Published March 3 1985
At Wentworth Detention Centre, Prison Officer Joan Ferguson slams shut the heavy cell doors on the trapped inmates with a flourish and strides arrogantly out the front gate, revelling in her own freedom.
She is lucky to live on the right side of the ugly steel bars.
But that is only on TV because Maggie Kirkpatrick, who stars in the role, found the real-life existence of working on Prisoner encroaching on her freedom and reducing her lifestyle to that of an exhausted workaholic.
Indeed, after nearly 30 months on the International series’ success for Network 10, Maggie felt the work had become “imprisoning”. She was depressed and worked-out.
And actress Patsy King who starred as Wentworth’s kindly but firm Prison Governor, Erica Davidson for over four years, echoed similar sentiments about how her private life deteriorated.”I was living to work and felt trapped,” she said bluntly. “(On this series) you have to give up so much of yourself.”
Even stage veteran Sheila Florance, who appeared regularly as the lovable, zany prisoner, Lizzy Birdsworth for nearly five years, found the work schedule demanding and hectic.
And it wasn’t until her husband of 38 years, John Balawaider, died towards the end of 1983-a few months after Sheila withdrew from the show to nurse him-that she “physically and nearly mentally collapsed.”
Before then, she said, she really had no time to think about herself.
“Naturally, it was a strain and I couldn’t have gone on any longer, but I’ve never known any other lifestyle except work.”
And that work-for all three women-often involved 60 hours a week or more under blaring, hot lights, repeating scenes with painstaking precision, plus extra hours at home devoted to rehearsing lines and learning scripts.
But when Maggie Kirkpatrick was offered the role as Freak– the “sadistic, corrupt, bull-like screw”-it presented the sort of inspirational challenge she thrives on.
“Prisoner was the one show I wanted to be in. I watched the women ploughing through two hours a week knowing that time was against them, but I didn’t realise what was really involved.
“I knew it was going to be tiring and difficult because of my lack of experience, but for the first two years I fell into it very happily.
“I put on that hideous grey uniform like a coat and knew that Joan Ferguson lived in the wardrobe department.”
Even such an attractive woman as Maggie could live with looking like “a Sherman tank” on-screen, and could put the character behind her at the end of the working day.
But by the third year in the part, playing Freak became more of a drag. Her real life “on the outside” was becoming less fun and more fraught.
“The physical effort was greater because I was two years older (maggie is 43) and the emotional stress of the constant grind and the endless hours in front of the cameras and sitting around waiting to be called, started to affect me,” she admitted.
“A permanent scowl seemed etched on my face and I began to feel lined and tense. I got short-tempered and impatient and when I looked at myself in the mirror I didn’t like what I saw.”
The pressured piled. Maggie didn’t enjoy going out, she felt depressed and could not even enjoy reading a good book. Daily headaches made her feel she just wasn’t “doing the job properly” and she went into “a physical and mental decline.”
But for a few months she kept up the schedule-at the studio by 8 a.m. and not leaving until 12 hours later. She could still tune into her character but tuning into her own life off-camera was getting too hard.
A strong woman who raised a daughter, Caitlin (now 18) by herself, Maggie’s own independence was slowly being undermined by her work.
She started to want someone to take care of her. “I tended to go home and do nothing, ignoring the silly, everyday things. I just sat like a slob, sometimes in front of the TV.”
And she was smoking about 40 cigarettes a day and eating too much.
“I knew the bills had to be paid and there were commitments I had to meet, but I just felt I couldn’t cope.”
While Patsy King was more than familiar with the restrictive nature of theatrical life, when she started on Prisoner she was unprepared for the limits the series imposed on her life.
“There are so many more strains in a long-running TV series than there are in the theatre,” Patsy explained.”There’s an endless, enormous amount of work to be done. It was exhausting and exhilarating at first and you had to throw yourself into it completely.
“But over the years you use up so much of yourself that your nerves get frayed. I also used to get tense and upset stomachs.
“Sometimes I even lost my sense of humor and got very irritable. It was so tiring that once, during a performance of Hamlet I went to see at night, I just fell asleep in the second act.
“And at dinner parties I just couldn’t relax and enjoy myself.
“It got to the stage where I stopped making arrangements to go out. I’d always had a private life in the theatre because I was very organised, but with a TV schedule it isn’t so easy to organise yourself. Things can change from one day to another.
“You have to give up so many aspects of your life. I couldn’t play tennis and walk around the shops and I didn’t go to the theatre or the cinema.
“The simple things you take for granted just weren’t there anymore. I was run into a frazzle and put on 10 years working on it.”
Like Maggie, Patsy found she couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the script lines encircling her mind.
Most weekends were devoted to learning the following week’s work. And her usually meticulous home life was abandoned in pursuit of sleep.
“I started talking to myself and couldn’t find things round the house. I even kicked the furniture out of frustration and found myself dropping things because I wasn’t with it.
“All I thought about was work and I couldn’t switch off. But you don’t realise what’s happening to you and at the end of my four years I started to break down and cry. You don’t know where you are…
“But I had no idea it would last that long. It was too tiring and too exhausting. After for years, I had to get out.”
While Sheila Florance enjoyed her years in Prisoner, taking care of sick husband John and meeting the rigorous demands of the work schedule, it began to take its toll.
“I was up at 5am every morning to learn lines and go over the script and didn’t get home again until 9pm.
“I couldn’t even wash my face or hands. I’d just fall into bed and go straight to sleep. Often I dozed off in the bath,” she said.
“But I never questioned being so tired. I just felt so fortunate to be working.”
Yet, while Sheila pointed out that life didn’t stop, some of her favourite activities had to be shelved.
“I haven’t been to the movies for years and I missed a tremendous amount of theatre which I did resent.
“I was disappointed, but there’s no point in being eaten up with resentment. It was my job and I accepted it.”
That job often included doing 22 scenes a day “and that’s an astronomical number,” she said. For the past 18 months, Sheila hasn’t been working. Instead she took time out to get herself together- both physically and emotionally.
And Patsy King opted out of the series to return to the theatre and take a respite from the exhausting schedule and recover her own life.
But Maggie only took a short break-a week- and went to a health farm where she surrendered her nicotine consumption and got fit and healthy.
She exercised, swam, had a daily massage and walked 5 km every day. She also reduced her food intake and lost nearly 3 kg.
“I absolutely glowed after the seven days and felt wonderful again.
“my eyes and skin were clear and my body ahnd mind felt cleansed. I was ready to go back to work determined to cope with it all.
“I felt renewed vigor and wasn’t going to lapse back into bad habits,” she said.
That was last year.
Now she has signed a new contract for 1985 and is resolute about ensuring her life on the outside doesn’t slide back into torpor and lethargy.
Being in a prison is for on-screen only.