In the lead-up to this year’s Logie Awards, actress Val Lehman decided to take a step back in time.
As a three-time Logie winner for her iconic role as head inmate Bea Smith on the women’s prison drama Prisoner, Lehman was asked to once again don the denim prison clothes she wore for five years and film a comedy skit with her former co-star Collette Mann.
That was very strange, the actress says from her home in Ballarat in country Victoria. We were back in the actual costumes we wore all those years ago, and it was the first time I had worn them since leaving the series.
As we began filming the skit, I wondered if Bea was still in me -“ it had been a long time. Then as we did it, I found her again. She was still buried deep down inside me. I thought I had left her a long time ago, but she’s still there.
The 60-something actress has long been associated with the iconic role as the head prisoner at the Wentworth Detention Centre and, with Prisoner about to be released on DVD, there seems little chance that connection is about to come to an end.
Since leaving the series, Lehman has spent the past two decades working on the stage throughout Australia and in the UK, and admits she has never been offered another TV role to rival the stature of Queen Bea.
And while she walked through the Wentworth Detention Centre gates for the last time in 1983, Lehman says she is not surprised to still be talking about the series.
She was a great character and I was incredibly privileged to play her, she says. It was also a groundbreaking show that was different to anything that had been done on Australian TV before, and with a predominantly female cast.
The first time I ever read the script, I just kept thinking, -˜This is either going to be the biggest failure or an incredible success.’
Prisoner debuted on Network Ten in 1979 and ran until 1986. Lehamn recalls that the first time she was told of the series, her agent suggested she audition for the role of prison officer Vera Vinegar Tits Bennett.
My agent thought the Gestapo-style guard would be my cup of tea, she laughs. But the casting director said I was more Bea Smith. I could have played Vinegar Tits, but I liked Bea -“ she was undefeatable and never, ever wrong.
Bea is best remembered as the woman in charge of the steam press in the prison laundry, and for steaming the people who got body parts caught in the machine.
The scene with Kerry Armstrong’s hands in the press is now a part of TV folklore, Lehman says, before adding defensively, I think it is interesting what people remember -“ my character cried as often as she hit anyone.
But it was the inclusion of numerous lesbian characters in the Prisoner storylines that guaranteed it an enduring queer following. As a result, Lehman was twice special guest speaker at gay pride events in the seven years she lived in the UK.
Prisoner broke taboos as we had regular lesbian characters in the storylines, and they were played as real people, she says. We knew it was risky and different at the time, but I don’t think we were ever scared as we filmed it. The more taboos you break, the more interesting it is to play.
I was honoured to speak at the gay pride events and, while I don’t share their sexuality, I do share an outrage at the discrimination faced by gay and lesbian people. I have also met a lot of queens who have wanted to be Bea, and some women who would have liked to date her.
And when I have seen the drag queens as Bea, I am enormously delighted and flattered -“ even if one of them did have a beard as he did so.
Prisoner Cell Block H Volumes 1 and 2 are available to rent and buy on DVD through Shock DVD.