Australian drama Wentworth Prison had its sentenced extended after fans campaigned to save it from the axe and secured another two seasons for the gritty reboot of cult favourite Prisoner: Cell Block H.
A final 20 episodes airing as two series of 10 will wrap up the hit show, with the shock return of iconic baddie Joan 'The Freak' Ferguson jump-starting season eight which begins on 5STAR from Wednesday 5th August.
The sadistic prison warden, and occasional inmate, was seemingly buried alive in 2017 as a punishment for her catalogue of crimes, but as glimpsed in the closing moments of the last season she has miraculously risen from the dead. In an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com, Pamela Rabe reveals her character's resurrection would not have been possible without the fans' successful campaign to reverse the Foxtel network's original decision to end at season seven.
"I've never known a response from the audience on this scale," says the acclaimed actress, who won Australian TV's most prestigious award, the Silver Logie, for the role in 2018. "As with the original Prisoner series the fan loyalty is incredible and seems to have been multiplied with our show.
"It reaches so many countries and different communities (it's broadcast in 158 territories), people are touched by the show and affected by it. I credit the writers as they sprinkle scripts with catnip, there is a real binge-ability to it. I find myself watching one episode and I have to keep going, it's very addictive.
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"Season seven had all but wrapped which everyone thought would be the last, but after the fan outcry and maybe the awards we won, the network decided to give it one last hurrah. The writers always knew there was more to Ferguson's story, and once the show was saved it was an opportunity to complete some unfinished business."
Such is her faith in the creative team, Rabe wasn't too concerned at how the Freak's escape from a sealed coffin would be explained away. "How did she get out is of some interest, but honestly she wasn't even buried that deep! What's more intriguing to me is what happened next and where has she been?
"I was ecstatic, if surprised, to get the call about going back but wanted it to be justified. There were lots of conversations with the producers and writers, but I have such trust in them all and what they have come up with is so delicious. I honestly thought they couldn't top burying me in a box!
"It presents great challenges for me as an actor and I'm in safe hands - and glad to be working at a time when many of my colleagues are not. The fact we've continued to shoot through the pandemic is beyond a gift."
Ferguson was ambushed by a trio of her prison staff enemies in the fifth season: Vera Bennett, Will Jackson and Jake Stewart who conspired to trap her in a coffin to end her reign of terror at the women's correctional facility. It's safe to say all three of them should be looking over their shoulder…
"Rest assured Ferguson has a pretty strong agenda, and she is not happy!" laughs Rabe. "There are people who deserve a bit of payback. They better watch out, that evil threesome are particularly in her sights. Perhaps her relationship with Vera goes back the longest, but she has strong, complex dynamics with all three. They've all got something on each other.
"Ferguson is a survivor. Kind people say she's a cat with nine lives, others call her a cockroach! One of our directors described her as wisteria, which he tried to chop out of his garden by going deep into the ground and killing off the roots - only for it to come up again the next year!"
Season eight is set three months after the last episode's dramatic siege and welcomes some new faces on the scene, including ex-Neighbours star Jane Hall (one of Paul Robinson's numerous wives, Rebecca Napier) as general manager Ann Reynolds, and the return of former top dog Lou Kelly who challenges current boss behind bars Allie Novak for control of the symbolic steam press. The aforementioned Vera is adapting to motherhood, unaware her old nemesis is lurking in the shadows plotting a terrifying revenge.
Rabe is clearly thrilled to be part of the ensemble again, and is as loyal as the viewers who fought to give the show a proper send-off when she describes its global appeal, nodding to its impressive commitment to diversity and representation.
"There is a great power in stories that are led by women," she muses. "They feel needed, important and a little bit unique. However, the irony is not lost on me that we have to tell these stories in the context of women being incarcerated!
"But the fact they are behind bars makes the stakes very high, it's actual life and death. There's a sense of something being repressed - everyone can relate to that and see themselves or their circumstances reflected in dilemmas the characters face. These women are misunderstood and undervalued. Being trapped is a powerful concept."
Season eight of Wentworth Prison launches on Wednesday 5th August at 10pm on 5STAR. If you’re looking for more to watch check out our TV guide.