After weeks of violence, twists and tension, Wentworth Prison reaches its explosive eighth season finale on Wednesday 7th October on 5STAR, and stakes for the inmates could not be higher as the show edges towards the last ever episode in 2021.
The gritty Australian drama, a reboot of cult favourite Prisoner: Cell Block H, was saved from the axe in 2018 by campaigning fans who persuaded Foxtel network not to lock up the show and throw away the key as originally planned.
Committing to two more years to complete the story and bringing iconic villain Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson back from the dead, Wentworth Prison is now on the home stretch to its final season – so what can we expect from this week’s sign-off?
“There is a sense of pressure from the repression of Joan’s amnesia,” says Pamela Rabe, the award-winning actress who plays Joan, speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com.
“Her repression is moving closely to the surface and we’re getting to a point where something will erupt. That’s true for every character’s story this season, there is a pressure cooker situation happening. The clearest metaphor is Joan and her memories, which are starting to literally and physically manifest.”
Sadistic baddie Joan escaped the shallow grave her enemies thought they’d buried her in and plotted revenge, only to incur a head injury which left her with no memory of being a monstrous psychopath. Slowly, those memories appear to be returning, but some fans suspect clever old Ferguson is faking it, meaning Rabe had to keep things ambiguous.
“When they told me about the amnesia my biggest question was: ‘Who am I?!’ The writers explained she still has Joan’s intelligence and some of her attributes, but does not remember certain actions, particularly those in her recent past. But there is access to certain things right at the back, which are triggered by events during this season.
“Once I had that in my mind I could make little decisions connecting back to the Joan I, and the audience, knows. That became fun, showing certain things she may not consciously know she holds on to, whether it’s a mannerism or how she observes the world. It’s been tricky but delicious to play.”
Wentworth Prison is shot in Melbourne, and remarkably managed to overcome the obstacle of coronavirus causing not one, but two, lockdowns in the beleaguered Australian city, making it one of the first scripted TV shows to weather the pandemic.
“We’d almost completed season eight when we were stood down very abruptly at the end of March, when the severity and horror of what was unfolding was having a huge impact,” recalls Rabe.
“There were lots of Zoom meetings between producers, cast and crew during that time, discussing if we could continue, what the conditions would be, and how to maintain the safety of the company and community at large.
“Everybody collaborated to work out a plan and produce a very thick document of COVID-safe protocols, in the hope there’d be a point we could implement them. It was an extraordinary effort and quite moving.”
Rabe and her colleagues insisted the show didn’t compromise on content, despite the new restrictions. “We wanted to maintain integrity and quality and not change or adapt scripts. That was tricky because it’s set in a prison – there’s a lot of kissing and fighting, and sharing of personal space. How could we do that safely?”
In early June the Wentworth Prison gates reopened and production resumed as the remainder of the eighth season shot concurrently with the ninth. “It was one of the first shows to go back anywhere on the planet, so the industry were watching us closely,” admits Rabe. “Then in August there was a spike again in Melbourne and everyone was sent into lockdown.
“But those businesses perceived to be functioning successfully under very rigorous safety protocols were allowed to continue – we were given a permit to carry on, but things got even more strict.”
With Ferguson-like resolve, the team continued throughout the severe second lockdown, leaving nothing to chance. “Cast and key crew were tested weekly, but within that regime if you thought you had symptoms you’d isolate, be retested and wait for results before returning to set. There was lots of juggling and schedule changes. Those last three days it was nerve-wracking to think if anyone got ill, despite our best efforts, we would have to shut down.
“One morning I couldn’t figure out if I’d developed a sore throat or if I’d just been screaming so much in scenes the previous day! Amazingly we got to the end and wrapped on 4th September.”
With the anxiety that the isolation and claustrophobia of being incarcerated brings being a central theme of the series, Rabe admits events in the outside world added to the intense atmosphere.
“My estimation of each department’s skills and abilities skyrocketed while working in extremely difficult circumstances. There were logistics such as not having more than three people in an enclosed space at one time: constantly moving around to let actors and crew in and out, and doing it efficiently and respectfully, was a real challenge. All that rubbed off.
“Usually, after doing horrific, unspeakable things to another character you could hug them afterwards, but we couldn’t even do that!”
Season 10’s swansong airs in 2021, so can the loyal fans expect to get closure? “We can expect it, but Wentworth is so good at giving you the inevitable unexpected,” laughs Rabe. “A story woven in at the start of season eight really comes home at the end of the next season, which will be our 100th and final episode…”
As she says goodbye to her evil alter ego, Rabe reveals she has kept a rather unusual memento. “I asked if I could have her straitjacket! I wanted something Joan-like to keep under lock and key, and just know it’s there…”