You could be forgiven for thinking that the British film industry in the 1970s was one-third Carry Ons, one-third Hammer horrors, and one-third adaptations of TV sitcoms.
From Steptoe And Son and The Likely Lads to Are You Being Served?, and On The Buses to Rising Damp, it seems that big screen versions of Britcoms were big business at the box office for more than a decade. The odd one has popped up in the years since – such as Absolutely Fabulous or Whoops Apocalypse – but the majority of big screen versions tended to crop up at your local picture house in the period between the first Moon landing and the formation of the Thatcher government.
One of the later entries in this pantheon was Porridge, which had actually ended on BBC1 in March 1977 after three highly successful series. We’d already seen the return of both Norman Stanley Fletcher and Lennie Godber (Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale respectively) on TV the following year in the sequel, Going Straight, which saw Fletch being released from HM Prison Slade, and trying to earn an honest living, as well as attempting to cope with Godber being in a relationship with Fletch’s daughter Ingrid.
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The movie version of Porridge was a co-production between Black Lion Films and Witzend Productions, the latter one being set up by writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (creators of Porridge), along with producer Allan McKeown (who was also married to Tracey Ullman, until his death in 2013). Even though on television Fletch and Godber had both done their time, in this movie version we hopped back a few years, with the film being set before the last series of Porridge, giving us one last chance to see the inmates of Slade serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Most of the characters and cast from TV were in evidence, including Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay) and Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde, who was later known for playing Foggy Dewhurst in Last Of The Summer Wine), plus Slade Prison’s top dog, Harry Grout (Peter Vaughan, seen most recently as Maester Aemon in Game Of Thrones). The movie also gave us some new inmates for this outing – Rudge (Daniel Peacock, brother of Harry Peacock from Toast Of London) and Oakes (Barrie Rutter) – as well as new warder Mr Beale (Christopher Godwin).
Clement and La Frenais use all of them as a way of introducing cinema audiences to the world of Porridge, by having the trio being met by a prison van at a small rural railway station in Cumbria, transferring them to HM Prison Slade – Barrowclough explains to Beale that there’s no town anywhere close to their location, leading to Oakes rather pointedly explaining the warders are just as much prisoners there as the actual inmates themselves. One of Clement and La Frenais’ philosophies was showing how lags survived by means of ‘little victories’, and this was certainly one of them.
The story itself is split into roughly three different segments – introducing the new characters (and re-establishing the known ones); setting up an escape bid by one of the inmates (which Fletch and Godber get inadvertently caught up in); and – maybe the cleverest part – Fletch and Godber’s attempt to break back into Slade, after having been liberated against their will by Oakes. Having the audience expectations upended sets this film version apart from the series, and doing the storyline in three chunks avoids the sitcom curse of trying to extend a half-hour format to triple its usual length, which risks making it all feel rather padded and stodgy.
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One significant difference between the TV show and the movie is that the film is shot on location, using an actual prison – HMP Chelmsford, to be precise. It was damaged by a fire in one of the wings, and having a refurbishment programme carried out at the time; with it being out of commission temporarily, it was an ideal place to film, in order to give a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings. However, by doing so, it lacks the cosiness – if a prison could ever be described that way – of the TV version, with its brightly lit videotape look. It does mean that it feels a much harsher Slade in the movie than on the small screen, due to the prison ‘set’ being the real thing.
It’s one of the standing jokes that when a British sitcom does either an episode for Christmas or a big screen adaptation, the cast end up going on holiday (such as the cinematic Are You Being Served?; or the ‘One Foot In The Algarve’ festive special, featuring Victor Meldrew). Well, nothing quite so exotic here, but at least Fletch and Godber get to explore the Cumbrian countryside, even if they’re trying to get back to HMP Slade at the time, avoiding Police roadblocks and manhunts. It’s a nice change of scenery, and also provides a fitting climax to Porridge‘s run, due to this being the last outing for them, after Beckinsale’s untimely death from a heart attack shortly after filming ended.
What the movie lacks, though, is laughter – the audience reaction can make or break any sitcom, and canned laughter can be the death of any show. However, when it came to Porridge, the audience reaction always seemed warm and effusive. When it comes to the film, while it would have been okay watching it at a cinema along with a live audience, it takes on a rather different dimension when seeing it on TV or home video/DVD, without the response you’d typically expect. In a way, it’s almost like being in solitary confinement of sorts, as it’s quite isolating. The impact of this is as jarring in its own way as when BBC2 once showed an episode of M*A*S*H by mistake with the canned laughter track still on it.
This wasn’t quite the last word on HMP Slade and its inmates – Norman Stanley Fletcher and some of his family, friends and fellow lags turned up one final time in 2003’s episode of Life Beyond The Box focused on him, with Ronnie Barker doing one final appearance; we also had Kevin Bishop hitting our screens as one Nigel Norman Fletcher – grandson of Fletch – in Clement and Le Frenais’ shortlived 2016 continuation of Porridge on BBC1. The movie, however, was as apt a swansong as you could hope for, and proves why – in the longevity of some sitcoms within the public’s consciousness – Porridge is down for a long stretch.
Porridge fans might be interested in the BFI’s event featuring Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, on Monday 16th September at 8.30pm.