On Friday night a new series of Porridge started on BBC One 43 years after the original starring Ronnie Barker was first shown. Kevin Bishop plays Nigel Norman Fletcher, grandson of the original’s Norman Stanley. This is the direct result of the one off episode from last year’s BBC ‘Landmark Sitcom Season’ which saw a return to our screens for the likes of Goodnight Sweetheart, Are You Being Served and Keeping Up Appearances. 4.4 million people watched the Porridge episode, although the response to the latest outing has been somewhat lukewarm.
The original, first shown in 1974, featured the aforementioned Norman Stanley Fletcher, a career criminal serving time in the fictional Slade prison. It was centred around Ronnie Barker’s character and fellow inmates trying to get one over on ‘the system’, and hard-and-harsh warden Mr MacKay, as well as Fletcher helping his new cellmate Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale) adjust to prison life.
Not the obvious setting for a comedy, Porridge was the first sitcom set in a prison. It was an instant hit 16 million people watching its debut. Porridge spawned three series, a film version, a mockumentary, a stage show and the spin-off sitcom Going Straight, focusing on Fletcher’s post-prison life, as well as a US version.
Following the success of The Two Ronnies, the sketch show he made with Ronnie Corbett (seek out the famous ‘Four Candles/Fork Handles’ sketch for those of you not old enough to know about one of British comedy’s best double acts), the BBC gave Barker the opportunity to make a few sitcom pilots with the view to a series or two being made. The two that were made were big hits, one was, of course Porridge, then called Prisoner and Escort, and the other was Open All Hours.
Barker was as well supported by a strong cast. Richard Beckinsale was the naive and idealistic first time prisoner Lennie Godber, Fulton Mackay played Mr Mackay, the hard nosed, strict prison officer, and Brian Wilde was his easily manipulated understudy Mr Barrowclough. There was also Harry Grout, the intimidating inmate played by Game of Thrones actor Peter Vaughan.
Porridge does have some iconic moments, despite only running 24 episodes and a few specials. Highlights include Fletch, Godber and Blanco, the latter played by David Jason, tricking Norris in to digging up the pitch at Elland Road looking for loot, or Fletch tricking the prison governor in to giving him a compassionate day release. That is where most of the laughs came from, the prisoners getting little victories over the wardens and the nerks.
Putting the odd instance of casual racism and homophobia aside (look, it happened in all 70’s and 80’s sitcoms, just watch Only Fools and Horses) it holds up well and still provides plenty of laughs. It is a shame that Kevin Bishop’s attempt, despite being credited as written by the original series’ writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, can be viewed as a poorly attempted homage or a below average copy of something best left in the past rather than an attempt to do something new with it. Or perhaps, more sensibly left in the past, or on UK TV GOLD.
How do you think the new series compares to the classic episodes? Let us know in the comments section!