Pamela Rabe indulges her nasty streak

SADISTIC: Pamela Rabe plays fearsome new prison governor, Joan “The Freak” Ferguson on Wentworth.

The characters had ripper nicknames like The Freak, Queen Bea, Boomer and Vinegar Tits.

The sets were cobbled together from hardboard so flimsy you could see the walls wobble if someone slammed a door.

To heighten the mood and disguise the low-budget sets, the lighting was dimmed down until everything looked as grey as an incoming storm cloud.

There were steamy lesbian liaisons in the prison laundry, heroin overdoses in the dunnies, pervy prison wardens, amorous electricians. There were drug-induced flashbacks, gratuitous cavity searches, riots, suicides, arsons, and alarming outbreaks of forced cunnilingus.

There were bashings for Africa; if a new inmate clashed with the tough old chick who was “top dog”, she might find her life leaking away on the shower-block linoleum, having been stabbed through the heart with a sharpened toothbrush.

A melodramatic soap opera that recalled a badass Neighbours, set behind bars, cult Aussie series Prisoner ran for a marathon 692 episodes between 1979 and 1986, its far-fetched stories derived from the power struggles of inmates and staff within a women’s prison in Melbourne. Viewers loved it. Like Acca Dacca, budgie smugglers and shark nets, the thing became an Australian institution.

“Oh, good god, yes,” says Pamela Rabe, one of Australia’s greatest actresses. “And not just here in Australia, either. It screened all over the world. I grew up in Canada, but my Australian husband got me watching it over there on late-night TV. When we moved out here in 1983, I discovered just how much people loved it and the huge effect it had on popular culture.” (more…)

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Actor Pamela Rabe on playing character Governor Joan Ferguson on Foxtel’s TV drama Wentworth

WANTED: One prison governor who can disarm electrocution devices, efficiently kill an inmate and stage it as a suicide, steal a dying woman’s pain meds, and still peel off her black leather gloves with a satisfied snap at the end of the day.

Such is life for new Governor Joan Ferguson on Foxtel’s dark Prisoner remake, Wentworth. The manipulative prison boss finally showed her sociopathic depths in a shocking episode last week — pausing only to pat her hair bun into place after dispatching inmate Simmo (Ally Fowler), who was inadvertently about to ruin her schemes.

“She’s single-minded,” Pamela Rabe says of the puppet-master she plays with delicious cunning.

“Extraordinarily strong-willed, highly principled, very demanding, somebody who believes the ends justify the means — everyone is expendable.

“I think she’s utterly convinced she does things for the right reason, but she absolutely demands allegiance . . . and also enjoys extracting facts from people.

“As the scripts come in I’m like, ‘Oh my lord!’,” she says with a hearty cackle.

Rabe, 55, is sitting in a rickety chair at a rustic Northbridge cafe, sipping tea. Her long hair is swinging loose (not a bun in sight), her height is imposing, her movements fluid and feline. Rabe is the first to admit she’s hard to miss.

Wentworth star Pamela Rabe who plays Governor Joan Ferguson, aka The Freak. Credit: Foxtel, Foxtel/Ben KingWentworth star Pamela Rabe who plays Governor Joan Ferguson, aka The Freak. Credit: Foxtel, Foxtel/Ben King

“When you’re built the way I am and look the way I do you tend to get offered a lot of strong female roles and a lot of those roles are occasionally quite nasty,” she says.

“And they don’t come much stronger or nastier than this. So when the phone call came I was like, ‘Oh! That’s just great’.”

Ferguson is based on Prisoner’s predatory guard dubbed “The Freak”, played by Rabe’s friend Maggie Kirkpatrick.

Rabe says her version of the character, whose “work is her life”, hides many secrets behind her controlled mask.

“I suspect underneath water level, those legs are going rather fast,” she grins. “I think there’s room for unexpected things that can be revealed.”

So do these hidden depths include Ferguson being gay, as the original was?

“I’m not yet sure how completely in touch with all of that she is,” Rabe says after a pause.

“Maybe she is (gay) or she’s just pretending something else. She’s such a player. She gets a huge amount of sexual pleasure out of the games she plays.” (more…)

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Wentworth Season 2’s New Governor Gets Sadistic

Cruelty, sadism – it’s all there in the new governor’s hairstyle.

“Give me the stuff of nightmares.”

That was Pamela Rabe’s suggestion to hair and make-up artist Troy Follington when it came to creating the hairdo of Wentworth Detention Centre’s formidable new governor, Joan Ferguson.

Pamela Rabe as Joan Ferguson in Wentworth‘The menace of quixotic tyranny’: Pamela Rabe (right) recreates Joan Ferguson in season two of Wentworth. | Photo by Ben King

They played around with a few different styles, before they realised that of all the Wentworth characters that owe their ancestry to the original Prisoner, Joan was the one whose accessorising bordered on the iconic.

