I'm Going Straight
December 11, 2012 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Porridge. A slang term for a prison sentence, "Porridge" is one of the more unusual situation comedies in BBC's history.

Its star was Ronnie Barker (previously), an exceptionally skilled comic character actor whose full chops were on display on his longrunning sketch comedy show The Two Ronnies, with Ronnie Corbett. (Here's a YouTube playlist of many of their best sketches.)

But The Two Ronnies only took about a third of a year to film, leaving Barker with plenty of time. And so the BBC tried a strange experiment: They produced seven pilots starring Ronnie Barker, called "Seven of One," and the most popular of the group would be Barker's new show. The winning episode was one called "Prisoner and Escort," scripted by the exceptional writing team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Here it is on YouTube: Part one, Part two.) In it, Ronnie Barker played played Norman Stanley Fletcher, a small-time crook and habitual recidivist who is returning for a stretch at HMP Slade, a fictional prison in Cumberland.

Authors Clement and La Frenais extensively researched the show, going so far as to interview a former prisoner named Jonathan Marshall, who had authored a book called How to Survive in the Nick. The results were a finely detailed look at the experience of prison, including the slang, the day-to-day tedium, the complicated relationships between prisoners, and the minor victories enjoyed by prisoners in their endless run-ins with prison guards and personal.

Here is the entirety of Porridge, thanks to YouTube:


Episode One: "New Faces, Old Hands"
Episode Two: "The Hustler"
Episode Three: "A Night In"
Episode Four: "A Day Out" (Part 1, Part 2)
Episode Five: "Ways and Means" (Part 1, Part 2)
Episode Six: "Men Without Women" (Part 1, Part 2)


Episode Seven: "Just Desserts"
Episode Eight: "Heartbreak Hotel"
Episode Nine: "Disturbing the Peace"
Episode Ten: "No Peace for the Wicked" (Part one, Part two)
Episode Eleven: "Happy Release" (Part one, Part two)
Episode Twelve: "The Harder They Fall" (Part one, Part two)


Special one: "No Way Out" (Part one, part two, part three)
Special two: "The Desperate Hours" (part one, part two, part three)


Episode Thirteen: "A Storm in a Teacup" (Part one, part two)
Episode Fourteen: "Poetic Justice" (part one, part two)
Episode Fifteen: "Rough Justice" (part one, part two)
Episode Sixteen: "Pardon Me" (Part one, part two, part three)
Episode Seventeen: "A Test of Character" (part one, part two, part three)
Episode Eighteen: "Final Stretch" (part one, part two)

There was, as often happened with popular BBC series, a film version, released in the United States as Doing Time. Here it is in seven parts:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Once the series was completed, the BBC decided to follow the life of Norman Stanley Fletcher on his release from prison as he tries to go straight. The series was called Going Straight and featured a memorable theme song, but alas only lasted one season due to the unexpected death of series costar Richard Beckinsale (father of Kate).

Here are those episodes:

Episode one: "Going Home"
Episode two: "Going to be Alright"
Episode three: "Going Sour"
Episode four: "Going to Work" (part one, part two)
Episode five: "Going, Going, Gone"
Episode six: "Going off the Rails" (part one, part two)

In 2003, the BBC followed up with a mockumentary called Life Beyond the Box: Norman Stanley Fletcher, with only a brief clip available online. Further:Two episodes of "Porridge" were recorded as audio plays and released in LP form, and the show was also adapted as a stage version.

The show also inspired a short-lived American adaptation called On The Rocks, which was not as beloved, and has slipped into obscurity. Unlike Porridge, I could find no videos from the show.

In the meanwhile, Ronnie Barker revisited a number of the other sitcom pilots from the original Seven of One experiment. The first, Open All Hours, itself became a popular longrunning sitcom. "My Old Man" was adapted into a series starring Clive Dunn. "Spanner's Eleven" never had an afterlife, but here's a clip of the original. "Another Fine Mess" was arguably the oddest, featuring Barker and Roy Castle as Laurel and Hardy impersonators; the entire pilot is available. "One Man's Meat" would probably necessarily have been short-lived, as it was about a starvation diet; here's a clip featuring Prunella Scales of "Fawlty Towers."

