Looking Back At PORRIDGE (1979 Film) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At PORRIDGE (1979 Film)

Tony’s in for a long stretch with Fletch.
A successful TV sitcom is a magical thing. It’s a way of making sure that a large proportion of the viewing public share a sense of humour, share something to talk about, and share a way of lifting their week by responding to the same material.

While the 21st century has seen a dramatic shift in the way people consume their TV programs, back in the Seventies, that unifying force was even stronger than it is now, because there was no way to record programs if you happened to be out. If you missed a show – you missed it. So a sitcom that could keep people in their seats up down the country was an extra-special slice of pleasure.

That unifying power – plus of course the chance to cash in on the success of a long-running or especially popular show – is why across the course of the Seventies, many sitcoms found themselves making the leap from the small screen to the big one – movie versions of some of the day’s finest (and admittedly, some of the day’s most dubious but popular) sitcoms sprang up across the decade.

Bless This House, with Sid James, had a film version, released while he was also starring in the Carry On series.

Father, Dear Father, starring Patrick Cargill, had a film version.

Rising Damp, starring Leonard Rossiter got itself a film version too.

Steptoe & Son and Till Death Do Us Part each got two movies out of their format, while On The Buses and Up Pompeii! Each clocked up three movies.

For a while, it was the done thing – if you had a successful British sitcom, the movie would probably follow.

Porridge, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and starring Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale as Norman Stanley Fletcher and Lennie Godber, the old hand and the reformed character of Her Majesty’s Prison Slade, had run for three hugely successful series, and spawned a one-series spin-off. The idea of a movie version had an inevitable appeal.
As a film though, it takes its time to really get going. That’s because it beds you into the rhythms of prison life by introducing both a new prison warden and two new prisoners, each of whom will be important in the drama to come.

In fact, the opening of the film is highly reminiscent of the original pilot episode for Porridge, Prisoner and Escort. Meek prison warden Henry Barrowclough is escorting the two new prisoners to Slade – Bill Oakes, a hardcore armed robber from the big city, transferring from another prison and halfway through a 12-year sentence, and Rudge, a newcomer to the prison system, young and scared and spiky, feeling like the worst has happened to him.

They’re joined by new warden, Mr Beal, who is more like a younger, English version of the prison’s drill sergeant-style lead warden, Mr Mackay. A nurk-in-training, he steps into Slade Prison with his shoes properly shined and all his pomposity and weakness on full display to anyone who can read it.

The plot of the film – unlike many of the sitcom-movies of the Seventies – is well constructed when it gets moving though. Oakes has money invested from his last big robbery, and he arranges with the Big Man of Slade Prison, Harry Grout (played with appropriate quiet menace by Peter Vaughan) to be smuggled out of Slade so he can take off to the Costa Del Crime.

That will be achieved by way of a celebrity football match – celebs vs prisoners. During the game, Oakes will be smuggled onto the celeb team’s bus as its driver, and, while seeming to move it to a different car park for the return journey, he will in fact drive it all the way to freedom and a pick-up point where he can change vehicles and disappear forever.

So far, so good – but where do our loveable prisoners, Fletcher and Godber, come in?
Simple – in the first place, Grout gives Fletcher the job of suggesting the football match to the wardens, and on upward to the governor, so the match can go ahead. And then, just to twist the knife, Grout insists that Fletcher, never a paragon of physical fitness, should coach and the prison team.

When the breakout happens, Oakes takes Fletcher and Godber prisoner, so they’ve committed an unwitting escape – which could add years to their sentences, and change their status in the prison when they’re inevitably recaptured. When Oakes changes vehicles, what we then have is more or less The Great Escape in reverse as Fletcher and Godber do their best to break back INTO the prison voluntarily, rather than being caught and returned, and before it becomes received wisdom that Fletcher in particular – who suggested the match and coached the team – was the ‘mastermind’ behind the plan.

Before the escape, life at Slade goes on as normal, with incidents that would have made perfectly good pivots for some TV episodes – including the loss of Mr Mackay’s false teeth, and the bargaining that puts them back in his mouth. There’s also some familiarity in the idea of Fletcher breaking in Rudge the new boy (played by Daniel Peacock). While he helped Godber out, he says, because Godber was foisted on his cell, Rudge is only put on farm duty with him, but still Fletcher looks out for him when, for instance, Rudge cluelessly runs afoul of Harry Grout. He also gives Rudge a similar lecture to the one he gave to Godber early in the TV version of the show.
“Prison is like life, y’know? You need something to believe in in here. Something to hang onto so you don’t go under. Can’t buck the system, mad to try. But you CAN lift the heart with an occasional little victory.”
The point of which is that the movie – which was filmed after the TV series had ended, but which takes place before the final series in the in-show chronology – is absolutely an extension of the TV version, from its philosophy to its motivations, situations, and the tone of its gags. When we first meet Fletcher in the movie, he clocks an eyeful of Mr Beal on his first day of work, and sings a satirical song about him, loud enough to be heard. The character of Fletcher is right there, so the movie feels very much like it belongs as part of his five-year stretch as Slade.
But – again, unlike some (for which, read most) of the Seventies sitcom-movies, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais write the movie in a way that both establishes the monotony of prison life and the need for little victories, and then delivers a movie-length plot, rather than just some character-based bits and pieces that could have been lifted straight out of the TV version.

That means in many ways, the film of Porridge both has its cake and eats it – which is probably why it did well on release. It combines the comfort, the characters and the laughs of the TV version with a plot that justified the larger, longer canvas for those characters.

That’s also probably why it remains watchable today. There are some Seventies wobbly moments which seldom made their way into the TV version, like Fletcher advising Rudge not to hang around too long in the shower block, or “Ambush Alley” as he calls it. But it’s pleasing that for a film made IN the Seventies, the anti-gay bigotry of Mr Beal, while never a huge feature of the film, is seen as contributing to his overall nurkishness, his status beyond the pale of most people. Even – to give him his due – Mr Mackay, previous top nurk on the prison staff, chastises him for such sentiments. “Every man in here is as despicable as the next one,” he advises. It’s not exactly the milk of human kindness, but it is at least equal-opportunity nurkishness.

Beyond these little moments, Porridge is still a fantastic watch in the 21st century, and – with the TV show that spawned it – the movie version of Porridge remains some of the finest work Ronnie Barker ever did.

Watch Porridge (The Film) today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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