PORRIDGE. (1974-1977) WRITTEN BY DICK CLEMENT AND IAN LA FRENAIS (WRITERS OF AUF WIEDERSEHEN PET, THE LIKELY LADS, LOVEJOY). STARRING RONNIE BARKER, RICHARD BECKINSALE, BRIAN WILDE AND FULTON MACKAY.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘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.’
‘Ronnie Barker will be remembered for Fletcher in PORRIDGE long after everything else he was in has faded from memory.’ DAILY EXPRESS.
This comedy series set in an English prison is just so good, I’m genuinely gutted that I can never again watch it for the first time with new, excited eyes. I’ll be re-watching it, however, hopefully many times, and I’ll remember it till my dying day as possibly the best, funniest and also the most warm-hearted and true-to-life sitcom I’ve ever seen. Gorblimey, I’m tearing up here. Whatever would Fletch say…?
Norman Stanley Fletcher, better known as Fletch, is a petty criminal whom the Beak is sick and tired of having up in front of him, charged with yet another offence involving thieving or fraud. This time, Fletch is hit with a good stiff sentence… five years in Her Majesty’s Slade Prison, a fictional nick up North somewhere, Cumberland I think, surrounded by moors and suchlike, so escape won’t exactly be an easy option.
Fletch is a hard-as-nails, tough-as-old-boots old lag from the big smoke. Muswell Hill in London, to be precise. Every sentence ends with ‘intcha?,’ as in, aren’t you? and ‘an’ all,’ as in, as well, too, also.
He’s perpetually chewing gum, he doesn’t react with any surprise to the things he hears and sees in the nick because he’s seen and heard it all before, and he’s got his own rather skewed sense of morality. It’s okay, for example, for Fletch to nick a tin of pineapple chunks from the kitchen, but the lag who in turn steals the tin from Fletch is the lowest of the low, innit?
This time round, Fletch has a new young cellmate called Lenny Godber, played by the dreamily handsome Richard Beckinsale who was tragically dead of heart failure by the age of thirty-one.
Fletch, rather grudgingly at first, takes Lenny under his wing, but the two soon find themselves to be friends for life, partly cemented by the confidences they exchange in the wonderful two-handed episode in Series One called ‘A NIGHT IN.’
As well as being drop-dead gorgeous, Lenny is surprisingly thoughtful, insightful and sensitive for a house-breaker serving his first sentence. He’s got an unusually wide vocabulary for a con and a philosophical turn of mind, and he uses the prison’s training programmes and courses of study to better himself.
When Fletch kindly arranges to steal the History O Level Exam papers for a nervous Lenny, Lenny has no trouble deciding that he wants to pass the exam the honest way. Which is just as well because Fletch’s man Warren, dope that he is, has only gone and nicked the wrong bleedin’ paper, ‘asn’t he? Much good the Biology papers will be in this instance.
Fletch doesn’t understand Lenny’s constant quest for self-improvement. He personally just wants to do his time in peace and quiet, if anyone will ever let him. He particularly just wants to lie on his top bunk with the Page Three Stunna of the day and have himself a nice time, nudge nudge, wink wink. Let’s just hope the visiting party from the Home Office have the manners to knock before they enter his bloomin’ cell, lol.
Mister Mackay, or ‘Scotland the Brave,’ is Fletcher’s nemesis, a screw who’s firm but fair. In his own words, he holds all the lags in equal contempt…! Getting one over on Mr. Mackay, whose exaggerated accent and gestures are almost criminally funny, is probably the thing that brings Fletch the most pleasure in life inside.
You see, the little victories Fletch manages to wring from Mackay in particular and the prison system in general are what makes life behind bars bearable. Look out for Fletch’s hilarious description of how the terminally regimented Mr. Mackay has sex with his wife. Bellows: ‘Stand by your bed…! One, two, three… knickers down… NOW…!’
Mr. Mackay has a foil, of course (for every bad cop there’s a good cop), in the form of the nervous, rather jittery but undoubtedly kind-hearted Mr. Barrowclough. He’s a progressive thinker who believes that the men in his care are there to be rehabilitated and treated as human beings rather than lowlives for whom there’s no hope. Mr. Mackay thinks Barrowclough is for the birds because of such forward-thinking and modern ideas.
Of course, Barrowclough’s lovely good nature means that he can be easily taken advantage by Fletch and the other lags, but it’s nice to see as well that not every screw thinks that the prisoners are irredeemable scum who should all be locked up and the key thrown away for ever.
Poor Mr. Barrowclough has a miserable home life courtesy of his domineering wife Alice, so much so that he often wishes, as he tells Fletch, ‘that I were in here wi’ you lot…!’ Fletch’s skills as a marriage guidance counsellor are in great demand, not just with Mr. Barrowclough but also with the other lags, so much so that everyone’s in shock when it transpires that Fletch’s own wife has left him for another man… or has she…?
Other characters include: Ingrid (Patricia Brake), Fletch’s sexy blonde daughter who comes in on visiting days with ‘unfettered knockers,’ much to the other prisoners’ interest; and Mr. Geoffrey Venables, the posh prison governor whose ivory tower existence away from the crims of Slade Prison renders him ineffectual at dealing with most crises; after all, when Jim McLaren (Tony Osoba), the black angry Scottish bloke, is up on the prison roof after a scrap at the footy match, it’s down to Fletch to talk him down. McLaren, an orphan, was found as a baby ‘up a side-alley wrapped in the Glasgow Herald.’ Just like a bag of chips, the poor lad. No wonder he couldn’t go straight.
Then there’s the ‘genial’ Harry Grout (Peter Vaughan), the most powerful prisoner in Slade prison and the least genial bloke you’re likely to meet. He even gives Fletch the willies. He never goes anywhere without his muscle man for back-up and, if Grouty wants a favour, you’d damn well better do it, or else you might just get your face re-arranged… and all for free an’ all…!
Alun Armstrong (THIS IS PERSONAL: THE HUNT FOR THE YORKSHIRE RIPPER, DAVID COPPERFIELD, BLEAK HOUSE) has a cameo as a Geordie con called Spraggon, a former illiterate who’s now writing his first book. Maybe a tin of snout will release his Muse? Dudley Sutton from LOVEJOY plays Reg Urwin, a prison trustee who wants a helicopter out of Slade and ten grand in used notes. Hang on a minute, Reg, and we’ll see what we can do…!
Christopher Biggins plays the cuddly kitchen trustee Lukewarm, surely the first openly gay character on British television? David Jason (OPEN ALL HOURS, ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES, A TOUCH OF FROST), brilliantly made up as an auld fella, plays crafty old Blanco, Lukewarm’s cellmate, who’s been inside seventeen years for topping his wife.
He swears he’s innocent, however, does old Blanco, and so Fletch and the lads set up a campaign to prove said innocence. Shame they’re wasting their time. He may not have offed the wife, but he’s definitely guilty of summat, all right, the cunning old lag…!
The box-set I own has all three series of the show on it, plus two cracking little Christmas specials and an hour-long documentary, presented by Johnny Vaughan, about how great the show is and why it just might be Britain’s Best Ever Sitcom. I have no problem with any of that, lol.
I’ll leave you with Fletch’s invaluable three-pronged piece of advice for any new inmates to Slade Prison, with which, by the way, Mr. Mackay doesn’t altogether agree: One, bide your time; Two, keep your nose clean and your head down; and Three… (altogether now!)… DON’T LET THE BASTARDS GRIND YOU DOWN…!
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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