Porridge (TV series)

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This article is about the British TV series. For other uses, see Porridge (disambiguation).
"Final Stretch" redirects here. For the video game, see Final Stretch (video game).
Porridge
Porridge title.jpg
Porridge main title.
Format Comedy
Created by Dick Clement and
Ian La Frenais
Written by Dick Clement and
Ian La Frenais
Directed by Sydney Lotterby
Starring Ronnie Barker
Richard Beckinsale
Fulton Mackay
Brian Wilde
Sam Kelly
Tony Osoba
Michael Barrington
Christopher Biggins
David Jason
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of episodes 21 (List of episodes)
Production
Producer(s) Sydney Lotterby
Running time 18 x 30 mins
1 x 40 mins
1 x 45 mins
Broadcast
Original channel BBC1
Original run 5 September 1974 (1974-09-05) – 25 March 1977 (1977-03-25)
Chronology
Followed by Going Straight (1978)

Porridge is a British situation comedy broadcast on BBC1 from 1974 to 1977, running for three series, two Christmas specials and a feature film also titled Porridge (the movie was released under the title Doing Time in the United States). Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, it stars Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale as two inmates at the fictional HMP Slade in Cumberland. "Doing porridge" is British slang for serving a prison sentence, porridge once being the traditional breakfast in UK prisons.

Porridge is widely considered to be one of the greatest British sitcoms of all time. The series was placed 7th in a 2004 BBC poll of the 100 greatest British sitcoms. The series was followed by a 1978 sequel, Going Straight, which established that Fletcher would not be going back to prison again.

History[edit]

The frontage of the former St Albans Prison was used as the fictitious H.M. Prison Slade in Cumberland.

Porridge originated with a 1973 project commissioned by the BBC Seven of One, which would see Ronnie Barker star in seven different situation comedy pilot episodes. The most successful would then be made into a full series.[1] One of the episodes, "Prisoner and Escort", written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who appear in one episode) about a newly convicted criminal, Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker), being escorted to prison by two warders: the timid Mr. Barrowclough (Brian Wilde) and the stern Mr. Mackay (Fulton Mackay). It was broadcast on 1 April 1973 on BBC2.[2] Despite Barker's initial preference for another of the pilots, a sitcom about a Welsh gambling addict, "Prisoner and Escort" was selected. It was renamed Porridge, a slang term for prison; Barker and Clement and La Frenais actually came up with the same title independently of each other.[3]

In their research, Clement and La Frenais spoke to Jonathan Marshall, a former prisoner who had written a book, How to Survive in the Nick, and he advised them about prison slang, dress and routines. Struggling to think up plots and humour for such a downbeat, confined environment, a particular phrase used by Marshall – "little victories" – struck a chord and convinced them to base the series on an inmate who made his daily life in prison more bearable by beating the system, even in trivial ways.[4]

The BBC was forced to look around for locations because the Home Office refused permission for any production filming in or outside a real prison. Instead the main gatehouse of the disused St Albans Prison (in the town's Victoria Street) was used in the opening credits. Exteriors were first filmed at a psychiatric hospital near Watford. However after the completion of the second series, the hospital withdrew permission for more filming following complaints from patients' families. Another institution near Ealing was then used for the third series.[5] Scenes within cells and offices were filmed at the BBC's London studios. But for shots of the wider prison interior, series production designer Tim Gleeson, converted an old water tank, used at Ealing Studios for underwater filming, into a multi-storey set.[6]

The first episode, "New Faces, Old Hands", was aired on BBC1 on 5 September 1974, attracting a television audience of over 16 million, and received positive reviews from critics.[7] Two further series were commissioned, as well as two Christmas special episodes. The final episode of Porridge, "Final Stretch", was broadcast on 25 March 1977.[8] The producers and the writers were keen to make more episodes, but Barker was wary of being "stuck with a character" and also wanted to move on to other projects, so the series came to a close.[9] Barker did, however, reprise his role as Fletcher in a sequel, Going Straight, which ran for one series in 1978. A feature length version of the show was made in 1979 and in 2003 a follow-up mockumentary was aired.[10]

