Looking Back At PORRIDGE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At PORRIDGE

Tony’s banged up.
To understand the success of Porridge – a sit-com set behind the bars of a prison – you need to understand something about the nature of the post-war British approach to comedy in general.

Mostly, post-war British comedy has celebrated losers with a dream or a spark, rather than successful people.

Think we’re reaching?

Hancock – perpetual loser, permanently aspiring to social advancement.

Steptoe and Son, with the son desperately trying to escape both the grime of his environment and the embarrassment of his father.

Butterflies – Ria grasping for a little life and love outside the strictures of her marriage and the role it boxes her into.

Reginald Perrin – a man who very nearly commits suicide, and then goes to every possible length to avoid the corporate strait-jacket that drove him to it.

Fawlty Towers – Basil’s a hotel owner who fundamentally dislikes people and is having a nervous breakdown out of sheer English shame.

The Good Life – a traditional suburban couple who struggle in abject poverty and backbreaking labour when they decide to buck the system and embrace self-sufficiency.

Shelley – an over-educated scrounger, content to milk the system, but to do it with a twinkle in his eye and a philosophical slant.

Rab C Nesbitt – an alcoholic benefit-cheat who has a philosophy for every moment

Only Fools And Horses – low-rent wheeler-dealers with the dream of being millionaires next year.

One Foot In The Grave – Victor Meldrew fighting the irrelevance we ascribe to older people by being simply bloody livid about everything, and taking direct action to survive.

The Young Ones – Four student losers, driving each other mad.

Blackadder – a man of almost infinite potential, shackled by the stupidity of other people.

The Office – people with dreams of happiness, being slowly ground under by a boss who is himself a deluded dreamer.

And on, and on, and on it goes. If you’re writing sit-com for the British, losers with a plan or a twinkle are a much better bet than overachievers.

With hindsight, Porridge was always destined to become a classic.
Perhaps oddly then, Ronnie Barker, who starred as the lead character, Norman Stanley Fletcher, initially wasn’t keen on the idea. As has happened more than once, the public were presented with a sequence of pilot episodes for potential shows, and audience viewing and appreciation figures would decide which show got picked up. In a similar way in the Sixties, Galton & Simpson’s Comedy Playhouse presentation “The Offer” – possibly the most heartbreaking pilot for a supposedly comedic show in history – was picked up and became Steptoe & Son. In the 1970s, Barker starred in seven pilots under the umbrella term “Seven of One” – the one being Barker. He himself preferred another of the pilots, “I’ll Fly You For A Quid,” which curiously enough was also written by Porridge team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Bur when the pilot entitled “Prisoner and Escort” scored highest with viewers, a full series of what became known as Porridge was on the cards. Incidentally, another of the seven was Open All Hours by Roy Clarke – which would also go on to be a successful Barker vehicle.

Porridge as a series lived and died on its relationships. As Norman Stanley Fletcher, Ronnie Barker, in real life somewhat dapper, shed any hint of glamour, put on a slightly stooping but streetwise slouch and adopted a Muswell Hill accent – not by any means a wide boy, but an habitual criminal who’d seen it all, done it all, and stolen most of it in his time. While on the outside, his natural inclination to game the system would get him into regular trouble with the law, once he was IN prison, that same inclination became the basis of a whole survival strategy. Do your time, he would always advise, and always look for little victories. The little victories of a day-to-day campaign against authority would help to keep you sane inside, and help to keep you true to the you that you wanted to be.

See? Loser with a twinkle and an idea – guaranteed to be beloved of the British public.
But for that to mean anything, Fletcher needed a pupil to teach, and figures of authority to score off. Enter Richard Beckinsale as Lennie Godber, Fletcher’s new cellmate on his first day of a five year stretch. For Godber, it was his first time in prison, so he had a youthful optimism that was just ripe for the sayings and teachings that Fletcher used to get him through any amount of prison time.

Two prominent prison officers showed the different extremes you could expect in a British prison. Mr Barrowclough, played by Brian Wilde, was a believer in rehabilitation and in showing respect and friendliness to the inmates. He was of course mercilessly taken advantage of by Fletcher and his ilk. And Mr Mackay, played (probably with no coincidence whatsoever) by Fulton Mackay, was a hard-nosed Scottish drill sergeant who believed in treating inmates as though they were scum – meaning the trick with him was to get something over on him – to score those little victories that would make your life slightly better, and his life slightly worse.

