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Porridge (TV series)

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.

History

Porridge originated from an idea used in a 1973 series called Seven of One, also starring Barker. Each of its seven 30-minute episodes saw him playing a new character in a different setting.

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.)

Television

Basic premise

The central character of Porridge is Norman Stanley Fletcher, described by his sentencing judge as "an habitual criminal". Fletch's cellmate is Lennie Godber, a naïve inmate serving his first prison sentence, whom Fletch takes under his wing. Mr Mackay is a tough warder whose bark often turns out to be worse than his bite, and with whom Fletch often comes into conflict. Mackay's subordinate, Mr Barrowclough, is more sympathetic and timid — and therefore prone to manipulation by his charges.

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).

Crimes and punishments

Below is a list of the crimes various characters were in for and the sentences they received.

  • Fletcher - Theft: stole a lorry (tractor trailer) and crashed it into a row of gardens when the brakes failed (5 years)
  • Godber - Breaking and entering (2 years)
  • Blanco - Wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, although he did kill his wife's lover; a crime for which he was not convicted.
  • Hislop - Robbery (3 years)
  • McClaren - (3 years)
  • Keegan - Murder: poisoning his wife
  • Jarvis - Football hooliganism (5 more years)
  • Harris - Mugged an old lady - but it went wrong when he found she had a brick in her handbag and successfully pinned Harris down.
  • Rawley - Bribery

Cast

The programme's scriptwriters appear, uncredited, outside Fletch and Godber's cell in the episode No Peace for the Wicked.

Episode list

Each episode 30 minutes except where stated.

Pilot

Title Airdate Description
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.

Series 1 (1974)

Title Airdate Description
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.

Series 2 (1975)

Title Airdate Description
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.

Christmas Specials

Title Airdate Duration Description
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?

Series 3 (1977)

Title Airdate Description
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.

Going Straight

In 1978, a follow-up series to Porridge was made, entitled Going Straight. This featured Fletcher having been paroled and attempting to remain on the straight and narrow. It also featured Richard Beckinsale returning as Godber, in a relationship with Fletch's daughter, Ingrid (whom he married in the final episode), and Nicholas Lyndhurst as Fletcher's dim son, Raymond. The episodes regularly saw Fletcher offered temptations to commit crime and followed his reluctance to find work. The series lasted six episodes, and generally was not as well received as its predecessor. Following the sudden death of Beckinsale, Ronnie Barker decided not to proceed with a second series though the first series did win a BAFTA in March 1979 just days after Beckinsale died. A visibly upset Barker told the audience at the ceremony that the loss of Beckinsale meant he could not celebrate the award.

Life Beyond the Box

In 2003, a mockumentary was produced detailing how Fletch's life had panned out in the 25 years since his release. The majority of the programme featured the surviving cast members, in character, with Ronnie Barker featuring in the last few minutes as Fletcher.

See also

Essential viewing for prisoners

Porridge was immensely popular with British prisoners. Erwin James, an ex-prisoner who writes a bi-weekly column for The Guardian newspaper, stated that:

"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."

Contributions to the English language

The script allowed the prisoners to swear without offending viewers by using the word "naff" in place of ruder words ("Naff off!", "Darn your own naffing socks", "Doing next to naff all"), thereby popularising a word that had been recorded at least as early as 1966. Ronnie Barker did not claim to have invented it, and in a television interview in 2003 it was explained to him on camera what the word meant, as he hadn't a clue. A genuine neologism was "nerk", which was used in place of the more offensive "berk" (Cockney rhyming slang, short for "Berkeley Hunt"). Another term was "scrote" (presumably derived from scrotum), meaning a nasty, unpleasant person.

Novelisations

Novelisations of the three series of Porridge and the film were issued by BBC Books, as well as an adaptation of Going Straight.

References

External links

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