Plot[edit]

The central character of Porridge is Norman Stanley Fletcher, described by his sentencing judge as "a habitual criminal" from Muswell Hill, London. Fletcher is sent to HMP Slade, a fictional Category C prison in Cumberland, alongside his cellmate, Lennie Godber, a naïve inmate from Birmingham serving his first sentence, whom Fletcher takes under his wing. Mr Mackay is a tough warder with whom Fletcher often comes into conflict. Mackay's subordinate, Mr Barrowclough, is more sympathetic and timid – and prone to manipulation by his charges.

Locations[edit]

The prison exterior in the title sequence is the old St Albans prison gatehouse and Maidstone Prison, which was also featured in the BBC comedy series Birds of a Feather. The interior shots of doors being locked were filmed in Shepherds Bush Police Station - the BBC had a good relationship with officers there. In the episode "Pardon Me" Fletcher speaks to Blanco (David Jason) in the prison gardens: this was filmed in the grounds of an old brewery outside Baldock on the A505 to Royston. The barred windows approximated a prison. The building has since been demolished. The 1974 episode "A Day Out", which features a prison work party, was filmed in and around the Welsh village of Penderyn, the prisoners' ditch being excavated by a JCB. In the episode "No Way Out", Fletcher tries to get MacKay to fall into a tunnel in a tarmac area, these outside shots were filmed at Hanwell Asylum in West London, the barred windows in this case, being those of the hospital pharmacy. The 1979 film was shot entirely at Chelmsford Prison, Essex.

Cast[edit]

Ronnie Barker had suggested the part of Lennie Godber for Paul Henry, but the decision was taken to cast Richard Beckinsale by the production team.

Recurring characters[edit]

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

Episode list[edit]

Each episode 30 minutes except where stated.

Pilot (1973)[edit]

No. Title Airdate
Pilot "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)[edit]

No. Title Airdate
1 "New Faces, Old Hands" 5 September 1974
It is Lennie Godber's first time in prison, and Fletcher shows him the ropes, as the two go through the checking-in process along with the rather dim-witted Heslop.
2 "The Hustler" 12 September 1974
Fletch starts an illicit gambling enterprise that soon runs into trouble at the hands of Ives and Mr. Mackay.
3 "A Night In" 19 September 1974
Largely set in relative darkness one evening, with 698 nights left for Godber, within the confines of their cell, Fletcher and Godber ponder life in prison and many other aspects of their lives.
4 "A Day Out" 26 September 1974
Fletch, Godber, Ives and some other prisoners go out on a work party, but, after Ives gets stung by a bee, Fletch is able to escape for a pint at the local pub, on the pretext of getting first aid.
5 "Ways and Means" 3 October 1974
New prisoner McLaren proves troublesome, and Fletch decides to help him out, but they both end up on the roof.
6 "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 his daughter, Ingrid informs him that his own marriage is in trouble.

Series 2 (1975)[edit]

No. Title Airdate
7 "Just Desserts" 24 October 1975
Fletch is appalled when someone steals his tin of pineapple chunks and is determined to catch the culprit. Meanwhile, Godber tries to steal another tin for him.
8 "Heartbreak Hotel" 31 October 1975
After his girlfriend, Denise, breaks up with him via a Dear John letter, Godber assaults a fellow inmate. At the same time, Fletch starts questioning his daughter, Ingrid, over her personal life.
9 "Disturbing the Peace" 7 November 1975
The prisoners are overjoyed when Mackay leaves on a promotion course, until they meet his replacement, Mr Wainwright, whom Fletcher remembers from a previous stretch in Brixton.
10 "No Peace for the Wicked" 14 November 1975
With everyone watching a football match, Fletch attempts to snatch a few precious minutes of peace and quiet, only to suffer constant interruptions, among whom are Mackay and visiting members of the Home Office, who then insist on questioning Fletch about his views on the penal system.
11 "Happy Release" 21 November 1975
Mackay is appalled to discover that Fletch has been severely injured and is in the hospital wing, and Blanco devises a plan for revenge on Norris, who had stolen his possessions some time before Fletch arrived.
12 "The Harder They Fall" 28 November 1975
Fletch, under Genial Harry Grout's orders, tries to rig a boxing match so that Godber, who is favourite to win, loses, only to discover Godber is taking orders from one of Grouty's rivals.

