A classic comedy from the man of 1000 characters - Ronnie Barker
This series started as a one off episode of a series called ‘seven of one’ which was a series of seven different one off comedies staring Ronnie Barker. Two of these were then made into full series. Porridge and Open all Hours. Porridge’s one off in this series was called ‘Prisoner and Escort’ and stared three of the main characters who went into the main series
Ronnie was very unsure of Porridge and actually wanted to make a different one called ‘I’ll Fly You for a Quid’ about a family which would gamble on anything and everything into a series instead. Thankfully the BBC disagreed and went for Porridge. It became what Ronnie Barker described as his favourite work.
The series was first shown on the BBC from 1974 to 1977
It is called porridge as in the UK ‘doing porridge’ is a slang term for being in prison as this was the traditional breakfast fed to the prisoners.
Norman Stanley Fletcher has been found guilty, again, of burglary and has been sentenced to five years in Slade prison in darkest Cumberland. Here he becomes cell mates with a first time offender Lenny Godper who claims he is only there due to unfortunate circumstances – he got caught.
Fletcher is always on a ‘them and us’ mentality against the prison officers or ‘screws’ as they are not so affectionately known (there is a historical reason for this nickname but no need to go into it). Whilst Fletcher has decided to keep his nose clean he still looks for his little victories of one up man ship against the system but tries his best to keep Godper out of trouble.
Porridge - main cast
Cast and Characters
Norman Stanley Fletcher – Ronnie Barker: The sort of anti-hero of the series and as the viewer you are almost instantly on his side. This in part is down to Barker’s acting ability but also down to the writing. He tries not to make waves and is friends with many people in the wing reardless of who or what they are. He is also seen as a father figure for Godper. His games of one upmanship against the system are the base from which the comedy comes from.
Lenny Godper – Richard Beckinsale: Fletchers young rather naïve cell mate. A first time offender who has been moved to Fletchers cell as his original cell mate set fire to his bed. Godper works in the kitchen, even if he isn’t all that good at cooking and he does get involved in Fletchers schemes. He is good natured and determined not to become a career criminal. He claims he is only in prison due to unfortunate circumstances – he got caught.
Mr Mackay – Fulton Mackay: The head prison officer of the wing and Fletcher’s main rival. Mr Mackay is a tough prison officer who delights in catching and spoiling Fletchers little schemes. Whilst he is not particularly liked by the prisoners they do respect him as he is tough but fair in that he treats all the prisoners the same - with utter contempt. Mackay does show some regard for Godper with his wish to learn and get some O-levels (pre GCSE exams qualifications) whilst in prison.
Mr Barrowclough – Brian Wilde: In terms of prison officers Barrowclough is the polar opposite of Mr Mackay. He is mild mannered and despite his age very naïve. The inmates, at times, do take advantage of his good nature but he is the friendly ear they can talk to. He does mention his wife at times and going by what he says his wife is the archetypal battle axe which leaves Barrowclough almost permanently shell shocked.
Other characters include Harry Grout (Peter Vaughn), a very unpleasant criminal head of a criminal network and someone who other prisoners never dare say no to. Lukewarm (Christopher Biggins) the Fanny Cradock of the wing, a terrible cook who works in the kitchens one of Flethers closest friends and possible one of the earliest recurring LGBT characters on British TV. Jim "Jock" McLaren (Tony Osobar) and angry young prisoner who Fletcher does try to help he plays for the wings football team and probably holds the record for the most red cards.
Well it is set in Slade prison and as it is in the 1970s the prison uniform is still in place. The writers did do a lot of research into what prison life is like but they say that the series was toned down or it would never get past the censors. Whilst there is the occasional scene outside of the prison and one episode which takes place mainly outside it does show what a depressing place prisons can be. Not forgetting this is set in a time where slopping out was still done and meals were a case of a no choice take it or leave it.
The opening credits feature the gatehouse from the disused St Alban’s prison near to where I live.
What I thought of it
This is one of my favourite comedy series and not just amongst those which star Ronnie Barker. The humour comes from one up man ship and Fletcher’s little schemes to make life that little bit easier for himself and his cell mate. What he refers to as ‘little victories’. This is further helped by Barker’s comedy timing and ability to convey many things with just a look. The battles between Mackay and Fletcher are a constant source of comedy and naturally you are nearly always on Fletcher’s side. Fletcher’s schemes don’t always work and this gives Mackay some smug satisfaction.
The fear all the other prisoners and, apparently, some of the prison officers have for Harry Grout is shown in various episodes, even in ones where he is just mentioned. Peter Vaughn, who plays Grout, does an excellent job of portraying him as a sinister individual who would sell his own mother to keep his business interests going.
Fulton Mackay was perfect casting for the part of Mr Mackay and his Scottish accent helps to show him as a tough no nonsense prison officer. Despite him only being on screen for a short time each episode he approaches the point where he steels the limelight from Barker. Fulton was a well known perfectionist and he always wanted to rehearse his 5 minutes as much as possible.
One of my favourite episodes is ‘a night in’ which is a two hander between Barker and Beckinsale. This is where you see the relationship between the two is more than cell mates but more as a surrogate father and son.
To get round the use of profanities the writers had to come up with alternatives so we hear the very common use of ‘naff off’ as well as ‘nerk’.
The film and spinoffs
The film and Spin offs:
When Fletcher was released from prison we follow his story in the series ‘Going Straight’. Here Fletcher has gone straight, Godper has married Fletcher’s daughter and Fletcher’s wife has left him.
This series did not catch on with the public and I feel some of this was that the old adversary rivalry between Fletcher and Mackay had gone.
Only one series of this was made. This was partly due to poor viewing figures but also due to the tragic death of Richard Beckinsale due to a heart condition in 1979 at only 31 year old.
A film version of Porridge was made and this was one of the last things Richard Beckinsale did as he died only a few weeks after it was completed.
In 2016 celebration of the BBC's landmark comedy series Porridge was one series the BBC resurrected for a special one off episode. This was set in modern day prison with the main character being Norman Fletcher's grandson. Whilst this was picked up for a series it only lasted the one series before being dropped. It was not terrible but without any of the original cast it simply did not work particularly the lack of Barkers expert comedy timing.
Cancel culture gunning for it?
Recently on streaming channels etc Porridge now carries the 'this was made at a different time and some of the things said may now offend'. This is rubbish, Fletcher got on with most of the other inmates no matter who they were and Mr MacKay treated everyone with equal contempt. If we look at Fletcher, one of his best friends in prison was Lukewarm who was gay and was a father figure not only to Godber but also to McLaren who was black. There was no hate in him - except possibly for the system where as he puts it in the last episode that no one actually wins, not the prisoner and not the system.