'Wentworth'. (Photo: Ben King)

When Foxtel first began to craft with Fremantle Wentworth back in 2011, the hope was it would sit comfortably alongside the service’s premium HBO and BBC dramas.

While based on Reg Watson’s long-running ’80s drama Prisoner, and suitably honouring its legacy, it was not designed to a be remake. The desire was to see a modern reimagining of the characters; one that was ambitious and bold.

“We wanted to make something great for Foxtel and set the bar high. It was all part of our hopes for what we could do in the future,” executive producer and former Foxtel head of drama Penny Win recalls to IF.

Originally created by Lara Radulovich and David Hannam, former Fremantle Australia CEO Ian Hogg pitched Foxtel director of television Brian Walsh the series over a meal in Cannes.

By December that year, early plotting was underway, with journalist and critics Michael Idato and Andrew Mercado’s input – both Prisoner superfans – and by January the writers room came together.

For Win, in assembling that early cast and crew, there was an alchemy doesn’t often happen in television. There was so much joy, and respect for the original Prisoner. That kept going through all the years, even as Wentworth “became its own beast”.

It’s an alchemy that arguably helped the series become Foxtel’s highest rating and most successful locally produced drama, sold to 173 territories, including United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Canada, Israel, Finland, Japan and the US, where it has placed in the top 10 of Netflix’s most watched series.

Tonight, after eight seasons and nine years on air, Wentworth will conclude on Foxtel tonight with its 100th episode.

While it leaves behind a legacy of runaway success, no one ever expected it to get as big as it did.

Speaking at a Wentworth reunion event last week, executive producer and former Fremantle head of scripted Jo Porter reflected Wentworth has shown a way forward for local content on the world stage.

“For this incredibly Australian show to capture a local audience and then go on to find success globally… it’s almost part of a second wave of where Australian content can go, globally. That’s something I’m really proud that I was part of.”

For Win, it has resonated with audiences because of its nuanced portrayal of its characters; of the “dark and the light”.

“There was a lot of love in that show. There was obviously a lot of violence. We did like to kill people, but it was all contextual (laughs).”

Over its course, Wentworth has helped to launch and propel careers. Its cast list over its eight seasons is lengthy, including among it Danielle Cormack, Nicole da Silva, Pamela Rabe, Celia Ireland, Katrina Milosevic, Kate Atkinson, Robbie Magasiva, Kris McQuade, Shareena Clanton, Tammy Macintosh, Leah Purcell, Sigrid Thornton, Kate Jenkinson, Jacqueline Brennan, Bernard Curry, Rarriwuy Hick, Susie Porter, Zoe Terakes, Kate Box, Jane Hall, Zoe Terakes, Vivienne Awosoga and Marta Dusseldorp.

Win believes the series will be remembered for its number of complex female roles.

“It will be in history, in terms of what it did for the industry, in showcasing all those amazing female actors,” she says.

“A diverse cast on many levels, which was part of the discussion we had from the beginning, that it had to be. It just had to be.”

Like Porter and Win, a number of crew are credited across all 100 episodes, including casting director Nathan Lloyd, production designer Kate Saunders, and costume designer Michael Davies. Many others, like originating director Kevin Carlin and writer Pete McTighe, have continued to work on the show across seasons.

For script producer and writer Marcia Gardner, who has led the writing team since season two, the show has felt like a family.

She was drawn to Wentworth initially because – in the years before streaming services were on our shores – working with Foxtel afforded a writer a different sort of freedom in the television landscape.

“They took more risks. They weren’t as conservative. So it was an opportunity to do something that with with less constraints than what you would normally get on a commercial network. That was really exciting. You could swear. There was there was a tolerance for more violence, more challenging story material; the characters that weren’t necessarily likeable,” she tells IF.

But writing 100 episodes of a show, set within a confined space, is a challenge. Plotlines for Wentworth were notoriously guarded.

“Everything has to happen within those four walls. So it is a challenge to to find stories that are going to be really engaging and make it feel fresh. And of course, that got more and more and more difficult the longer we went on, because we had done so many things,” Gardner says.

“But the answer to that was always within character. We refreshed the cast a couple of times throughout over the seasons. That was really the only thing we could change, was to change cast.

“And also developing characters that were really, complex, rich and multi-faceted; who could do really bad things but you were always still conscious of their humanity.”

As for the ending, Gardner hopes they have brought it to a conclusion that audiences will find satisfying.

“I think we’ve maintained the truth of the characters to the very end.”

As Wentworth ends, Foxtel is gearing up to go into production next month on courtroom drama The Twelve, produced by Liz Watts and Warner Bros. Television International Australia. Other Foxtel commissions for 2022 include Love Me (a Binge order) and a second season of Upright.

Wentworth concludes tonight on Fox Showcase at 8.30pm.

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