The original Joan ”The Freak” Ferguson had a pair of black leather gloves, which she would ceremoniously don to conduct her infamous body searches.

It was a signature of the humiliating, cruel, yet random power that The Freak exercised over her minions.


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Pamela Rabe locked on a new Joan Ferguson

Pamela Rabe is as ready as she can be for the reaction that is about to follow for her debut as Joan Ferguson on Wentworth.

Mindful that Maggie Kirkpatrick’s original creation of the role in the iconic Prisoner would elicit hostile reactions from fans on the street, she concedes, “I’m sure even this incarnation of the 21st century Joan Ferguson is going to piss a lot of people off.”

But what a role to play.

“With this character being so iconic in its creation, the execution in Maggie’s hands and peoples’ memories of how Officer Joan Ferguson existed, I get the sense that how Joan Ferguson, now Governor, enters into the prison environment is with a few more noticeable nods to the original creation,” she says.

“So you will see black gloves, an element of a fairly delicious disjunct with what people would consider a ‘sociable emotion of feeling’ and her strategies and objectives.

“She’s described by some other characters as a psychopath. There’s something in the way Joan has risen amongst the ranks that taps into those original characteristics of Joan Ferguson.”

Rabe hadn’t seen the first season of Wentworth when she was approached for the role, but she had seen some of Prisoner on Canadian TV where she grew up.

“They used to play Prisoner: Cell Block H on television, right after Don Lane, late night.

“They went to 24 hour programming before Australia so there was a lot of hours to fill.

“By the time I arrived in 1983 it was already part of Australian culture.

“I was aware of the characters, and particularly Joan Ferguson, enough to know I needn’t have any hesitation.” (more…)

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MAKE IT SNAPPY – Pamela Rabe & Philip Quast about “His Girl Friday”


NOBODY says “Stop the presses!” any more. But they do in the theatre. In His Girl Friday, hardboiled newspaper editor Walter Bums leans into an upright telephone and barks out the immortal words: “Listen to me, I want you to tear out the whole front page. That’s what I said, the whole front page!”

In the same play, ace reporter Hildy Johnson tells her boss: “The paper’ll have to learn to do without me . . . I’m through … peeking through keyholes, running after fire engines, waking people up in the middle of the night.”

“It is language from another era,” actor Pamela Rabe tells me, “but it is delicious.”

Rabe plays Johnson and Philip Quast is Burns in a new Melbourne Theatre Company production of His Girl Friday. And meeting these expert actors at Little Press, a bar on Flinders St, they look the part — as if they’ve just walked out of a Chicago newsroom in the 1930s.

Pamela Rabe & Philip Quast | Photos by Ben SwinnertonMore importantly, Rabe and Quast sound right They’re relishing the rapid-fire repartee penned by former Chicago journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and finding the pace that powered Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in the celebrated 1940 Hollywood version.

Quast says of Howard Hawks’ famous screwball comedy: “Its fast, all right At the time of the movie, it must have been a bit shocking to audiences. They’d never really experienced that before.”

Rabe agrees: “I think what the writers wanted to replicate was the sound of a newsroom. That cacophony of typewriting and chatter. Today, of course, you’d say it goes at the speed of tweets.”

Sounds like verbal ping pong …
Rabe: “More like tennis, really.”
Quast: “Yeah. There are definite baseline rallies.
“Then we move to the net where there are volleys … and that’s a different rhythm. Boom, boom, boom.
“Someone scores a point. Next serve.”
Rabe: “Stretching the tennis analogy, there are times when there are almost 15 people on stage and then it’s not singles or doubles … its a very crowded court.” (more…)

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Lunch with Pamela Rabe: reserved and revealing

PAMELA Rabe is one of those actors, like Robyn Nevin, whose performances are so invariably intoxicating that I sign up to see her regardless of the production she’s in. Well, almost. I didn’t leap to see The Wizard of Oz but that’s just me being a chronic snob. Rabe, who is not, and who played the Wicked Witch of the West in that exceptionally popular musical, rated it a career highlight.

I can imagine her relishing the chance to be wicked. She has a palpably mischievous streak, a sharp mind, a keen wit, a coy way of arching her splendidly shaped brows and of slipping phrases such as ”f—ability factor” into conversation with such refinement you’re left wondering if you heard right.

Lunch with Pamela RabeRabe is a delectable combination of reserved and revealing, polished and provocative. Today she’s wearing a feline-sleek, tailored black pants suit with a silky shirt that plunges to such depths that one must make a mental note not to look. Sitting on a plump, leather banquette, she effortlessly commands attention. The ah, X-factor, she’s still got it, even at 52 , even though she says her looks have never defined her as an actor.

”In fact, the only thing I would consider as an advantage is that I tend to have fairly flexible looks that change. I’m not known for my face, which is a great privilege, I say.” (more…)

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