Her Majesty’s Prison Slade, where these unfortunates would spend their lives together, was also full of an extremely rich cast of secondary characters, played by impressive actors. Harry Grout, the big shot of the prison, was played by Peter Vaughan, a man who could deliver top grade imposing at the drop of a hat. Ken Jones was known as ‘orrible Ives, the prison weasel. Tony Osoba was McLaren, a mixed-race Scotsman prone to violence and the occasional riot. He too, like Godber, was young and impressionable, and he too benefitted from Fletcher’s advice at a crucial point in his prison life. Sam Kelly was the poignantly illiterate “Bunny” Warren. Christopher Biggins was Lukewarm, a seemingly openly gay prisoner who was nevertheless included in the lives and plans of his fellow prisoners. David Jason, one of the younger cast members, played ‘Blanco’ Webb, the oldest of the old lags. Cyril Heslop, a good-hearted non-thinker, was played by Brian Glover. This was a prison full of talent.

But the joy in each episode of Porridge was the variety of situations the writers invented for the characters, the highs, the lows, and above all, the wisdom of Fletcher. More or less, his wisdom boiled down to “Don’t whine. Don’t bleat. Don’t let them get to you. It’s what’s in your head that matters. Give ’em what they want – yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir. But keep yourself alive in your head with some little victories, so you know they haven’t REALLY got you.”

That philosophy is probably most poignantly summed up in episode 3 of the first series, when Godber is going (literally) stir crazy, imagining all the things eh could be getting up to on the outside – the meals he could be eating, the girls he could be dancing with, the girls he could be more-than-dancing with…

Fletcher settles him down, saying “That’s no problem, son. Tomorrow night, we’ll go out, yeah? You and me, we’ll go up west. Cocktails, dancing, girl on each arm… or… y’know what? I quite fancy a quiet night in…”

The message is clear. You can still have all the fun you want in your head. But get yourself right with the idea that that’s where you really live until you’re released.
Over the course of three series (including two Christmas specials and a feature film version), Fletcher and Godber would adopt the relationship of a father and son, Fletcher imparting wisdom to help the lad get through, and Godber from time to time bucking against this presumption, determining to better himself while he’s inside, so that he stands a better chance of making something of himself on the outside.

That goes to new lengths when, after a visiting day flirtation, Godber starts ‘going out’ with Fletcher’s daughter Ingrid.

The philosophy of Fletcher that weaved its way into the psyche of those who watched him, was that you never asked what a man had done on the outside to get himself inside. Not if finding out would change how you reacted to him. And it was also embedded in the notion that what a man did to end up behind bars was not necessarily any guide to the content of his character. Mr Mackay would have been a despicable nurk if he were a criminal, just as he was as a warden. ‘Orrible Ives would have been ‘orrible as a bank manager. Old lag Blanco Webb was both a kindly old man – and a murderer. Fletcher himself never made any odds about his life as an habitual criminal. He would, he always assumed, continue to be in and out of prison for the rest of his life. It was his knowledge of himself, as well as of both worlds, inside and out, that made the British audience take him to their hearts.

It’s worth mentioning that, in the age of instant snap judgments, anti-human rallying, cancellations and name-calling, Fletcher’s advice never to ask what people did (how they voted, what they believe) if it would change the good opinion you might have of them is still relevant today. If they’re ’orrible nurks, their nurkishness will out, and THEN you can judge them. Till they give you a reason, imagine the whole world is a big and beautiful prison, and treat everyone the same. That way, if it turns out that YOU’RE an ’orrible nurk, THAT’LL come out too.

Ironically, both the writers and broadcasters of Porridge were keen to keep on producing it beyond the three series, but Ronnie Barker wanted to avoid being typecast as just one character.

We say ironically, because once the three series were finished, he almost immediately went into the film version of Porridge, and the following year added another chapter to the legend of Norman Stanley Fletcher, Going Straight. The premise of that was simple – Fletcher released, on the outside, trying finally to play the system at its own game and stay OUT of prison. That only lasted one series, but it added importantly our understanding of Fletcher’s character.

And when in 2016, the BBC created a short run of new versions or takes on some classic sitcoms like Are You Being Served, Goodnight Sweetheart, and Keeping Up Appearances, it was almost inevitable that, based on viewing figures, a new generation of Porridge went to series. Ronnie Barker had sadly passed by then, but they kept the theme and the thread of the original, with Fletcher’s grandson fulfilling the role inside a 21st century prison that his grandfather had done in the 1970s.

Ronnie Barker was, for a tall and a well-built man, a quite incredible chameleon. Throughout his career, he leant himself to a handful of absolutely classic comic characters, as well as being one half of one of the best comedy duos of the Seventies. He was also an incredibly adept comic writer, with an instinct for what would work for a British audience that was positively uncanny.

But probably, if you think of Ronnie Barker in character, the character you think of is Norman Stanley Fletcher. He was an everyman, sure, but he was the everyman you could only hope you’d meet if you found yourself scared and alone and unsure how to survive in a new and hostile environment.

Fletch would help you out, set you straight, and make sure you knew you could get through anything that came at you.

That’s why Porridge remains one of Britain’s favourite sit-coms, and Fletcher one of comedy’s most iconic characters.

Watch Porridge 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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