1 9 7 4 – 1 9 7 7 (UK)
21 x 30 minute episodes
“Norman Stanley Fletcher, you are an habitual criminal who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner.”
This superb British comedy from the pens of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais debuted on 5 September 1974 and was set inside the walls of HMP Slade, a (fictional) isolated prison in deepest Cumbria, and centred on Norman Stanley Fletcher – a Muswell Hill wide-boy with a heart of gold who was sentenced to a five-year term at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Against his wishes, 2215 Fletcher was forced to share a cell with young 3470 Lennie Godber, a first-time offender from Birmingham, embarking on a two-year stretch for breaking and entering.
Fletch became a father-like figure to the amiable Godber, helping him to weather his first period of confinement, showing him the tricks of survival and leading him through the vagaries of prison etiquette.
Fletcher’s considerable experience in incarceration brought him respect from most of the criminals around him, the likes of ‘Bunny’ Warren, illiterate and easily led; decrepit Blanco; ‘Black Jock’ McLaren, the Glaswegian heavy; and Lukewarm, the gay cook.
But there were also less agreeable inmates like ‘Orrible’ Ives, the slimy Harris and ‘genial’ Harry Grout, the wing’s Mr Big, who ran all the rackets and enjoyed life’s little luxuries in his own comfortably appointed private room.
On the other side of the fence was the chief warder, Mr Mackay, whose exaggerated speech patterns and neck twisting created one of the few likeable fascists on television: “I am firm but fair. Remember I treat you all with equal contempt”.
Despairing of the ineffective Governor, Mr Venables, he longed to regiment the prisoners and rule the prison with iron jackboots.
But like his easily conned, hen-pecked assistant, Mr Barrowclough, he was never a match for our hero.
Laced together with Fletcher’s sparkling wit and skilful repartee, Porridge extolled the ironies and paradoxes of prison life, never glorifying life inside but cleverly commenting on the difficulties and pressures endured by convicted criminals.
The series – which grew out of a play entitled Prisoner and Escort (seen as part of Ronnie Barker’s Seven Of One anthology in 1973) – became a firm favourite in jails across Britain. Cons at Maidstone gaol loved it – a warder there phoned the BBC to tell them!
In gaols all over Britain, the punishment for bad behaviour became not being allowed to watch Porridge.
In their few short visits inside prisons allowed by the Home Office, the writers had absorbed the atmosphere, the slang, and had spotted the tensions they could joke about. On hand to advise was former thief Jonathan Marshall.
Prisoners, ex-prisoners and prison officers all agreed that they got it right, and Ronnie Barker found himself a much-in-demand guest at police balls, while Christmas invariably brought cards from ‘The boys in B Block’ and similar addresses.
Unfortunately, a short-lived sequel, Going Straight (1978), featuring Fletch’s life back on the outside, failed to reach the heights of the original series.
A cinema version of Porridge was released in 1979.
At the height of its UK success, Clement and La Frenais instigated an American adaptation of Porridge, entitled On The Rocks, which was screened by ABC.
After weathering initial criticism from the US National Association For Justice, which worried it painted too rosy a picture of prison life, the series – set in Alamese Minimum Security Prison – enjoyed some success, especially with its employment of real-life inmates as extras and walk-ons (The UK series had done likewise).
Running to 24 episodes in 1975 and 1976, the US version starred José Perez as the scheming Hector Fuentes, and Mel Stewart as his adversary, the stern prison officer Gibson.
Brian Wilde (who played Mr Barrowclough) died in his sleep in March 2008, after suffering a fall some weeks earlier. He was 80.
The exterior shot of the gate of HMP Slade was filmed at the old St Albans’ Prison in Hertfordshire.
Norman Stanley Fletcher
Judge Stephen Rawley