Sunday, 2 June 2013

Prisoner: Cell Block Bea - and interview with Val Lehman



"Rack off you Mongrel" Came a cry from one of the cells as we passed by.

This was my first day in Wentworth Detention Centre and my introduction to 30 years of hell for something I didn't even do. 
They said I had murdered my new husband, but I hadn’t… I suspected one of his daughters, mean as cats piss and twice as thick, right drongo’s the pair of them… Mind you, I was the one in here, so they couldn’t be that stupid.

I looked at the officer for some sense of compassion, but I wasn't going to get anything from this woman, hair scraped back into a tight bun, eyes of the very devil herself and pursed thin lips. Compassion? A sour expression was all I going to get, no wonder her nickname was vinegar tits. As we slowly passed the cells I saw woman after women, staring at me, probably wondering what I had done to get there. There was an old woman with a kind face and skin so wrinkled it looked like a map of Sydney, a younger woman with a childlike face called at me in a high pitched voice as I passed, "We'll look after you honey" She called, I smiled but this still didn't feel a good place to be. I was terrified. There were young women, older women, some pretty and feminine, some butch and sturdy, but, mind you in this denim dress and yellow blouse, everyone looked a bit masculine. 

As we neared the end cell my heart started to pound, "We set you up with a cell mate who'll be dead suited to you" the officer told me with a sneer as we entered the cell, "Prisoner 659922, meet prisoner 329460"

I looked nervously in, sat on her bed staring at me was this red headed legend of Cell Block H, Val Lehman herself, between 1979 and 83 she ruled this prison playing Queen Bea, Bea Smith, and had even won Logies, twice for best lead actress in a series and most popular actress in 1982, confirming how bonza she was. Bea was the tough, ambivalent yet maternal leader, always part of the action but usually initiating it. Imprisoned for the murder of her husband’s mistress, she had many incredible story-lines during her time in the Wentworth,and to show how revered she was, Bea Smith was constantly referred to even after her departure. 

I stood terrified by the door, unable to move or even breathe before the guard shoved me inside, "Make yourself comfortable" she offered sarcastically before locking the door and walking off.

I could feel myself backing off, I had heard so much about this woman and was hoping that they might not all be true... But then she smiled a warm forthcoming smile that instantly made me feel more comfortable. She tapped the bed beside her and I sat down. She asked my name and what I was in for, when I revealed that I had been framed and that I was innocent, she replied "Aren't we all?" I smiled and after a while I felt comfortable enough to start my own questions.

Bea is such an amazing character, but only now that we know her, what attracted you to the part of Bea Smith? How was the character described when you auditioned?
"I knew nothing about the Bea Smith character when I went to audition I'd only heard from my agent there was a gestapo style prison officer she thought I might be suited to play...it was the casting director who immediately said she thought I was Bea Smith material and asked me to come back later in the day and read for the producer and director, and I did a cold reading. Although they told me she was top dog and not to be messed with!! I was then asked to Screen test, and the rest is history..."

But this was a brand new show, was it a worry that it wouldn't be a success?
"Yes we only had 16 week contracts; however that was extended to 6 months even before the show went to air. We all stayed on except Carol Burns who asked to be written out and only did 20 episodes."

I suppose everyone knows what their limitations are and you need to understand the character you're playing... So is there a bit of Bea in you?
"Every character I play can only be based on my knowledge, interpretation, life experience and my powers of observations, so there has to be something of each character in me. But I haven't killed anyone for weeks!"

I shuffled a bit further down on the bed, I knew she was joking, but... Well... You can never be too sure...

Smiling and carried on with my questions and it being my first time in prison, I was dying to know...

How do you think the show reflected real life in Australian women's prisons? 
"It was never meant to be a documentary about women's prison life, although pretty well everything in our scripts was based on actual events, things just don't move that quickly in any prison... Our mandate was to entertain!"

Did you visit any prisons
yourself? To prepare for the show, I mean... Not for any other reasons... I laughed nevrvously.

"We were taken to visit a woman’s prison before we started shooting... The only thing I gained from that visit, was the deputy governor was not very bright, had no intention of allowing us to talk to any of the prisoners, and although we were VIP visitors made it very clear we had to do as we were told by her whilst within those walls! Playing power games. I got a lot more information from one of the social workers who actually put me in
touch with a released prisoner who had been top dog. Fortunately our producers, and best writer (Denise Morgan) did a lot of very worthwhile research and passed it on to us."


What has the reaction been from real inmates?
"Real inmates who occasionally wrote fan letters. Used to comment; they wish they had a Bea Smith in their prison to stand up for them."


Comforting,  I thought...

Now I loved the show and pretty much everyone I know loved the show, but when Val started no one could have imagined the success of it. Imagine the pitch at the Reg Grundy offices... "So, it's going to be set in a women's prison and the lead killed her husbands mistress..." It's not exactly Dynasty! 

So I had to ask...

Did you think that the show was going to be as popular as it was, and still is? Especially with the gay community? 

"I Had no idea what the public's reaction would be but I thought it was certainly worthwhile and the best opportunity I'd ever
been given had to show what I could do with a strong character."


And you certainly did! Bea was such an iconic character!
"People loved Bea because she was smart and fair, the champion of the underdog, and thumbed her nose at authority."

Now I loved every twist, every turn, every funny, horrific and terrifying storyline, but what was Val's, I wondered? 
"I liked the amnesia storyline, which had been my own idea, because it gave me the opportunity to show what Bea had been like before her incarceration."

Now, the hierarchy went - from the lowest of the low to the Top Dog... The inmates, the screws, the Gov'ner AND THEN Queen Bea... I wondered if this was reflected on set?
"Most of us got on really well and socialise with each other a lot. I could say there was only one cast member I didn't much like... but I made sure that didn't carry on to the set."


Suddenly the nice blond haired officer appeared at the door to our cell.
“Sorry Ladies, I’m going to have to break this budding friendship up” She spoke in an authoritative yet friendly voice, “Your step-daughters were caught, in a bar, pissed up and shouting their bloody mouths off about it all! Ended confessing everything to an undercover cop!”
“What drongos” I thought.  
“So you’re free to go.”
Did I hear her right? I was free? But at what cost? The loss of a dear new friend.

I stood up to leave, I should have been bubbling over with happiness but found a tear of sadness in my eye. Val saw I was upset and embraced me in a way only a mother would do. She looked at me as if to say “Be happy, be free” but what she actually said was “Stop winging baby, now rack off”

I turned to leave, but just had one more question… 

So what does 'Rack off' actually mean???
"Rack off means the same as 'Piss off' or 'Fuck off’. But we were not permitted to say either of those in the show..."

Officer Morris nudged be out of the cell and walked with me back down the corridor, past the squeaky voiced girl, past the old lady with the kind face, past, the young ones, the old ones, the scabs and the prossies. This was not going to be home after all, and all the time we walked one tune kept playing in my mind…

“And he used to bring me roses, I wish he could again… But that was on the outside… and things were different then…”

I was free.


For More info on Val Go to: http://www.val-lehman.com/ or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Val_Lehman

5 comments:

  1. Great interview with the great Top Dog herself!! Love how you have made it into much more than a interview!

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  2. Best Australian TV series ever made !! ..I never missed an episode!! Bea was also my favourite character:)

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  3. Just a pity val didn't stay longer

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  4. it's one of the best australian tv series, hey guyz if you wanna watch it check out watchprisonercellblockh.com/

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