The West

Crime pays for Wentworth

Prison drama Wentworth was like a sucker punch to the jaw last year; unexpected, powerful and bloody.

The first episode of the reimagining of iconic Aussie soap Prisoner was, the most watched locally-made drama ever on Australian subscription television.

More than two million UK viewers tuned in for the debut and Wentworth has been sold to more than 20 countries, with a German version also being made. "The first season was massively successful beyond my expectations," says Perth actress Kate Atkinson, who plays prison guard Vera Bennett.

The SoHo show has been so successful, filming a third season was already under way just weeks after season two wrapped.

"Coming back for a second season, you cannot underestimate the effect that knowing people actually are watching it has on the way we are operating," Atkinson says.

"The worst thing this show could do is rest on its laurels and say 'Look at the massive audience we've got, we don't need to work hard anymore'."

This 12-episode season - which starts next Tuesday - picks up three months after Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) killed Jacs Holt. While Bea has been languishing in the slot, Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva) has risen to the position of top dog unopposed. But the sudden arrival of new governor Joan "The Freak" Ferguson (AFI-winner Pamela Rabe) is about to change all that.

"It's such a joy for me to work with Pamela," Atkinson says. "I've known her for a while but we've never worked at such close quarters and we get these less action-based, more psychological games played between us, and I'm finding it a very interesting place to go."

Joan Ferguson was played by Maggie Kirkpatrick in Prisoner and was infamous for her manipulative, vindictive nature and the body searches she conducted using her trademark black leather gloves.

And if what Atkinson says about Rabe's interpretation is anything to go by, the newest incarnation of Ferguson will leave prisoners and guards shaking in their boots.

"She's like a puppet master and she's playing everyone," Atkinson explains. "Vera needs her because she's pretty much got no one left; the governor is such a canny operator that she is aware completely, almost from the get go, what Vera's weaknesses are and how to play them.

"In this season what she needs is somewhere to belong and some sense of authority, someone who makes her feel trusted and valued, and the only person she gets it from is Ferguson and Ferguson knows that."

Meanwhile, Vera's personal life isn't helping balance out the difficult time she is having at work.

"Her relationship with Fletch (Aaron Jeffery) has some tentative attempts at reconciliation which are blown apart with catastrophic effect," Atkinson says.

"The relationship people saw with her mother also evolves. Her mother becomes very ill so Vera's obligations as a carer become even more exhausting."

All this is steering Vera towards breaking point.

"The little kind of suggestions that she was getting from the world around her, that maybe the way she's operating isn't going to serve her in a prison environment," explains Atkinson.

"Trying to be people's friends and taking care of people isn't always going to work.

"There is something of a metamorphosis.

"It's interesting to me how people who are bullied become the bullies and watching someone struggle with that."

While it's hard to imagine the affable Atkinson snarling at prisoners, the pint- sized actress is ready for the challenge which she says is made easier by an elaborate set.

"Whenever you're in one of these spaces you really feel like you're in that place," she says.

"It does feel like a prison."

Constructed across two floors of on old factory in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton, the set took almost three months to build.

Most of the set is custom built and features fixtures and fittings to prison standard, right down to tamper-proof screws.

"We are in this little enclosure and it does become like this microcosmic world," Atkinson says.

"Thankfully it's a lovely cast and we all get along well because you could easily go a little stir crazy."

Holly Richards visited Melbourne as a guest of Foxtel.

The West Australian

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