Prisoner: biographies

Elspeth Ballantyne as Meg Morris

Born in Adelaide in 1939, Elspeth Ballantyne won her first major TV role in 1968 in the Australian series Bellbird. She continued with appearances in the films End Play and Blue Fin, before joining Prisoner: Cell Block H for its first episode in 1979. Like her character Meg Morris, Elspeth was to become a veteran of the prison system—she acted in Prisoner from its launch right through to the final episode in 1986. After escaping H block, Elspeth appeared as Aunt Annebell in the TV series Pugwall, before a stint as Cathy Alessi in Neighbours from 1992 to 1993. Earlier this year, Elspeth appeared in the Aussie film Selkie, a poignant drama examining the psychological forces that drive people to kill.

She drew her first breath behind bars—her mother was doing time for black marketing when she was born—and Meg Morris has since spent much of her life in the prison system as a warder. Why she has doggedly stuck to her career is something of a mystery. After all, the job has bought nothing but misery to Meg: her first husband was murdered by an inmate, and her second left her after she refused to sacrifice her career for a new life with him in Indonesia. Meg grieved for hubbie number one and suffered heaps of heartache when number two left, but she’s shown a remarkable resilience in the face of these, and countless other, tragedies. Which is good news for the prisoners of Wentworth because Meg, unlike Joan Ferguson or Rodney Adams, has a strong sense of compassion and responsibility towards the inmates. And her dedication to the service appears to be a family trait. Her son Marty Jackson also joined the service and has shown the same regard for the welfare of the prisoners.

Ernie Bourne as Mervin Pringle

In 1975, Ernie Bourne served a pint or two as a barman in The True Story of Eskimo Nell and soon after took a couple of bets as a bookmaker in The Picture Show Man. Not a dazzling start to a career and, if you can believe it, things got worse. Ernie didn’t even appear on screen in his next film (well, okay, it was animated) and soon after, in 1982, he appeared in Lonely Hearts as, wait for it, Man in Toilet. Ernie must have washed his hands convincingly as Man in Toilet, because he was soon cleaning up with a five-year stint in Australian soaps. From 1985 to 1986 he played ‘disaster chef’ Mervin Pringle in Prisoner: Cell Block H and then went on to a successful three-year stint as Rob Lewis in Neighbours. Last year Ernie appeared as Pohl in Thunderstone, a futuristic 26-part TV series about a boy who travels in time to bring animals back to the world.

You have to wonder why Mervin Pringle applied for the chef’s job at Wentworth. Was it the thought of a captive audience for his culinary skills that lured him? Maybe, but whatever the reason, a woman’s prison was an odd choice of workplace for a man who has a near phobic fear of cooking for large numbers of people. You see Merv, whose previous jobs have included labouring and working as a salesman, is actually a pretty good cook. If that is, he’s rustling up something for one or two friends. But give him a roomful of hungry sheilas to entertain and he gets into a hell of a pickle. But he’s a nice enough fella and butters up the girls with an offbeat sense of humour and a self-deprecating manner. And you have to admire Merv. As a young man he was so desperate to become a chef, he would sneak into his parents’ kitchen when they were out and cook up a few creative masterpieces. And he sure is an imaginative sort of guy. When he applied for the job at Wentworth he garnished his CV with a few, er, choice cuts to make sure he got the position. ‘Cold Larder Chef’, for instance, became ‘Cordon Bleu Chef’ on Merv’s cooked up resume. Talk about sauce!

Gerda Nicolson as Ann Reynolds

Born in Tasmania in 1937, Gerda Nicolson made one of her earliest screen appearances in 1968, as Fiona Carstairs in the Australian TV series Bellbird. Throughout the Seventies and early Eighties she appeared in a number of Aussie films, including The Getting of Wisdom, Gallipoli, Next of Kin and The Clinic. In 1983, she joined Prisoner: Cell Block H as no-nonsense Governor Ann Reynolds and played the character until the series ended in 1986. After Prisoner she went on to play the heroine’s mother in 1988’s Belinda, a story about an innocent ballerina who makes money by dancing in sleazy cabaret shows. The following year she starred alongside Nicole Kidman in the hugely successful mini-series Bangkok Hilton, a story about a young woman wrongly accused of drug smuggling. Gerda went on to appear in the film In Too Deep and the TV Series Golden Fiddles before she died of a stroke in 1992.

