Wentworth Prison turns 10: “Bea’s death made the show feel real and dangerous”
Wentworth’s originating writer, Pete McTighe, looks back at the ground-breaking prison drama, a decade on.
When Australian prison drama Wentworth – a remake of the wildly popular 80s soap opera Prisoner – first aired in 2013, there was scepticism about whether it would suitably honour the legacy of the original.
But the contemporary reimagining soon won over diehards of Prisoner (called Prisoner: Cell Block H in the UK) and new fans alike, with the debut episode becoming the most-watched drama premiere in Foxtel history.
Taking inspiration from characters and plots from the cult series but never binding itself to earlier incarnations or backstories, Wentworth became an international success in its own right over the course of its 9 seasons, winning over audiences around the globe with its dark and gritty portrayal of women’s prison life.
“We looked at the legacy characters of Prisoner and who we wanted to bring back and we spent a lot of time figuring out how to invent them in surprising ways,” Wentworth’s originating writer Pete McTighe tells RadioTimes.com of the show’s beginnings. “I didn’t want to rehash what had come before but I also didn’t want to disrespect those characters in any way; I was a massive Prisoner fan.”
McTighe wrote the pilot episode over New Year in 2012, which led to the show being commissioned, before penning most of the first season alongside a few guest writers. “From season 2 we had more of a writers' room setup where there was a core group of 3 of us – me, Marcia Gardner and John Ridley – and we basically were in charge of story for the show from that point and we’d bring in guest writers here and there but mainly it was the core group of the three of us."
Season 1 mainly concerned itself with the shifting power dynamics between new arrival Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), a forty-something-year-old hairdresser convicted of attempting to murder her abusive husband, prison top dog and murderer Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade) and Jacs’ rival, Franky Doyle (Nicole Da Silva).
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Fans entered the world of Wentworth through the eyes of lead protagonist Bea, and so “she had to be relatable and to kind of be an everywoman." “We knew that we wanted to track her rise to top dog across multiple seasons and how that might play out roughly and then once we cast Danielle she was just a force of nature really and a brilliant actor she just gave Bea such humanity and strength.”
Frankie, meanwhile, an angry biker whose soft and sensitive side was soon revealed, was “really fun to write”. “She’s just such a beautiful kind of complex character and her evolution was one of my favourite things about the show. She starts out as a real antagonist; someone who’s incredibly dangerous and hot headed and the way she matured over the course of those first seasons was really brilliant. Nicole did such a great job with that role.”
Then came season 2. With Jacs dead (thanks to Bea) and Franky having seized the position of top dog, it was time to introduce prison governor Joan (AKA "The Freak”) Ferguson (Pamela Rabe), the show's main antagonist.
Maggie Kirkpatrick, who portrayed Ferguson with menace in Prisoner, was certainly a tough act to follow, but Rabe, who was "the first and only choice for that role", put her own spin on the sadistic character – and was transfixing.
“She was just so great and committed and so much fun," McTighe recalls. "In the scene directions of her very first episode I wrote for her: ‘she strides down the corridor like Darth Vader’. And then in rehearsals she brought her own lightsaber in and was just kind of mucking about with that. And she’s just that kind of person; she’s the total opposite of that character and she’s the nicest person. But as soon as she got in uniform she was literally terrifying.”
While Ferguson soon revealed herself to be a raging psychopath – and actually ended up behind the prison bars after setting the prison on fire at the end of season 3 – at first the character had to be “as grounded as possible.” “She could have been a very over the top villain but that kind of wouldn’t have worked with the tone of the show. Later on she got to do some crazy stuff but early on Pam kept her so grounded and believable.”
It wasn’t until the end of season 4 that Ferguson ended up behind bars for good after stabbing Bea Smith to death – a move that sent shockwaves through Wentworth’s fans, many of whom were devastated to see such an abrupt end to the blossoming romance between Bea and Allie.
While killing off the show's main character was "a hard decision to make", another season of her and Allie being happy together would, according to McTighe, "have been the death of the show". "I think Bea's death made the show feel real and dangerous because if Bea wasn't safe then no one was. When Danielle left that left a hole in the show, but that was kind of the point. The show needed to recalibrate and refresh and it needed a real shakeup of dynamics at that point. It did so much in terms of ramping up the conflict of the show, which then ran an extra five seasons past that point so I don’t think it was the wrong decision to make.”
McTighe also wanted to respect the original show's legacy, in which Bea meets a tragic end, too. “In the original Bea’s arc was a tragedy, and we were kind of emulating that through this show in a different way.”
There was one character arc in the original series that the writers didn't emulate, however: that of Franky’s, who is shot pretty early on in the first season of Prisoner.
In Wentworth, in contrast, she's last seen as a free and happy woman in season 6, after managing to prove her innocence on murder charges. “And actually changing the story of that character and making her more hopeful was really important. I remember watching the original Prisoner as a kid and feeling really kind of robbed that Franky had left so early, so we wanted to make a lot more of her and give her her own story. And by the time we’d done that we felt there’s no way that we couldn't give her a hopeful ending. She really deserved a happy ending.”
Wentworth was initially axed when it reached its seventh season, but Foxtel renewed it for two more seasons following an unprecedented fan campaign, meaning the original ending of season 7 – that offered "really nice closure at the end of an epic season" – never made it onto the screen. “It was a real shame because there was some lovely stuff in there with Franky and Bridget coming back, meeting Vera’s baby. And some original Prisoner actors came back as well – Val Lehman, Colette Mann and Fiona Spence came back doing cameos for us.
“We saw Ruby released and Rita out there to greet her and that was kind of a really nice ending for their characters. And then a new group of prisoners arrive who are kind of inducted by Boomer and that was basically saying to the audience the world goes on, Wentworth never stops, the story’s not over, and that felt like really nice closure at the end of an epic season.”
But with two more seasons on the horizon, the original ending was cut, and a new cliffhanger added in, which teased the return of Ferguson after she was buried alive at the end of season 5.
"All of the extras in that scene are crew so the story wouldn’t leak," says McTighe, who also made a brief appearance in the scene. "We shot it at about 2am near the production office in secret because no one could know and we were smuggling Pam around under a blanket in disguise. It was a lot of fun to do.”
The original season 7 ending might never have made it onto the screen, but forunately Wentworth did eventually go out with a bang (literally) in the season 9 finale as a massive blast went off after Lou Kelly’s (Kate Box) dastardly scheme came to fruition. “We felt like giving the show an explosive definitive ending was always the way to go. And nothing drastic was kind of altered in those final endings – we planned it all and then went ahead and shot it all.”
The blast killed off a handful of baddies, including hacker Judy Bryant (Vivienne Awosoga), while the good guys all made it out alive – including Lou, who was arrested outside and forced to await justice.
One loose end did, however, remain: Ferguson, who managed to escape after saving Vera’s (Kate Atkinson) life, prompting spinoff rumours amongst fans.
However, "none of the ideas that were floated were really strong enough", according to McTighe. "I felt the beauty of the show was the ensemble. It was the magic of those people and those characters together. I think it’d be tricky to isolate one or two of those characters and have a show relying on them; I think it would come off second best to Wentworth."
Instead, McTighe would rather bring Wentworth back. "But the time has to be right for that to happen. Maybe one day it’d be a fun thing to do to bring it back."