MAGGIE KIRKPATRICK AND PAMELA RABE TALK ABOUT THE LEGENDARY CHARACTER, PRISON OFFICER JOAN “THE FREAK” FERGUSON
Slipping on those famous leather gloves and stalking the corridors of Wentworth Detention Centre, Prisoner’s Joan Ferguson instantly became not only an iconic television villain but also a rare occurrence of a lesbian character in early 80s television. Making her debut in episode 287, broadcast in Australia in June 1982, officer Ferguson – nicknamed The Freak – quickly got to business at the female jail, performing questionable body searches, involving herself with gambling rackets and taking a shine to new inmate Hannah Simpson. Indeed, until the final episode – number 692 – aired in December 1986, there was very little untoward activity that she wasn’t involved in, until finally getting her comeuppance. But that’s not the end of this “sadistic, corrupt, bull-dyke screw”, as the character was originally pitched to actor Maggie Kirkpatrick. The series gained a new lease of life when sold overseas, following the success of exports such as Neighbours and Home And Away. Kirkpatrick travelled the world as the fanbase grew, also appearing alongside Paul O’Grady’s drag alter-ego Lily Savage in a West End musical production of Prisoner: Cell Block H – as the show was renamed in the UK.
Photo by Paul Schnaars / Screen Star Events
Yet that still wasn’t the end for Ferguson. In 2013, a reimagining of the series, Wentworth, began in Australia. Swiftly becoming one of the best drama series of recent years, a familiar name joined the ranks of Wentworth Correctional Centre. Joan Ferguson returned to screens, The Freak reborn and reimagined by actor Pamela Rabe. She’s been so successful in the role that she’s been nominated for, and won, several awards – including having recently picked up a Logie for Most Outstanding Actress.
Although there may be almost 30 years between the two incarnations of The Freak, the connection between Kirkpatrick, 77, and Rabe, 59, is closer than you might think…
“I played her mother,” Kirkpatrick scoffs. “Twice!” One of those occurrences was a play she recalls as one of her favourite times, The Beauty Queen Of Leenane. “We were both pretty damn good in that.” she reflects. Rabe gives a wry smile. “I think we were…”
Both actors know the lasting appeal of having played The Freak, and the fanbase for both Prisoner and Wentworth Prison means that they’re in demand for public appearances, with a company called Screen Star Events flying them, and other cast members, to the UK for meet-and-greet events.
“To me, it was another job and I was ever so grateful because it was going to be three months of a regular pay packet,” Kirkpatrick laughs when asked if she’s surprised to still be talking about Prisoner. “It was just a job, but one that I’m eternally grateful for. That’s the downside, there’s so much more in my 56 years in this business that I’m prouder of than I am of Joan Ferguson, and they’re all in the theatre.”
But it seems that famous formerly-wobbly prison can’t quite leave her behind either… “Just a couple of weeks ago, I was approached with the idea of me going into this current season that they’re shooting now,” Kirkpatrick says of the seventh season of Wentworth, currently in production for 2019. But as who? “As Boomer’s mother,” she reveals.
However, she chose prior commitments in the UK – including appearances with Screen Star Events. “Even though it was a long time in, it would’ve been nice to have shown my face. Never mind…”
Not only that, but Rabe reveals she was asked to appear in the original series of Prisoner. “It must’ve been around 1984 they asked me if I would come in and I couldn’t,” she recalls, before revealing that had she appeared in the original version, producers said they’d have been unable to cast her in Wentworth. They say things happen for a reason!
But while Rabe had something to hang her version a the notorious flat-footed baddie on, Kirkpatrick had no such former “screw” to emulate. Instead, she says the 1950 Caged film provided the inspiration for her performance of Joan. The film, which was nominated for three Academy Awards, starred Hope Emerson as Evelyn Harper, the sadistic matron. Kirkpatrick, it turns out, was impressed with her size and stillness.
“When I played Joan, the stillness was bom out of sheer terror,” she laughs. “I was so bloody nervous on my first day that I daren’t move a muscle. And there, she was born.”
