Prisoner: Cell Block H portrayed pub rock-era Melbourne as one of ferocious slang, hard times, harder women and shaky walls. Time Out tracked down top dog Lou Kelly, aka actress Louise Siversen, to reminisce
TV Show: Prisoner: Cell Block H
Date: 1979 – 1986
Locations: Spotswood, Box Hill
In the UK, Prisoner seemed to be aimed at the student slot. You know, the getting-home-drunk slot.
The perfect audience: the pissed and available! When I went to London to do a reunion a couple of years back, I hadn’t watched the show for 25 years – and they played episode 600, which was a big one for my character. It's where she hangs Linda Stone's character… Can you believe that they put that on television? How the heck? You would never be able to do that now. There would be no way. It would be so heavily censored.
So who do you feel the show was actually aimed at?
That is a good question because who it wound up being watched by was a whole other thing. It certainly wasn’t meant to be aimed at very young people, but now I'm much older and so is everybody else, they tell me that when they were 12 or 13 they were watching it which, of course, was not the age bracket that should have been watching!
When I went to London the actual base of the fans, which was 18 million at its height in the UK, let me tell you that blew my mind. They came from – and still come from – all walks of life. And their reasons are incredibly different for being involved with it. I was fascinated. I asked a lot of people who were at these dinners, why did you become so obsessed by it? And they said, “We were actually obsessed by character,” which is the thing that all good scripts should have that they don’t have so much of now. But actually, that is why people became completely taken up by it, because they either follow the character in terms of their ability to do things outside the parallel of what is perceived as being female or they imagined themselves being able to be in that state and have that state of confidence.
The show gave a very warped sense of Melbourne…
Well, yeah, and the assumption that all the walls shook! It’s not Neighbours, is it? With blue skies and things.
Do you meet people from overseas who think that must be what Melbourne is like?
Well, I don’t know if you ever get much of a discussion around that, but they are always surprised by you. They always think that you are going to be something like that, wandering around beating people up or whatever their notion is. They imagine that to be in that position, you must have had a tougher upbringing or somehow be involved in that aspect of the world – which always fascinated me.
Did you actually draw on anyone in particular when portraying a tough nut like Lou?
No, I didn’t because Lou developed. I came in originally as an extra playing two completely different roles and then I just started to create her. So it was a different way of creating a character, it wasn’t auditioned where they know what the character is going to be and they already have a plotting system in place. She wasn’t like that; she sort of grew out of nowhere and became completely herself by virtue of what happened on the day.
And how much give or take do you get with scriptwriters in a program like that? Can you make lots of suggestions?
We certainly didn’t then. They weren’t really involved with us. I mean, they may have been with the older girls but given that we were, at that point, all in our early 20s, the expectation was that you would do just what was on the page. But then, you know, the make-up between the personalities and the alchemy between the actors determined a lot of what happened, too. You could never be too sure what was going to happen when two people got together in that environment.
Did the scriptwriters ever draw on the cases in the papers of the day?
You have to understand, I had done a lot of telly before but it was my first long-term gig and I was learning the ropes with a bunch of pretty steely women in the older bracket, so you didn’t throw your weight around too much. I never really got to the bottom of how things were done until my next job after that one, so I don’t know. But they would have, I would have thought.
So, the death of your character... was that something to do with you? Were you over it? Or did the scriptwriters do it?
I’d resigned and I think I was beaten to death as a consequence of that, but as it turned out, the show only went on for another six months after that. I had done it for nearly three years. That is a long time to play someone that heavy.
What was it like on set? Was it heads down, get-on-with-it sort of attitude or was it quite a laugh in between takes?
I’d have to say that it was probably three of the funniest years I have ever spent. I think I laughed more on that show than on any other show I have ever done.
I remember being given a talking-to because Jackie Woodburne and myself could not stop laughing every time we had to work together – and of course, she is on Neighbours now. We were always ending up in situations where we would be giggling uncontrollably which, in my experience in doing shows which are really dark, this is usually what happens. Comedies are often the reverse. I did a show called Backburner in Sydney for four years as a stand-up comic and you are on screen being funny but off screen you are kind of low energy, low tempo.
Daniel Henshall, who portrayed serial killer Jon Bunting in Snowtown, once said in an interview that every time the camera stopped rolling the cast would rally each other, cracking jokes.
Exactly. You have to see the bright side of it or else it would just overwhelm you, particularly playing someone like Lou. Whenever I was on set, I was always intimidating somebody or beating somebody up. To spend all day doing that, I mean, you want to go home and have a few laughs. So I suppose that contributed to the reason why I felt like always finding the laughs in it. But mind you, that is also just me when I work, it is meant to be fun.
Did you find any redeeming qualities in Lou?
Well, I don’t think I necessarily found any redeeming qualities in Lou, but what you understand is why they turn out the way they do if you track the history and find out what created it. Some people presume there is evil from birth so to speak, but nobody just comes out like that. They are created by virtuous circumstance, or lack of education, or lack of access to opportunity and all those sorts of things – and that was what was really in place for Lou.
How thorough is the back story you were provided with?
I wasn’t provided with any. I just had to create her from scratch.
