If I told you to ‘Naff off, you nerk!’ I’d like to think that you wouldn’t think I was being offensive, but instead paying homage to one of the all-time great British comedy characters, Norman Stanley Fletcher, or ‘Fletch’ to his mates.
Alongside Open All Hours, Porridge originated as one of the pilot sitcoms from the BBC Ronnie Barker showcase, Seven of One. Called Prisoner and Escort, it introduced us to ‘habitual criminal’ Fletch (Barker) as he was being taken to start his latest sentence in prison by warders Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde) and the infamous Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay) on New Year’s Eve. It was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, veteran comedy writers who had already collaborated on The Likely Lads, Not Only…But Also and the Two Ronnies, before teaming up with Barker once more.
After its broadcast in April 1973 the BBC chose Prisoner and Escort to be made into a full series. Renamed Porridge (after the slang phrase for a prison spell ‘doing porridge’) it centred on Fletch’s time on the inside and his relationships with both the aforementioned guards, as well as the other prisoners. Clement and La Frenais had spoken to a former prisoner before beginning to write the Seven of One episode, and whilst digging through the information he gave about prison routines and rules, they happened upon a phrase that he mentioned: ‘little victories’. That gave the writing pair a focus for the comedy within Porridge; Fletch would survive this prison term by looking for small ways to beat the system. The programme evolved on this theme; things that wouldn’t be an issue on the outside became significant on the inside, and in the hands of Clement and Frenais they may have been trivial, but they were always funny. As an example, one episode focuses on Fletch’s hunt to find the thief that stole his tin of pineapple chunks. Not that funny really is it? But in Porridge it really was.
One of the enduring relationships that Fletch found whilst serving his time was with Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale, who also starred in Rising Damp), a Brummie first-timer who was sent to HMP Slade for burglary. Slightly naïve, Godber ended up sharing a cell with Fletch, and benefitted from the older man’s previous jail experience. His optimism was the perfect foil to Fletch’s cynicism, and a lot of humour came about when the two exchanged repartee. The third episode in the first series is widely acclaimed as one of the best; A Night In is almost exclusively a conversation between the younger and older man, as Fletch imparts his learned prison wisdom to his apprehensive friend.
The show featured performances from several recognisable names; Sam Kelly (‘Allo ‘Allo) played Bunny Warren (geddit?) and Christopher Biggins (Rentaghost, every pantomime ever put on) featured as genial inmate Lukewarm, who shared his cell with Blanco, an elderly prisoner played (with the help of some make up) by a much younger David Jason (Open All Hours).
Series one ran from 5 September until 10 October 1974, with series two broadcasting from 24 October until 28 November 1975. Two Christmas specials were made in 1975 and 1976, before series three was aired in early 1977.
Despite the show’s success Barker chose to end his role as Fletch to pursue other endeavours after the third series. The last episode of Porridge went out in March 1977, and focused on Godber’s upcoming parole meeting.
However, the end of Porridge did not signal the end of Fletch. The spin-off show Going Straight ran from 24 February until 7 April 1978. It took place after Fletch had been released from HMP Slade, and followed his attempts to become an ‘honest member of society.’ He was reunited with Godber, and whilst they were no longer living in quite as close proximity as when they were cellmates, it wasn’t far off; Fletch’s daughter Ingrid (Patricia Brake) was now Godber’s girlfriend. And before he appeared in Butterflies or Only Fools and Horses, a very young Nicholas Lyndhurst took the role of Fletch’s son, Raymond. In the last episode Godber and Ingrid got married.
The six episodes were watched by over 15 million people, and in March 1979 the series won the Best Situation Comedy BAFTA. Ronnie Barker won Best Light Entertainment Performance for his role that year as well (it was a joint award for that and his work on The Two Ronnies), having also won it in 1976 and 1978 for Porridge. Unfortunately that one series of Going Straight was all there was ever going to be; Richard Beckinsale’s tragic death at the age of only 31 ended any thoughts of anything further.
A few weeks before he passed away Beckinsale had completed the filming of the movie version of Porridge, alongside Barker, Wilde, Mackay and most of the other regular inmates. A new governor of HMP Slade was introduced, played by Geoffrey Bayldon, also known as the Crowman from Worzel Gummidge.
The plot took the cell buddies back to 12 months before the last episode of the TV programme. Made to participate in a prison break out following a football match, the humour comes from watching Fletch and Godber try to get back inside before their absence is noticed. The film also included a very watchable performance by Daniel Peacock (The Comic Strip Presents…) as a new inmate with impressive football skills. The film was released on 12 August 1979.
Fletch was resurrected for the penultimate time in 2003, with a mockumentary showing how the inmates’ lives had turned out 25 years down the line. Called Life Beyond The Box: Norman Stanley Fletcher, it told the audience that Godber was now driving trucks, and his relationship with Ingrid was still going strong. Fletch was running a pub with Gloria, his sweetheart from childhood.
And finally, Fletch came back to life in 2009 when Clement and La Frenais turned Porridge into a stage show, featuring Shaun Williamson (EastEnders) as the main character. Hmm, can’t see it myself but apparently the opening reviews were positive ones…
In the 2004 BBC poll of the 100 Greatest British Sitcoms, Porridge was voted in to seventh place and quite rightly. The best comedy always comes from a feeling of being trapped in a certain situation, and the very nature of prison demonstrates this to the best effect. This, plus the sharp and funny scripts from Clement and La Frenais and the acting talent of all concerned (but most particularly Barker and Beckinsale) ensured that this was one of those sitcoms that will raise a laugh, no matter how many times you’ve seen each episode.
Now, naff off.