TV

Prisoner’s the Freak and Bea back together at last!

Forget the rumours - Prisoner stars Maggie Kirkpatrick and Val Lehman ARE still great mates.
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In the ’80s, Val Lehman and Maggie Kirkpatrick were forever at each other’s throats. As Prisoner’s original ‘top dog’ Bea Smith, Val went toe-to-toe with Maggie’s sadistic warden Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson – which resulted in some of Aussie TV’s most famous fights!

However, when the two iconic actresses caught up recently for an exclusive shoot with New Idea, there were copious rafter-rattling laughs, jokes about saggy bottoms and countless fond memories of the show.

Watch: Anne Phelan as Myra Desmond in Prisoner 

“For decades there have been rumours that we couldn’t stand each other, but nothing could be further from the truth,” smiles Val as she gives Maggie a warm hug. “It was assumed that because we are two strong women who played fabulously feisty characters, then we must have been at loggerheads in real life.”

The actress, who turns 79 next month, adds that she and Maggie had an instant respect for one another. “I was in awe of her as I’d known her brilliant work in the theatre. Maggie was and always will be a true pro.”

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“For decades there have been rumours that we couldn’t stand each other, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Val. (Credit: New Idea)

Maggie, 81, agrees. While she and Val “may have butted heads once or twice”, it would be incorrect to suggest they were Australia’s answer to infamous Hollywood rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, as media reports at the time insisted.

“I have always said that some of my best work on Prisoner was playing opposite Val,” says Maggie. “She was wonderful to work with, we had an incredible rapport, and I knew with Val she always gave as good as she got.”

During our shoot, Val vividly recalls her first day on the Prisoner set in 1979. “I was with the show from episode one, but I hadn’t done much television work before, so I was as nervous as hell.”

For Val, Bea was a wonderful character to play. She says she’s immeasurably proud of the 400 episodes she starred in.

“[Bea] was indomitable, always up to her neck in drama and chaos – from being bashed and stabbed, suffering amnesia, a suspected brain tumour and kidney failure, to surviving riots and fires. I quit in 1983 because an unpleasant producer had made my life miserable.”

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For Val, Bea was a wonderful character to play. She says she’s immeasurably proud of the 400 episodes she starred in. (Credit: New Idea)

Maggie, a much-revered veteran of stage and screen, reveals she initially auditioned for the role of Vera ‘Vinegar Tits’ Bennett – Prisoner’s original tough-as-nails warden.

“The brilliant Fiona Spence landed the part, and I thought: ‘Well that’s that.’ Spool forward to 1981 and I got word that Ian Bradley [one of the show’s producers] had created the gutsy role of a vicious, imposing lesbian officer especially for me,” says Maggie. “I got the call and leapt at the chance. On went the black leather gloves, the hair was slicked back … and Joan Ferguson became the character viewers loved to hate!”

Maggie and Val are unanimous – Prisoner was groundbreaking, and it gave so many Australian actresses some wonderful opportunities.

“Until then, television in Australia was dominated by men. Prisoner was a show all about women … and real, everyday women, not impeccably coiffed mannequins swishing around in designer gowns,” states Val.

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Maggie, a much revered veteran of stage and screen, reveals she initially auditioned for the role of Vera ‘Vinegar Tits’ Bennett – Prisoner’s original tough-as-nails warden. (Credit: New Idea)

Prisoner became a hit all over the world. It was screened in over 20 countries and has since achieved cult status, especially in the UK. The series also boasted some serious superstar fans.

“Both Sammy Davis Jr and Whoopi Goldberg were devotees, and on trips to Australia visited the set. Sammy was a big fan of The Freak. We began corresponding and became mates,” says Maggie, who admits playing such a controversial role was a double-edged sword.

“Prisoner was only four and a half years of my 61-year showbiz life, but it seems it was all anyone wanted to talk about. Frankly, I got tired of it, but I’ve since mellowed.”

In terms of workload, Prisoner was Val’s most gruelling role to date.

“I recall shooting an astounding 21 scenes in one day,” she says. “We were making 96 hours of television a year. I’d mention that to actors in the US and the UK, and they couldn’t believe it!”

One storyline that looms large in both Maggie and Val’s memory is the fire episode of 1982.

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Maggie, 81, agrees. While she and Val “may have butted heads once or twice”, it would be incorrect to suggest they were Australia’s answer to infamous Hollywood rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, as media reports at the time insisted. (Credit: New Idea)

“Filming was tough,” says Val. “Maggie and I did our own stunts, including a knock-down, drag-out fight. There is no way you could get away with such dangerous work today. We just did what was asked.”

Maggie remembers being in a harness and slipping, bashing her leg painfully against a concrete staircase.

“It was a full-on day – both physically and emotionally shattering,” she says.

In 2019, Maggie released her memoir, The Gloves Are Off, dishing on her tumultuous life that included dalliances with crooks and drug addicts.

“Rock bottom hit hard in 2013 when I was investigated by Victoria police for sexual abuse. A teenage girl had claimed that I’d sexually assaulted her more than 30 years ago in my own home. The charges were absolute rubbish and were eventually quashed, but the nightmare of torment continues,” says Maggie, a great-grandmother.

Val, who is penning her own memoir, was horrified when the scandal broke. “I knew in my heart of hearts there is no way that was true. Simply no way. That’s bound to set the cat among the pigeons. But Prisoner fans will lap it up, I’m sure,” she smiles.

Read more in this week’s New Idea, on sale now.

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