I was once in a pub where an episode of Porridge was on the telly situated in the corner. Only, the sound was turned right down so no one could hear it. I caught sight of it and before too long; I was speaking along with the lines that all the characters were saying. In fact, I knew that episode so well, I was word perfect. So much so, that the fella I was with could keep up with what was going on in the show.
That’s how much I love that series. For me, it is the ultimate in TV sitcoms. Half hour of pure gold, with each one perfect in the writing, acting and casting. Rarely, if ever, does it put a foot wrong. It’s simply a master class.
Porridge lasted three series, with twenty-one episodes in total, plus a couple of Xmas specials and a feature film also being made in 1979. That featured a pro celebrity football team turning up to play a match against Slade prison.
Buck Tarbush anyone?
Throughout the series, the lead character Fletch, is seen trying to gain a small victory over the warders in his prison. His chief target is Mr Mackay, the head ‘screw.’ For Fletch, a victory might be nicking a bag of sugar from the stores, having it away with the bicycle pump off a warder’s bike, or, smuggling a book out of the prison library. Each of those small victories helped to make the days inside bearable.
It all began in 1973, created by the celebrated writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The BBC were looking for TV vehicles for their star performer Ronnie Barker and commissioned seven different pilot shows, with the most successful going on to be made into a series. One show entitled ‘Prisoner and Escort’ won the day and the series was commissioned and re-named ‘Porridge,’ a slang word commonly used when referring to a prison sentence being served, as in ‘he’s doing a bit of porridge…’
So, Ronnie Barker starred as the aforementioned Fletch –or Normal Stanley Fletcher to ‘er indoors. Richard Beckinsale was his cellmate, Lenny Godber, though Barker revealed a few years ago, that actor Paul Henry – Benny from Crossroads – was his personal first choice to play that role.
Anyway, Godber is a first timer inside and therefore grateful that Fletch decides to take him under his wing ‘to show him the ropes like.’ Fulton Mackay played Mr Mackay with Brian Wilde as Mr Barrowclough a nervous nelly of a prison warder and one Fletch takes advantage of on many occasions. All of the action takes place in HMP Slade, said to be based in Cumberland. In fact the frontage of the prison shown in the opening titles, was actually St Albans prison, now long gone.
The first episode ’New Faces Old Hands’ began on 5th September 1974 and gained an audience of 16 million viewers. The show was off and running and became a nations favourite. The final episode ‘Final Stretch’ was broadcast in March 1977. The demand for more was there, but Barker was keen to avoid getting stuck in one role and wanted to move on to new work. One series of ‘Going Straight’ followed in 1978, which followed Fletch’s attempt to keep out of prison. In it, we find Godber has married Fletch’s daughter Ingrid. His son Raymond was played a particular gormless looking Nichols Lyndhurst. In truth, despite many of the same cast and the same writers, it wasn’t a patch on ‘Porridge.’
If proof were needed, that show is still remembered 40 odd years later for its legendary catchphrases and classic lines that flowed from the scripts. Such as…
‘Darn your own naffing socks’
‘You despicable nerk’
‘What a scrote’
‘What from here?’
‘Lovely Babs. No idea what her name was’
‘What with these feet?’
As mentioned earlier, the casting was also top drawer with many of the characters featured going down in TV folklore.
Ladies and gents, I give you…
Peter Vaughan as Genial Harry Grout.
Sam Kelly as Bunny Warren.
Tony Osoba as McLaren.
Christopher Biggins as Lukewarm.
David Jason as Blanco Webb.
Ken Jones as Bernard ‘Horrible’ Ives.
Patricia Brake as Ingrid Fletcher.
Maurice Denham as the Honourable Mr Justice Stephen Rawley.
Brian Glover as Cyril Heslop.
Ronald Lacey as Harris, and
Dudley Sutton as Reg Urwin.
Ex real life prisoner and future Guardian columnist, Erwin James once wrote ‘When I was inside, Porridge was a staple of our TV diet. In one high-security prison, a video orderly would be dispatched to tape the programme each week. If they missed it, they were in trouble.’
In truth I can never turn off an episode if I stumble across one, whilst surfing the channels. If I stop and listen, just for a few seconds, its job done, I have to stay to its end.
So, if like me, you are a fan, please now join me in the Lords Prayer….
‘Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court, and it is now my duty to pass sentence. You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences; you will go to prison for five years. ‘
The Mumper of SE5
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