She was one of the most loved and recognisable faces on Australian TV, playing villain and ‘Top Dog’ Bea Smith in Prisoner.
But actress Val Lehman, 75, has now admitted she misses the 12-hour days and busy work schedule she once had. While the mother-of-three and grandmother-of-seven has embraced retirement and a quiet island life, she often finds herself reflecting on her true love and biggest passion in life – acting.
Speaking in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60, the legendary TV star said: “What people don’t understand is, when you’ve had a life and worked as hard as I have in some shows, you miss it terribly. I’m afraid I tend to find myself sitting and waiting for my life to start again, a lot.”
While Val enjoys a very close relationship with her family, she added: “I’d rather be working than anything else, and I’m still capable.
“But there’s not the work. I had far more work when I lived in England than I’ve had here. I came back from England and had no work for 10 years. I came back to nothing.”
For 692 episodes, Prisoner kept Australians glued to their TV sets. The series that first aired in 1979 garnered a huge audience of over a million viewers on average for every episode. The show was even a powerhouse overseas ranking as the number two highest rated show when it premiered in the US.
Central to that success was Val’s lead character Bea, and she said she’s still shocked at how successful the series has remained for all these years.
However, she joked: “It’s amazing it’s lasted this long, but I’m obviously not popular enough to get invited to the Logies this year, which I thought was a bit rude – I’ve got three of them! They’re too long ago I think that’s the problem.”
She explained the TV show began with a nine-week contract and experts even predicted it wouldn’t prove to be a success. It only made it to air when a producer put it out to market research and it instantly proved a hit with the public.
Val jumped at the chance to play Bea at the time, and said: “Who wouldn’t enjoy playing her? She was indomitable and never wrong!”
She went on to dedicate huge chunks of her life in the ’70s and ’80s to a tight filming schedule, and she admitted: “I don’t think anyone realises these days how many hours we worked. I was contracted to 12 hours a day, but I know for a fact I did more scenes than anyone else.
“My record was actually shooting 21 scenes in one day. When I tell English and American actresses that, they don’t believe me… We were producing 96 hours a year, nobody does that anymore.”
She added: “I never got to see my family! I’d go off to start work at 4.30am and finish at 9.30 at night. My daughter once turned to me and said ‘mother, you have no life’. Although I have to say I’d do it again tomorrow. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than working.”
Bea’s daughter Cassandra actually joined her for one repeated scene on the show, as her character’s drug-addict daughter, while her other daughter Joanne joined for three more scenes too.
Val is now a proud grandmother of seven grandkids, and she joked: “All of my children are now in their 50s! They don’t pay any attention to anything I did, they’re not interested. Not the slightest bit interested!”
She split from her second husband Charles Collins in 2005 and has ruled out another relationship in the future, happy instead with her independence.
“I never meet anybody, I live on an island! I’m 75, I’m not anyone’s idea of a fabulous partner I don’t think!” She said. “I really don’t think there’s anyone round who could put up with me, which is a great shame. I’ve been living on my own now for about 12 years. I’ve never had a problem with my own company.”
Despite the show coming to an end and being replaced by TV shows including Wentworth and Orange Is The New Black, Val has remained busy planning regular events and reunions between the original cast, as well as raising money for a charity close to her heart – Positive Women.
“It takes care of women and their families. I thought, what a wonderful name – especially for us in Prisoner, a cast full of women. That was unusual in 1978, predominantly women dealing with women’s problems: Physical violence, incest, all those sorts of things. I thought it suited perfectly,” she explained.
Prisoner was depicting life behind bars for women way before Orange is the New Black or Wentworth aired. It was a massive program for Channel Ten and its production house Grundy Television Productions.
Val is now planning a big reunion for fans of Prisoner, old and new, and plans to invite up to 15 members of the original cast along. It will take place on Sunday, February 24, next year in Melbourne, and bookings are due to open shortly.
She’s also busy helping with the launch of an entire series of Prisoner action dolls hitting market later this year. Of course, Bea will be the first one available.