the announcers also gave forewarning of any slot changes to the programme so that fans could adjust their video recorder timers accordingly.

Yorkshire Television was the pioneering ITV company to transmit the series in the UK at 23:00 on Monday 8th October 1984 in a weekly slot until episode 39 in October 1985. The series resumed in January 1986 in the same slot taking a summer break in May 1987. Just before Yorkshire halted, Central Television had started screening the show three times a week in a similar Saturday, Sunday and Monday late slot from April 1987. Central completed the series in December 1991, a span of just over 4.5 years. At the same time in December 1991, Yorkshire were still screening it weekly on Mondays and other regions had overtaken them. Yorkshire's first ever week with two episodes happened in January 1993 when a Thursday episode was added to appease viewers in the Tyne Tees region. Yorkshire and Tyne Tees reached the final episode in April 1997 some 12.5 years after Yorkshire's start. Other areas, such as Ulster, London region Carlton (formerly Thames), and southern region Meridian (formerly TVS) never reached the end of their respective runs of the programme - after much darting around the late night schedules, they eventually disappeared in the late 1990s (In the case of Carlton, the continuity announcer announced that the series would return after a break, but this turned out to be the last time it was shown, on 20th August 1998 at episode 598). Meridian was the last region to show the series, they stopped in July 1999 at episode 586, 13.75 years after predecessor TVS started showing the series. Channel Television followed TVS and Meridian's schedules from January 1986, meaning Channel missed the first nine episodes of the series that had been screened by TVS in 1985, as they took their programmes from TSW until the end of 1985. So Channel started the series at episode 10 in January 1986.

Although they can both claim to have screened the series until the final episode, both Border Television and Tyne Tees Television had to skip a number of episodes. In December 1992 Tyne Tees had to miss episodes 293 and 294 as Tyne Tees and Yorkshire arranged to screen ALL programmes simultaneously from 1 January 1993. Yorkshire had reached the Tyne Tees two at the end of 1992. From November 1993 Border Television brokered a similar arrangement with Granada and Border viewers had to miss episodes 477-547 (a total of 71 episodes).

Yorkshire Television were very strict with cutting scenes involving hanging. Notably the attempt to hang Sandy Edwards and the successful Eve Wilder hanging were cut. This was mainly due to a local prison HMP Leeds in the Yorkshire region having an extremely high number of hangings in preceding years. Yorkshire also heavily edited the fight scene with Joan and Bea in episode 326.

When Granada TV screened the final episode in the UK, continuity announcer John McKenzie conducted an on-air interview via telephone with Maggie Kirkpatrick who played The Freak.

The ITV regions inserted two commercial breaks into each episode enabling three parts per show. The breaks were usually inserted at the point of the second and fourth break as would have been seen in Australia. At the end of the show the cliffhanger would lead straight into the end credits, unlike in Australia where a sixth break was inserted. The original Australian sponsorship was also removed from the end credits - the picture would blank for a moment, before resuming at the copyright page. This meant that the closing credit tune seldom played in full.

Central repeated the first 90 episodes from February 1993 to January 1995 at the rate of one episode a week late on Sunday evenings immediately after network programming had finished.

DVD releases

Prisoner has been released on DVD in Australia on Region 4, with interviews and photo galleries as special features. The first volume was also released in the UK.

  • The Best of Prisoner Cell Block H Vol 1 - Episodes 166,287,327,400,536,550,551,552,600,601,691,692
  • The Best of Prisoner Cell Block H Vol 2 - Episodes 001,002,003,004,020,165,247,248,471,586,598,667
  • The Best of Prisoner Cell Block H Vol 3 - Episodes 498,499,500,501,664,665,666,667,687,688,689,690

All 692 episodes were released by Shock as a 174-disc box set in September 2007.

  • Prisoner Cell Block H - Volume 1 will be released in the UK on 10/11/2008. It is a re-packaged edition combining the Australian volumes 1 and 2, containing episodes 1 to 32. The content on the discs is identical to the Australian release. It is unclear if further UK DVD releases are planned at present.

See also


External links

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