Christmas specials (1975–1976)[edit]

No. Title Airdate Duration
Special 1 "No Way Out" 24 December 1975 45 mins
A planned escape causes all kinds of trouble just before Christmas, and Fletch attempts to spend some valuable time in the infirmary.
Special 2 "The Desperate Hours" 24 December 1976 40 mins
Fletcher, Godber, Barrowclough and the governor's secretary are held hostage by a mad prisoner with a home made gun attempting to escape.

Series 3 (1977)[edit]

No. Title Airdate
13 "A Storm in a Teacup" 18 February 1977
After a capsule containing pills that Harris stole goes missing, Grouty attempts to locate them and Fletch is recruited to help, not realising that they are in his mug of tea.
14 "Poetic Justice" 25 February 1977
Fletch is incensed to discover that he is getting a new cell-mate. To make matters worse, it turns out that the cell-mate is the judge that sentenced him.
15 "Rough Justice" 4 March 1977
After the judge's watch is stolen, everyone is convinced that Harris is the culprit, and so a kangaroo court is set up in an effort to convict him of the crime.
16 "Pardon Me" 11 March 1977
Blanco refuses parole after serving a life sentence for a murder he's always claimed he never committed, so Fletch sets up an appeal committee to get him pardoned.
17 "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, only to discover that Godber doesn't want them. Meanwhile, a debate flares up over a claim of Warren's that, at a certain scale, the nearest star from the Sun would be in Johannesburg.
18 "Final Stretch" 25 March 1977
With his parole meeting less than a week away, Godber has a fight with Jarvis, a football hooligan, and Fletch realises that he will have to risk solitary confinement and loss of his own remission to prevent it. Meanwhile, Fletch is suspicious of his daughter's holiday plans.

Titles and music[edit]

The opening credits consist of outside shots of Slade prison and of several doors and gates being closed and locked, which was intended to set the scene for the programme.[11] In the first series, there were also shots of St Pancras railway station, which was changed in subsequent series to shots of Fletcher walking around Slade prison. Title music was thought unsuitable for a show set in prison, so instead there is a booming narration (performed by Barker himself) given by the presiding judge passing sentence on Fletcher:

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.

Subsequently, Barker is reported to have said that he regretted recording himself as the judge, a character role subsequently played by Maurice Denham in a later episode.

The theme music for the closing credits was written by Max Harris, who had also written the theme music for numerous other TV shows, including The Strange World of Gurney Slade and Doomwatch, and would go on to write the theme for Open All Hours, another of the Seven of One pilots. The cheery theme was "deliberately at variance with the dour comedy"[12] and given a music hall feel by Harris because of the lead character's Cockney origins.[13]

Spin-offs[edit]

Going Straight[edit]

Main article: Going Straight

A sequel to Porridge, Going Straight, was aired between 24 February and 7 April 1978. Beginning with Fletcher's release from prison on parole, it follows his attempts to "go straight" and readjust to a law-abiding life. Richard Beckinsale reprised his role as Godber, now the fiancée of Fletcher's daughter Ingrid (Patricia Brake), and the couple married in the final episode. Nicholas Lyndhurst also featured as Fletcher's gormless son, Raymond. The series lasted six episodes, and generally was not as well received as its predecessor, although it did win two BAFTAs, for Best Situation Comedy and Best Light Entertainment Performance (jointly with The Two Ronnies) for Ronnie Barker.[14][15]

Porridge - the film[edit]

Main article: Porridge (film)

Following the example of other sitcom crossovers, such as Dad's Army, Steptoe and Son and The Likely Lads, a feature length version of Porridge was made in 1979. Barker again starred as Fletcher, and most of the supporting cast also returned. Unlike the television series, it was actually filmed at a real prison as HMP Chelmsford was temporarily vacant following a fire.

