TV Preview: Wentworth

By Nick Grant

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Nick Grant relives a childhood trauma as he samples a reincarnated 1980s

Danielle Cormack plays Bea Smith in the new Australian TV series 'Wentworth', a remake of the cult TV show 'Prisoner'. Photo / Supplied
Danielle Cormack plays Bea Smith in the new Australian TV series 'Wentworth', a remake of the cult TV show 'Prisoner'. Photo / Supplied

Although Aussie women's jail drama Prisoner ran from 1979 and 1986, I only recall watching it once. But, boy, that episode was a doozy, featuring a cake of soap spiked with razor blades (which is actually a pretty good metaphor for the whole series - a soap opera that could cut you). I vividly remember the unbearable tension as the target of this booby-trap lathered herself up in the communal shower. In fact, the emotional trauma of that sequence could well be why I didn't watch the show a second time.

Many other telly-watchers were made of much sterner stuff than me, however, and the series was hugely popular in Oz and here, and earned an international following.

Indeed, interest appears to be ongoing as most, if not all, of its 692 episodes are available on YouTube under its US title, Prisoner: Cell Block H.

Given that, it was inevitable the series would be remade; the only surprise is it's taken almost three decades to happen.

Wentworth is what's referred to in the television trade as a "contemporised prequel" of Prisoner - in other words, it has magically transported younger versions of the original show's iconic characters to the present day. For example, in Wentworth's first episode we get to see Prisoner's somewhat grizzled top dog Bea Smith as a frightened younger woman on her first day in the "big house". Should this new iteration have legs, we can presumably look forward to watching Bea's transformation from nervous newbie to the prison's Queen Bee.

Bea is played by NZ's own Danielle Cormack (Shortland Street, Topless Women Talk About Their Lives) and even in the opening episode, her performance carries intimations of the inner steel that will enable the character to evolve into the institution's matriarch.

We also get some carefully eked-out flashbacks aimed at engendering some sympathy for Bea and explaining how she's ended up on remand.

The cast boasts a couple of other Kiwis as well, with Robbie Magasiva (Sione's Wedding) and Aaron Jeffery (McCloud's Daughters) both playing guards (or "screws" in prison parlance). Of the two, Magasiva has the most to do, registering strongly as corrections officer Will Jackson after a shaky start in which he sports an unusually awful Aussie accent, thankfully abandoned in subsequent scenes (I swear, I had to rewind several times to work out what he meant when quizzing Bea about her "next of ken").

Will is married to Wentworth's hard-arse Governor, Meg (played by The Secret Life of Us' Catherine McClements), who is all hooded eyes and clenched jaw when she's not canoodling with her husband.

As exemplified by Will and Meg's relationship, the suggestion that the prison's antagonistic ecosystem demands a certain duality from guards and inmates alike is one of the opening episode's strengths.

Even as his wife is pressuring Bea to nark on a fellow convict, for example, Will is privately advising Cormack's character to keep quiet if she's to have any hope of surviving.

Should Wentworth prove to have anything like the longevity of Prisoner, it'll be thanks to the complexities offered by this kind of contradiction, not the predictably ramped up sex and violence quotient. Ultimately, it's the characters themselves who will be the key to whether we choose to serve time with the series' inmates.

Wentworth starts Monday at 9.30pm on TV2.

- Herald on Sunday

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