That’s me and Betty Bobbitt, otherwise known as notorious Wentworth inmate Judy Bryant. I just ran into her on Friday. You might not know who she is. Let me explain.
Anyone who knows me is aware of my obsession with Prisoner, an Australian soap from the 1980s. When I was a kid, and DVD was just a distant dream, I used to wonder whether it would ever be possible (or whether anyone would be mad enough) to own every episode of a soap, without having to videotape them all and keep them in a cupboard.
Luckily, someone was mad enough to do so with all 692 episodes of Prisoner, which is also currently being rerun in its entirety on Foxtel in Australia.
In the main it has held up incredibly well, other bits are an intriguing time capsule of societal attitudes to women, lesbians, gays, and issues such as abortion and domestic violence.
Clearly made on a limited budget, this is a women’s detention centre which seems to have little more than two corridors and a stairwell.
The camp factor is often high, with outrageous characters and high-drama episode endings sometimes involving little more than a stolen packet of biscuits. At other times, it veers toward the violent with shootings, drownings, escapes, and scaldings in the laundry steam-press.
And every now and then it even tugs at the heartstrings, particularly when confronting issues surrounding ageing, loneliness, and an inability to fit into the outside world which leaves some characters making tragic mistakes and returning to prison when they’re finally released.
Early on in the series, actress Betty Bobbitt audtioned for a new character the writers had labelled a “diesel dyke” (charming) named Judy Bryant. Bobbitt didn’t go down the stereotype route in her portrayal, and the character became one of Prisoner’s best and well-loved characters.
Initially only taken on for a run for thirteen episodes with an intention of being killed off (the fate of most gay characters in TV shows), she was so popular with audiences that the writers gave her a pacemaker to save her failing heart – and instead had her sex-symbol girlfriend pushed down the stairs by an evil Scottish prison guard. You can’t have too many lesbians around, after all.
More than two decades on, the show is still incredibly popular, particularly in the UK, where it has true cult status. On Friday, Melbourne’s gay bookstore Hares & Hyenas hosted a Q&A evening with Betty Bobbitt who has just a released a memoir of her time on the show called “From The Outside”.
It’s not only a great treasure trove of anecdotes from the making of the show, but a fascinating look into what it was like to play one of television’s first sympathetic lesbian characters, while secretly being a lesbian in real life.
Bobbitt raised her two sons by herself, and didn’t find herself a long term partner until the early 1990s, Mig Dann, who she has now been with for 22 years. Towards the end of the book, she thanks Mig for helping to have “the life that Judy Bryant longed to live”.
The Judy Bryant character was allowed no more than the occasional fling, and when things looked like they were going too far, the phones would run hot with indignant callers expressing their disgust: they liked Judy, but not her proclivities. Love the sinner, hate the sin, right?
Bobbitt often used to get letters from men and women who thanked her for the portrayal and how the character helped them to come to terms with their own sexuality, or to come out. The power of simple visibility is a potent one. The mere fact that Judy Bryant was seen front and centre on a popular TV show, was liked by the other characters and was a “goodie” was enough.
“From The Outside” contains many pointers of the positive effect that we can all have on others without even knowing it. Bobbitt recounts the recording of a pantomime show episode at the real-life men’s prison, Pentridge, and a conversation she struck up with one of the young male prisoners between takes. She’d managed to sneak him some food from the catering table.
“A few months later I received a letter from the young man I’d fed at Pentridge, thanking me for the talk we’d had. He had spoken about his feelings of despair and his fear that he had blown all chances of making a decent life for himself but I’d had no idea that he was contemplating suicide and that our conversation had somehow given him hope.
“Now, about to be released, he was feeling more confident about the future and wanted to let me know that I had helped him reach that point. All I’d done was listen to him and offer a bit of motherly advice. I so hope he has done well.”
That modesty is typical of Bobbitt, who seemed genuinely surprised at the crowd that turned out to hear her speak, both older generations who had seen the show when it first aired and younger people – including one very memorable drunk Irish woman – who had been mere children when it was first on and were rediscovering it now as adults.
A must-read for fans of the show, and those interested in the portrayal of gay characters – and indeed women – on television.