There’s something of a schoolmistress about Governor Ann Reynolds. With that power hairdo and stern, prissy demeanour, watching her on the box makes you want to giggle like a naughty child. But you don’t, because a glare from those teacher-is-always-right peepers is enough to keep anyone quiet. And that’s how things are in Wentworth with Mrs. Reynolds at the helm. Firm but compassionate, she takes no nonsense and suffers no improprieties from prisoners or warders. An intelligent and strong-willed woman, she arrived at Wentworth with little direct knowledge of the prison service. As a result she was resented by many of her colleagues. However, at first Joan Ferguson admired her strict efficiency and began to see Ann as a potential friend. But a strong sense of right and wrong soon brought Ann into conflict with Joan and other corrupt members of the department. After she lost her husband to a heart attack, Ann experienced financial difficulties. Subsequently, her job as governor, which used to supplement her husband’s income and provide the family with luxuries, is now extremely important to her.

Maggie Kirkpatrick as Joan Ferguson

Born in Albury, New South Wales in 1941, Maggie Kirkpatrick appeared in several Australian films in the late Seventies including The Getting of Wisdom and The Night of the Prowler. But it was her role as the mean-spirited Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson in Prisoner: Cell Block H that made her a familiar face to soap lovers across the world. Maggie played Joan from 1982 to 1986, and in 1990 joined another cult Aussie soap Home and Away as Auntie Jean. In 1990, she starred as the eponymous heroine of the New Zealand TV series Betty’s Bunch and has since appeared in several films including Encounters, Billy’s Holiday and Welcome to Woop Woop, the story of a con artist who winds up in an outback town full of oddballs and misfits.

Somewhere beneath Joan Ferguson’s leathery hide and battle-scarred face, there’s a woman with compassion and feelings. It’s just no one’s managed to find her yet—least of all the prisoners under this most feared of Wentworth’s warders. To the administration Joan presents herself as a woman who is firm but fair, but to the prisoners she’s a cruel tyrant who is willing to blackmail them, muscle in on their dope dealing and gambling scams, and generally make their time behind bars as miserable as possible. And that’s not all. The part-woman-part-Frankenstein’s Monster warder also sees it as her right to have affairs with any of the prisoners who take her fancy. But there is another side to Joan. You see, she likes kids and loves to cuddle and stroke animals. Oh, and she’s very fond of her dad, too. Oooh, isn’t that lovely? Maybe she’s not so bad after all? Yeah right. Try telling that to the girls at Wentworth. Joan loves animals? She certainly treats the inmates like dogs.

Michael Winchester as Marty Jackson

In 1984, Michael Winchester appeared as Stan McCabe in the mini-series Bodyline, which told the story of the hugely controversial 1932-1933 test cricket series between England and Australia. Presumably, Prisoner: Cell Block H bigwigs were bowled over by his performance because soon after, in 1986, he joined the series as Warder Marty Jackson. Michael, who was the third actor to play Marty, continued in the role until the series ended. After he left Prisoner, Michael appeared as a schoolteacher in the Aussie drama The Everlasting Secret Family before starring as Rupert Richards in the 1989 action drama Minnamurra.

With a career in the navy before he joined the prison service, Marty Jackson bought some seafarer’s discipline to his new job. But he soon realised the women prisoners weren’t all bad, and that they responded better if they were treated like people and not mere criminals. In fact, over time, Marty’s consideration towards the women has infuriated some of the less sympathetic officers. Rodney Adams, for example, mocked Marty’s plans for a work-party scheme to give the prisoners the opportunity to work on the outside. As far as he and Joan Ferguson are concerned, ‘crims’ aren’t worth that kind of effort. Pretty straight when in uniform, Marty can be a playful and exuberant character when socialising out of hours. But in fact, his happy-go-lucky charm disguises a darker side to his character. Namely, a deep sense of guilt concerning the death of several of his navy colleagues during a fire. On the whole, Marty has been a hit with the prisoners at Wentworth. But then, he has a good role model for his job: his mother Meg Morris has been in the service for as long as he can remember.