Rabe’s personal experience of Wentworth’s originating show was limited, having been in Canada for a large part of its transmission. She was more than aware of its impact, however, and knew exactly where her version of Joan was coming from. “She was going to be up to no good,” Rabe says. “I would have to honour her creation, but also not be a betrayal to this enormous following that Kirkpatrick had. It was a bit touch-and-go whether people were going to go with it.”
Fortunately they did – as those awards are testament to – and Kirkpatrick gets slightly teary when she mentions that Rabe has often paid tribute to her in some way during her performance, something she finds “very touching”.
Of course,Joan was notable on Australian television for being a lesbian. Not that everyone clocked it… “There was a visiting director who came in, obviously hadn’t looked at the previous episodes because she had me doing something that was so totally out of character,” Kirkpatrick recalls. “I said: ‘You do know that Joan’s a lesbian, don’t you?’ The show had only been going for hundreds of episodes… And she said: ‘Oh, is she?'” She sighs. “I put in all that effort!”
Before it became a fashionable thing, I was there in the firing line”
What have their experiences been like, playing this groundbreaking lesbian character, 30 years apart? “My support base, much to my delight and pride, has been for many years the gay and lesbian community,” Kirkpatrick shares. And it goes back to the early days of the aids epidemic, where nobody would get their hands dirty or show they faces to be of support to people. I had a lot of friends who were fast leaving me in the early 80s. Before it became a fashionable thing – as it did become with some people – to blow my own trumpet, I was there in the firing line [being visible].”
Rabe agrees and says quietly: “You were very visible and very vocal. Didn’t you also have a float at the Mardi Gras?” Kirkpatrick nods. “Telling people to donate money, because l’m bossy! It’s nice that I’m still remembered. It’s a very important community to me. Of course, I was thrilled to bits last year when marriage equality FINALLY happened in Australia. We’re catching up.”
She laughs when she recalls performing as Joan, alongside Lily Savage, at London’s Royal Albert Hall for Stonewall. “To have 5,000 people booing you is pretty terrific!” she says, of having to walk up and down the stage – in full uniform, snarling – while the booing died down.
“My experience is quite different, it’s so interesting,” Rabe considers. “There has been a lot more representation of gay and lesbian characters on screen since then and my version of Joan has come along post a period where there was a lot of sensitivity around ‘why are all gay characters evil’. Why there was a sense that this perversional corruption was linked with their sexuality.
“I hope that this version now, we’re getting a lot more variety and breadth of personalities or types so that people can kind of distinguish between. That human beings come in all different shapes and sizes, moralities, sensibilities, sexualities. I hope we’ve moved through that and people are seeing that Joan Ferguson in this 21st century reincarnation is not saying anything about equating one’s sexuality with one’s morality.”
She says that she’s constantly moved by correspondence from people who connect with her disconnected, repressed version of Joan. “They’re on the cusp of adulthood – teenage girls I get letters from. A lot of people who feel they’re having to hide themselves, I get amazing letters from people in the military in the US – people who are having to keep who they are under a bushel. I feel very moved. That’s some of the best interaction with people who watch the show.”
One of the many groundbreaking moments in the original 1979 to 1986 run of Prisoner was the depiction of same-sex relationships between women. One of those was for Joan herself, who dated fellow officer Terri. “My reaction to that scripting,” Kirkpatrick recalls, “Somebody was trying to tell me how to play it all, how lesbians break up. I said, ‘people break up.’ I’ve had enough relationships in my life to know what the dynamic is and it’s the same, whether it’s two women, two men or one of each!”
While it seems Ferguson might finally have moved on from Wentworth, her legacy is intact – for fans across the world, and for the people and characters that a bold “bull-dyke” broke down sometimes wobbly walls for.
Catch upon Wentworth Prison on 5Star, Amazon Prime and DVD, Prisoner: Cell Block H is on DVD. For more details of how to meet the stars, visit screenstarevents.com
Words: Darren Scott