Finally, Barker's favorite from the series was a pilot called "I'll Fly You For A Quid," about an inveterate Welsh gambler. It has been divided into three parts on YouTube, and part one seems to be missing, but here is two and three. Barker turned this into a short-lived sitcom, called "The Magnificent Evans."
posted by Bunny Ultramod (22 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
The complete series is available for purchase on DVD.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:40 PM on December 11, 2012

*clappy hands*. Well there goes my weekend. Thanks!
posted by AD_ at 1:03 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Much later (1988-1991) also translated into Dutch as a comedy vehicle for John Kraaykamp, who could be seen as of a similar stature to Ronnie Barker in Dutch comedy, having starred in quite a few sitcoms, done comedic theatre, but also some serious roles (King Lear frex) and who non-Dutch speakers might recognise from his role in De Aanslag, the Fons Rademakers movie that won an Oscar in 1987.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:03 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

God I love Porridge. Easily one of the greatest comedy series ever made. Flagged as fantastic.

If anyone is unfamliar with the series and only has time to watch one or two episodes, I heartily recommend watching Happy Release.

It's a self-enclosed comedy masterclass (Literaly. Not only is it in the Prison, but the Prison hospital).

It features not only Barker at his best, but also his friend and Open All Hours co-star David Jason as Blanco Webb (Warning: spoilers on wikipedia), a friendly elderly inmate who insists he's innocent of the murder of his wife, and who has been conned out of his possessions by another inmate.

Blanco pops up again in a few later episodes, even refusing a pardon for his crime (as he insists he didn't do it), and the eventual outcome of his background story arc (in Season three's Pardon Me) is one of my favourite comedy moments of all time.

One final Porridge fact: I'm sure I remember Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais admitting on a documentary about comedy writing that they came up with the initial premise after challenging themselves to write an entire comedy episode that took place only in one room (and deciding that a prison cell was the easiest way to do it).
posted by garius at 1:14 PM on December 11, 2012

posted by Doleful Creature at 1:20 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by scruss at 1:24 PM on December 11, 2012

Naff off!

Grouty was one of the greatest villains ever...

Fletch: [on hearing that Harry Grout once used a pigeon to communicate with his bookie] So, what happened to it when you were transferred?
'Genial' Harry Grout: I ate it.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:42 PM on December 11, 2012

Oh, this is Christmas come early! Thank you!
posted by jontyjago at 2:53 PM on December 11, 2012

I loved these shows.
As a kid I thought prison was probably not the worst place in the world thanks to this.
And that notion wasn't entirely lost on me until I saw Ghosts of the Civil Dead.

Not I'm wondering if the world can tolerate a mash-up of Ronny Baker's words and Oz.
posted by Mezentian at 2:58 PM on December 11, 2012

I never realised there were so few episodes, either. It felt like it was always on growing up.
posted by Mezentian at 2:58 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for such a thorough review! Great stuff.

Like Mezentian I thought there must be at least a hundred of these things. What with Fawlty Towers and the Clangers, and now this... I suppose this is why we have Coronation Street and Doctor Who to even the balance.
posted by EnterTheStory at 3:49 PM on December 11, 2012

This is as good a time as ever to post Four Candles, which really could be the best sketch ever.
posted by Damienmce at 6:53 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Its also particularly fun to watch with someone whose English is a little shaky.
posted by Damienmce at 6:55 PM on December 11, 2012

I Googled "four candles" and was disappointed that Google did not suggest "did you mean fork handles?"
posted by vidur at 7:33 PM on December 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is great, thanks. I was fascinated by Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy in college, this isn't that, but its got all the same slang and odd, probably false comradery. Plus broad, Brit humor with the impeccable timing and the comfortable worn at the elbows charm.
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:38 PM on December 11, 2012

I read a book once
posted by quarsan at 8:54 PM on December 11, 2012

I read that the Prison Service had hired him to do a kind of PSA for new intake prisoners, giving them advice and letting them know how things worked. Would love to see that.
posted by fingerbang at 9:10 PM on December 11, 2012

Sadly, that Fork Handles link is wrong! WRONG!

Man, I remember when people dressed like that.
posted by Mezentian at 10:29 PM on December 11, 2012

Porridge was classic gentle 70's comedy - with an occasional edge. Probably my favourite of the breed, along with Dad's Army. I was always fond of Barraclough and McKay, with their affectionately silly version of Nice Screw/Nasty Screw.
posted by Decani at 12:56 AM on December 12, 2012

Brilliant show. I can't believe there were only three series. The writing was great, and the casting was perfect, right down to the minor characters like McLaren.

Without taking anything away from Clement & Le Frenais, the show is very similar in lots of ways to Peter Sellers' film Two Way Stretch. Watch that too if you like Porridge.
posted by DanCall at 1:52 AM on December 12, 2012

Fantastic post. Thanks for bringing back such fond memories.
posted by schwa at 6:55 AM on December 12, 2012

This is what Prison Break should have been. Fantastic post BU!
posted by arcticseal at 8:13 AM on December 17, 2012

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