Terrie Waddell as Lisa Mullins

Terrie first captured the public’s imagination while she was cooped up in Wentworth as Lisa Mullins. The actress, who played the blackmailing prostitute in Prisoner: Cell Block H in 1986, went on to appear in the Aussie film Golden Braid, the story of a man who becomes obsessed with a fantasy love affair. After Golden Braid, Terrie traded in the TV screen for the computer screen in The Dame Was Loaded, a film noir-style PC adventure set in the 1940s. Back in the more familiar world of television, Terrie made a guest appearance in 1997 as Feldman in the Aussie TV series State Coroner.

Attractive, pleasant, a good sense of humour—who would believe Lisa Mullins was part of a prostitution racket that would turn most hookers scarlet with shame. Along with her boyfriend Lester Marshall, Lisa ran a ‘sucker’ scam. She had sex with wealthy johns while Lester, hidden away behind the furniture, snapped away a few dirty pictures. The pair would then send the photos to the johns, blackmail them, make a fortune, and ultimately live happily ever after. At least that was the idea—until the police took a negative view of her and Lester’s photo sex scam and banged her up in Wentworth. Lisa’s attitude to incarceration is to do her time as quietly as possible and to side with the top dog currently in power. But if she had a few easy rides before she came to prison, she won’t find them in Wentworth. Her first cellmate turns out not to be quite what she seems, and run-ins with assassins and warder Rodney Adams ensure she’s kept on her toes.

Paula Duncan as Lorelei Wilkinson

Born in Cooma, Australia, Paula Duncan’s career began with a bit of slap and tickle when she landed the part of Carol Finlayson in cult, Carry On-style Aussie drama series Number 96. A year later in 1976, she appeared in The Young Doctors and soon after in another TV series Cop Shop, a drama about life in a suburban police station. Following a memorable spell as the bright and cheery inmate Lorelei Wilkinson in Prisoner: Cell Block H, she starred in the film Jenny Kissed Me, a harrowing story about a woman whose boyfriend becomes infatuated with her teenage daughter. In 1993 she appeared as Joan Hayden in the Aussie drama series Paradise Beach and in 1998, made a guest appearance in Breakers, a TV drama series about life on Bondi beach.

Joy Westmore as Joyce Barry

Joy became a familiar face to soap lovers as the dithery yet good-natured warder Joyce Barry in Prisoner: Cell Block H. As well as her role in Prisoner, she has appeared in a number of Australian films including Summerfield, a thriller about a teacher who discovers a pupil has contracted a rare blood disease, The Odd Angry Shot and Nightmares. In 1987, she played Lady Gwen Patterson alongside Australia’s most revolting male—Les Patterson—in Les Patterson Saves the World, and in 1992, appeared as Mrs. Blanche White in the Australian series Cluedo, a drama game show based on the popular board game.

Glenda Linscott as Rita Connors

Glenda’s first break came when she was cast as inmate Rita Connors in Prisoner: Cell Block H. She joined the show in 1985 and biker-girl Rita became one of the most popular characters until the series ended in 1986. Soon after, Glenda starred as Bahloo in Howling III, a film about a strange race of human-like marsupials that suddenly appear in Australia. Since then she has appeared in the films Big Ideas and Back of Beyond, a story about a reclusive Outback garage owner who is set upon by a gang of diamond-stealing thugs. Most recently, she appeared as Dr Imogene ‘Tootsie’ Soamses in the Oz TV series Murder Call.