Life Beyond the Box: Norman Stanley Fletcher[edit]

On 29 December 2003, a mockumentary follow-up to Porridge was broadcast on BBC Two. It looked back on Fletcher's life and how the various inmates of Slade had fared 25 years after Fletcher's release from prison. Warren is now a sign painter, Lukewarm is married to Trevor, McLaren is an MSP, Grouty has become a celebrity gangster, Horrible Ives collects money for non-existent charities, Godber is now a lorry driver and still married to Ingrid, and Fletcher runs a pub with his childhood sweetheart, Gloria.

Novelisations and audio[edit]

Novelisations of the three series of Porridge and the film were issued by BBC Books, as well as an adaptation of Going Straight. BBC Enterprises released an LP record featuring two Porridge episodes, "A Night In" and "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1977.(REB 270) Two volumes of audio cassette releases (comprising four episodes each) were issued in the mid-1990s. They were later re-released on CD.

Stage show[edit]

In 2009 Porridge was adapted into a stage show, also written by Clement and La Frenais, starring former EastEnders actor Shaun Williamson as Fletcher and Daniel West as Godber.[16] Peter Kay, a fan of the show, was previously offered the role but turned it down. It opened in September 2009 to positive reviews.[17]

Adaptations[edit]

An American version entitled On the Rocks (1975–76) ran for a season, while a Dutch version Laat maar zitten (free translation: Keep 'em inside) ran from 1988 to 1991; later episodes of the Netherlands version were original scripts.

The series is repeated often on BBC Two and is a regular feature on the UKTV channel G.O.L.D.(some gestures are now pixelated and very mild profanities "bleeped", whilst racial and "homophobic" references are cut completely).

DVD releases[edit]

Title Year Release date
Region 2 Region 4
Complete Series 1 1974 1 October 2001 27 February 2003
Complete Series 2 1975 30 September 2002 9 March 2004
Complete Series 3 1977 29 September 2003 8 July 2004
Complete Specials 1975–1976 4 October 2004 10 November 2004
Complete Series 1974–1977 19 October 2009 5 March 2008
Porridge: The Movie 1979 14 April 2003 13 May 2002

Popularity with prisoners[edit]

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[edit]

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.[18] 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". It should be noted that "berk" has changed meaning since its inception, and is generally used now to mean "fool" while the original rhyming slang meaning refers to female genitalia. Another term was "scrote" (presumably derived from scrotum), meaning a nasty, unpleasant person.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Webber, pp. 3–4.
  2. ^ Webber, p. 10.
  3. ^ Webber, pp. 8, 19.
  4. ^ Webber, pp. 13–14.
  5. ^ Webber, pp. 30–32.
  6. ^ Webber, pp. 26–27.
  7. ^ Webber, p. 40.
  8. ^ Webber, p. 123.
  9. ^ Webber, pp. 45, 67.
  10. ^ "Porridge star back for TV special". BBC. 2003-10-17. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  11. ^ Webber, pp. 27–28.
  12. ^ "Max Harris". London: BBC. 2004-03-25. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  13. ^ Webber, p. 45.
  14. ^ "Situation Comedy 1978". Bafta.org. Retrieved 23 March 2011. 
  15. ^ "Light Entertainment Performance 1978". Bafta.org. Retrieved 23 March 2011. 
  16. ^ Oliver, Amy (10 May 2009). ""Eastenders" Barry to do time in new Porridge stage show". London: Daily Mail. Retrieved 22 October 2011. 
  17. ^ "Porridge". The Stage. Retrieved 22 October 2011. 
  18. ^ naff. a, Oxford English Dictionary, Draft Revision June 2003

Bibliography[edit]

  • Webber, Richard (2005). Porridge: The Complete Scripts and Series Guide. London: Headline Book Publishing. ISBN 0-7553-1535-9

External links[edit]