Wentworth Prison returns to UK screens on Tuesday night for a fifth season. Beginning in 2013, this reimagining of cult favourite Prisoner: Cell Block H set in a women’s prison has surprised critics with it’s hard-hitting drama, shocking violence and uncompromising performances, while delighting fans of the original show with several nods to it’s lineage and a clever contemporary updating of the concept and characters.
But the latest series starts without one of its most iconic creations – top dog Bea Smith, played by Danielle Cormack, who was sensationally killed off at the end of season four after goading psychotic inmate and ex-governor Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson into murdering her, by way of revenge for Ferguson killing Bea’s girlfriend Allie Novak… except in a cruel twist, Allie survived.
In an exclusive interview, Kate Jenkinson, who plays Allie, tells RadioTimes.com that she, like many fans of the show, was concerned about continuing without the legendary Bea manning the steam press.
“To begin with I feared for the relevance of my character after the loss of Bea, but I quickly learnt that was a naïve way of looking at things as her death opens things up for Allie.
“Instead of being this happy girl in love she becomes a furious, distressed, distraught woman on the edge of losing her mind and hellbent on revenge. Obviously that’s a much more interesting character to play.
“As she returns to the prison in the first episode she’s in that crazed state of mind you only get in extreme levels of stress. The death of her lover has thrown her into a maniacal state and she has one agenda and that’s to tear the Freak apart in any way she can.”
Allie’s attack on Ferguson in the prison yard during the season five premiere provides one of those moments of graphic but gripping violence the show has become famous for, literally pulling no punches.
It’s not just the physical violence that keeps things so compelling though, but also the psychological layers of prison politics, as Jenkinson reveals: “Allie’s first attempt at dealing with Ferguson is not the smartest move and fails dismally. She needs to go beyond just using brute strength so has to go back to the drawing board and think of a far more clever way of getting close to the Freak if she wants to bring her down.
“Allie is driven to the point of mania, her need for revenge is like a drug she wants it so badly. She’s going to spend most of this season working out how to bring the Freak down, and hopefully she’ll succeed…”
Having become one of Australia’s most successful TV exports in years, Wentworth Prison has joined the global trend for gritty dramas set in womens’ prisons – and the likes of Orange is the New Black and Locked Up arguably owe a debt to the original Prisoner.
Does Jenkinson have any theories as to why womens’ prisons have become such a popular setting? “We talk about this all the time on our show, what is it about this very specific genre that’s so popular? I think interesting drama comes from stories about power and a prison is a power struggle. Also survival and losing your humanity are a huge themes in prison – they’re epic material for a drama so it all adds to the stakes.
“Any human is capable of making a mistake and what’s interesting about characters in jail is it shows how mistakes can make your life unravel. What a character like Bea Smith went through, with an abusive partner and being pushed to kill to protect your family, I think lots of women can relate to.
“The choices she made and the experience she had could happen to anyone under different circumstances. That’s thought-provoking for audiences.”
The dark, disturbing drama of women at rock bottom is a far cry from Jenkinson’s background in comedy and collaborations with fellow Aussie star Rebel Wilson, with whom she shares a long personal and professional history.
“We’ve known each other for 12 years. I was lucky enough on my first TV job to be cast with her in a sketch comedy called The Wedge. I was fresh out of drama school and we’ve remained friends ever since.
“She cast me in her first self-written comedy for Australian TV, Bogan Pride, and when she went to the US and did a network sitcom (Super Fun Night which ran for one season on ABC in 2013) she cast me in that too.
“She’s completely hilarious, lovable, warm, kind, generous, quirky… everything you imagine she is on screen. Rebel is a joy to work with and I love her.”
What are the chances of the Pitch Perfect star turning up as a prisoner in Wentworth Correctional Centre one day?
“We’ve actually discussed this! I’m not sure if she has time in her very busy schedule, and we’ve been trying to figure out who she’d play, maybe Boomer’s sister! But I’d love for her to be in the show.”
Wentworth Prison season five starts Tuesday 23rd May at 9pm on 5 Star