With her yellow hair and lanky frame, Rita Connors is Prisoner’s very own Big Bird. But don’t think for a moment she’s fluffy or cute—she’s as tough as an old buzzard. Rita arrived at Wentworth in style, her prison van escorted by a group of her biker friends with Rita whooping and giving a clench-fisted salute as she entered the prison gates. Joan Ferguson was none to impressed with the new inmate and quickly made an enemy of Rita by ripping the chains from her leather jacket. Since then, the two have been enemies, with several brutal fights and even a murder attempts on Joan by Rita behind them. But Rita is respected by her fellow inmates and was voted Top Dog. And as Wentworth’s number-one inmate she’s shown compassion, as well as her trademark toughness, towards the other prisoners. She risked her neck by preventing a foolhardy escape attempt by Roach, and even saved Joan Ferguson’s life after the warder almost fell from a cliff during a work party outing. But don’t imagine Rita’s going soft. Or that Joan is thankful for her heroism. The pair looks set to continue their feud to the bitter end.

Lois Collinder as Alice Jenkins

Lois Collinder starred as Lou Kelly’s buddy Alice ‘Lurch’ Jenkins on Prisoner: Cell Block H from 1984 to 1986. After Prisoner finished, she traded in Wentworth for that more desirable postal address of Ramsay Street, playing Meredith Downes in Neighbours from 1994 to 1995. Following her spell in Neighbours, Lois appeared in the Aussie film Angel Baby, a story about two schizophrenics who meet during therapy and fall passionately in love. Her other film appearances include the road movie True Love and Chaos and the part of Valmai in the short film Bowl me Over.

Rosanne Hull Brown as Merle Jones

Biff, thump, and thwack. Not only are these pretty much the only words Merle Jones can read, but they are also what she’ll do to you if you make fun of her. Because what comic book-loving Merle lacks in intelligence, she makes up for with a physique that would turn the Hulk greener with envy. Near-illiterate Merle was brought up in an orphanage from the age of four, after her parents dumped her there. Learning difficulties led to behavioural problems and Merle became notorious for her temper. As the other prisoners at Wentworth have found out on several occasions, you do not want to make Merle angry, because you won’t like Merle when she’s angry… Rejected by her parents, abused and unloved, and mocked behind her back by many of her fellow inmates (who call her Looney Tunes), Merle hadn’t seen much joy in her life. Until, that is, Kath Maxwell took her under her wing and the two became close friends. It’s been the making of Merle. Kath, fiercely loyal, has protected her from the crueller inmates and even encouraged her to read words that aren’t just sounds for hitting people.

Philip Hyde as Rodney Adams

If Joan Ferguson is The Freak, then fellow warder Rodney Adams is The Geek. Because no matter how hard he tries to show the women of Wentworth he means business, they still treat him like he’s in short trousers. Take the time Rodney, desperate to make his mark as a warder, rushed to Mrs Reynolds’ office with a bag full of confiscated marijuana and a triumphant look on his face. His smile faded pretty quickly when he found out it wasn’t marijuana after all and that he’d made a parsley, not a drugs bust. Well, stone me! The girls had got him again. That’s not to say Rodney, who grew up a ‘nice middle-class boy’ in the suburb of Elwood, is just a harmless, comic figure. In fact, he’s a downright nasty little blighter who will do anything he can to gain the approval of Governor Reynolds. Recently, he tried to ruin Marty Jackson’s inmate work-release scheme, mainly because he hadn’t come up with the idea first. His jealousy however, earned him a well deserved smack on the chops from Marty and a nice shiner for when he turned up at Wentworth the next day. It couldn’t have happened to a nastier guy.

Taya Stratton as Rose “Spider” Simpson

Rose fought the law and the law won. Or did it? She plays the prison system like a virtuoso, wheeling and dealing in almost anything her fellow inmates want. To Rose ‘Spider’ Simpson prison is home and place of business all rolled into one neat state-provided package. In fact, life on the inside has been a whole lot better for Rose than living out there in the free world. Her father did a Reggie Perrin and left the family in the lurch, and her mother, who couldn’t cope with the kids on her own, had them put into care. If that wasn’t enough, mother did her very own Reggie on the kids, ‘forgetting’ to visit them soon after they were institutionalised. Rose has got no one on the outside who loves her, and no one on the inside who even likes her. But she’s still got herself. And you can be damn sure Spider Simpson is doing everything she can to look after number one.