So do you think that came across to the viewer– that she was a victim of circumstances?
I think what is interesting is that a lot of people loved her for a whole range of reasons. When I was in London, I sat with this couple that were at this dinner. She was a teacher and I think he worked in finance. Gorgeous people, probably in their late 20s, so they were not of the time when it was on.
They had watched the DVD and it was on air in the UK for quite some time. For some reason, they fell in love with Lou and became obsessed by her. I understood that this was most likely not their usual style of television and then I found out, through the unravelling of the conversation, that they had had a child and their child had died. And from this, they got into the habit of watching late night Prisoner very shortly after the child had died.
I thought, why would you do that? The man said to me that they became obsessed by Lou and what she represented. And I thought, why? And as I walked away, I thought to myself, I think I know why. They would have been angry and would have had nowhere to put it and they felt trapped by this loss. So (there were) all these things that they could identify with and they could not play that out. What they were watching in her was that she played it out, like they were projecting all their anger into that person…
Isn’t it great? So it was kind of like an incredible freedom for them to watch her. I thought it is incredible what television can do and where people can find themselves coming to rest with it and why they attach themselves to somebody.
Do you think your character Lou also a gay icon?
Oh god, are you kidding me? Hugely so, but the whole show was. The fan-base around the world was really instigated by the gay followers, male and female. I think it represented the same thing, being strong in a world where you are a minority, it is that voiceless thing.
It sort of has that kitsch quality, even though it was not traditionally kitsch.
Oh yeah, it is high camp. It is a female playing a male quality at its most camp.
Do you think the program had peers or anything else that was a bit like it?
No, I don’t. And you know it was remade in the States and they put all these fabulous-looking young women in it, all with makeup on. And some years back, around 2009, they were going to redo Prisoner but I think they have fallen foul of some of the original makers but I could be wrong about that. But I don’t think there has been any show or any other show since that included only women under those sorts of circumstances.
The show took off in the States as well as the UK, and paved the way for other Australian shows to come after it.
Well I suppose. I think it still plays on Foxtel there now. It did a double run because I get mail from people in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Texas and from all other the place and you think wow, that is amazing that all these years later they are watching this show.
It always seems to be on some channel in any country.
And of course it is back on Foxtel here.
Were you ever actually “Top Dog”?
How long were you “Top Dog” for?
Gee, that’s a big question. I can’t actually remember. But I was, for a time.
Have you seen anyone with Prisoner tattoos?
No, I haven’t. I am sure there would be. I am sure there would be somebody in the UK. In the UK, they can actually tell you the lines, they can recite the lines from episodes, which I found impressing.
But is that sort of thing problematic for your social life?
Well, I did have one or two unpleasant situations. I had an Elvis impersonator who stalked me.
Very curious. And I found him once in the car park waiting for me, which was kind of odd, in full memorabilia which was a bit spooky and weird. And then I went through a period, and this happened to another girlfriend of mine on another show, where I was getting very strange phone calls. But I mostly play very direct, independent or authority-driven characters, which interests me anyway from a female point of view. And that will bring up in people very interesting responses, by and large. But I think someone like Lou brought up a mixed response. People were either completely for you or completely against you.
Or intimidated… It must have been interesting at parties.
Yeah. Discerning where make-believe starts and the real thing is for some audience members, I think, kind of tricky. So yes, it would present and people do assume that you are like that.
That must have been hard.
Or maybe I should have used it more to my advantage.
Did you have any favourite put-downs as your character?
Well, one of Lou’s was always: “Okay you bitches, cut the burly talk.” You couldn’t swear on the show. Now, you probably couldn’t have used the same degree of violence we used but you could probably have used heavier language.
In the scheme of things, three years is such a small portion of a career. Does it irritate you to still be talking about Prisoner or not?
No. I haven’t really spoken about it much. Apart from two years ago and being asked to do that thing in the UK, I haven’t been involved in the whole thing. I have fans regularly write to me or come to see me work and things like that but I have never been involved in the whole ongoing thing. So this has been a resurgence based on something that I did a long, long time ago, which gave me the opportunity to go speak to people and to find out why they had enjoyed it because now I stand with the perspective of having worked for 35 years and have a lot broader thinking about what I do and that sort of stuff. So it has been really lovely to revisit it again. It's funny that all these years it has been quiet and now it has come back again.
MAKE THE PRISONER PILGRIMAGE:
Open to the public at Scienceworks is the old Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works pumping station (Cnr Douglas Pde & Craig St, Spotswood) and filming location for the fictional Wentworth Detention Centre for Women in Prisoner. (Incidentally, you might recognise the building as the Halls of Justice in the very first Mad Max film). Other Prisoner locales worth seeking out are the now defunct Prahran Courthouse (170 Greville St, Prahran), at which many trials and shootings occurred (and it doubled up as the occasional police station), and the Forrest Hill Chase Shopping Centre (270 Canterbury Rd, Forest Hill): the location where wayward women on the outside apparently did a spot of shopping. Sister prison farm Barnhurst, where the likes of Bea Smith toddled off to, is down by the Yarra near Clarke Street in Abbotsford. ‘Vinegar Tits’ lived at 27 Howard Street, Box Hill.