Porridge was a British situation comedy that was broadcast on BBC1 from 1973 to 1977, running for three series, two Christmas specials, as well as a feature film. Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, it stars Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale as two criminals in the fictional HMP Slade in Cumberland.
In a 2004 BBC poll of the 100 greatest British sitcoms, it was voted number 7. "Doing porridge" was British slang for a spell of imprisonment in the 70s, as porridge was once a traditional breakfast in UK prisons. It was followed by the sequel series, Going Straight.
In the second installment, "Prisoner and Escort", a prisoner, Norman Stanley Fletcher (played by Barker), was being escorted from London to Slade Prison by two warders: the easy-going Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde) and the stern Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay).
After a long train journey, Fletch asks to relieve himself at the tiny station where the prison minibus is waiting to take them to the prison. He relieves himself into the petrol tank, and when the van stops in the middle of the moors, Mackay strides off to the prison for help. Fletch encourages Barrowclough to spend the night in an abandoned cottage. Here, Fletch escapes and spends the night running around the moors. He eventually discovers a second empty property and hides within it. Fletch finds that he is not alone, and prepares to attack his companion. Only then does it become obvious that the other resident is Barrowclough, and that the cottage is indeed the same one from which he had set off. Back at the prison, Mackay tells Fletch that the petrol tank was fuller than when last checked, and that it was 'definitely not 5-star'. Thus started the humorous conflict between Mackay and Fletch.
A year later, when the BBC were looking for a premise for a sitcom in which Barker could star, this episode was chosen. (The first Seven of One programme was also developed into a series: Open All Hours.)
Each episode begins with a narration by the judge (voiced by Ronnie Barker):
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 prison exterior shown in the title sequence (and some episodes) is that of Maidstone Prison, which was also featured in the BBC comedy series Birds of a Feather. In the episode "Pardon Me" Fletcher speaks to Blanco in the prison gardens: this sequence was filmed in the grounds of an old brewery just outside Baldock on the A505 to Royston. The barred windows closely approximated a prison. This property has since been demolished. The 1979 film was shot entirely at Chelmsford Prison (Essex UK).
Below is a list of the crimes various characters were in for and the sentences they received.
The programme's scriptwriters appear, uncredited, outside Fletch and Godber's cell in the episode No Peace for the Wicked.
|Prisoner and Escort||1 April 1973||Norman Stanley Fletcher, a career criminal, and his escorts - soft-hearted Mr Barrowclough and authoritarian Mr Mackay - make the journey on New Years Eve from London up to Slade Prison in Cumberland.|
|New Faces, Old Hands||5 September 1974||Three new inmates have arrived at Slade Prison Cyril Heslop serving three yeras, Norman Stanley. Fletcher serving five years and Lennie Godber serving two years. Mr Mackay inducttes the new inmates into the prison and askes Flecher what a typical prison day is. Mr Barrowclough issues the prisoners with there prison number, before the prisoners have a medical.|
|The Hustler||12 September 1974||Fletch's gambling enterprise runs into trouble at the hands of Ives and Mackay.|
|A Night In||19 September 1974||Set entirely in Fletch and Godber's cell, this episode sees the two ponder life in prison|
|A Day Out||26 September 1974||Fletch, Godber, Ives and some other prisoners go out on a work party, but Fletch escapes for a pint.|
|Ways And Means||3 October 1974||New prisoner McLaren proves troublesome, and Fletch decides to help him out but ends up on the roof.|
|Men Without Women||10 October 1974||Fletch fancies himself as a bit of an agony aunt and is called upon by his fellow inmates to help out, before discovering his own marriage is in trouble.|
|Just Desserts||24 October 1975||Fletch is appalled when some nerk nicks his tin of pineapple chunks.|
|Heartbreak Hotel||31 October 1975||Godber attacks another prisoner after receiving a Dear John letter from his girlfriend.|
|Disturbing The Peace||7 November 1975||The prisoners are overjoyed when Mackay leaves on a course, until they meet his replacement who Fletcher has met during one of his past stints in prison.|
|No Peace For The Wicked||14 November 1975||Fletch's attempts to get a bit of peace and quiet are constantly interrupted.|
|Happy Release||21 November 1975||Mackay is desperate to prove that Fletch is faking an injury to get out of work, and Blanco devises a plan for revenge.|
|The Harder They Fall||28 November 1975||Godber is a clear favourite to win his boxing match until genial Harry Grout has different ideas.|
|No Way Out||24 December 1975||45 Mins||In his innocence, Godber is looker forward to Christmas, but Fletch just wants a quiet sojourn in the prison hospital. As he says: "There's one big event around here, it's not the come of the Lord - It's the tunnelling of Tommy Slocombe". Just as Fletcher's 'old knee injury' wins him a trip to the local civilian hospital for a full check up and x-ray, 'Genial' Harry Grout decides to call in a favour. Fletch receives a gift from one of the nurses, the nurse turns out to be helping with the escape as the present was a passport for 'Tommy Slocombe'.|
|The Desperate Hours||24 December 1976||40 Mins||Christmas behind bars might not be so bad. Fletcher and Godber have spent months fermenting their illicit cell-brew liquor "Chateau Slade" and is ready for tasting. Mackay has discovered the illicit cell-brew and Fletcher and Godber find themselves in front of 'The Governor' - Reg Urwin is planning to take him hostage, but has to do with Mr Barrowclough. Will Fletcher save the day even if it means helping out a screw?|
|A Storm In A Teacup||18 February 1977||Grouty recruits Fletch to solve a problem regarding some missing pills.|
|Poetic Justice||25 February 1977||Fletch is irate to discover that his new cell-mate is the judge that sentenced him.|
|Rough Justice||4 March 1977||A kangaroo court is set up to convict Harris for stealing the judge's watch.|
|Pardon Me||11 March 1977||Blanco refuses parole, so Fletch sets up an appeal committee to get him pardoned.|
|A Test of Character||18 March 1977||Fletch is determined to help Godber pass his History O-level, so he has Warren steal the papers.|
|Final Stretch||25 March 1977||Godber is finally released on parole, but Fletch is suspicious about his daughter's holiday plans.|
"What fans could never know, however, unless they had been subjected to a stint of Her Majesty's Pleasure, was that the conflict between Fletcher and Officer Mackay was about the most authentic depiction ever of the true relationship that exists between prisoners and prison officers in British jails up and down the country. I'm not sure how, but writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais [...] grasped the notion that it is the minor victories against the naturally oppressive prison system that makes prison life bearable."
He also noted:
"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."
Novelisations of the three series of Porridge and the film were issued by BBC Books, as well as an adaptation of Going Straight.