Celebrating Clement & La Frenais: Porridge
A further look at the genius of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, where they gave Ronnie Barker his role of a lifetime...
Porridge is acknowleged throughout the televison industry as being one of the very best sitcoms not written by a certain former Python or set in Torquay.The much missed Ronnie Barker, the star of Porridge, felt the show was the pinnacle of his career and the work he was most proud of. Praise indeed for Clement and La Frenais given Barker’s status as a comedy legend and a man not unfamiliar with scripting brilliant material himself. A mixture of very good writing and the skills of the cream of British comedy talent at the height of their powers ensured Porridge‘s status as a true classic sitcom.
Porridge was developed from an earlier series Thick As Thieves which Clement and La Frenais had written for John Thaw and Bob Hoskins. Made and shown by LWT in early 1974, the six part series featured the adventure of two ex-cons. Although it was much praised, ITV execs felt the writing was too clever and may have gone over the heads of the intended audience.
Clement and La Frenais decided to change direction and have the cons go back inside. However ITV dithered and eventually personnel changes both behind the scenes and in front of the camera forced Dick and Ian to take the idea elsewhere. Bob Hoskins was offered a major film role whilst John Thaw went to Euston Films and starred in a one-off play Regan which lead to the hugely successful police drama The Sweeney.
The BBC were looking for a major comedy series from the duo to replace The Likely Lads and so very much welcomed Porridge. Having researched the background to their potential series by visiting several top gaols, the writers became increasingly depressed and unsure they could get any comic mileage from the idea. However it was then they remembered what a prisoner told them when asked how he got through the day, “Little victories” he’d replied going on to detail several small moments that had wrong-footed the staff and made the day. This became something of a catchphrase and “work ethic” for Fletcher.
Obviously the true experiences of the daily grind of a prison was diluted for television as was the language especially given Porridge‘s pre-watershed slot . “Naff off!” became the expletive of choice in the same way “smeg” is used in Red Dwarf. Later it was given “Royal approval” when Princess Anne reportedly used it to a photographer. “Fletch” and Godber also favoured the use of “nurk” to describe the Prison Officers. A “charmless celtic nurk” in Fletcher’s book, his arch nemesis was the hard-nosed Scottish Chief Warden Officer McKay played with tremendous appetite by Fulton McKay.
The character famously treated all the prisoners the same – with utter contempt. McKay’s colleague was the put-upon and easily manipulated Mr Barraclough played by a world weary Brian Wilde. Representing a more progressive and liberal breed of warden, Barraclough believes in the rehabilitatiion of the prisoners and always sees the best in people which is often his downfall.
The pressure of their situation undoubtedly got to the prisoners, being literally captive and very definately in a place they don’t want to be. As Fletcher once said he’s only there because its an “occupational hazard”. Whilst he realises he made a mistake, he attributes it to the being caught rather than the crime itself.
The one exception to the daily grind is enjoyed by the prison’s Mr Big “Genial” Harry Grout played with just the right amount of intimidating menace by Peter Vaughan. “Grouty” is a tobacco baron and bookmaker and feared by all with perhaps the exception of Mr McKay. Grout enjoys the luxury of his own well-decorated and upholstered cell and is guarded by two heavies known to Fletcher as “Samson and Delilah” one being a meat-headed heavy the other “Jackdaw” the complete opposite whom presumably sees Grout as a chance for protection.
The episode A Night In, essentially a two hander set in Fletch and Godber’s cell overnight, is an example of the show at it’s finest. The comedy takes a back seat in what is probably Ronnie Barker’s very best scene, in many ways worthy of a Pinter play. Describing to his cellmate the chances of having a good life and a fulfilling relationship after doing time, Fletcher points out that ultimately everyone else has one big advantage of “never being in no flaming nick!” Fletcher’s genuine anger against himself as much as the system for his situation is atypical of virtually everything else in the entire sitcom and all the better for it. This powerful scene allows Clement and La Frenais to up the ante when returning to a comedic line whilst rounded out still further Fletcher’s very well written character.
Fletcher and Godber’s general frustrations are dealt with in two very accomplished episodes. In No Peace For The Wicked, Fletcher is unable to spend a quiet Saturday afternoon to himself. A succession of visitors to his cell – including “defrocked” dentist Mr Banyard, the illiterate “Bunny” Warren played by Sam Kelly, a deputation from the Home Office and David Jason’s “Blanco” Webb only add to his frustration. Finally Fletcher’s anger manifests itself when he throws the unfortunate Prison Chaplin off the landing. Fortunately the reverend is caught by the safety netting.
Richard Beckinsale’s Lenny Godber experienced his fair share of disappointment and frustration too. In the episode Heartbreak Hotel he attacks “Genial” Harry Grout’s henchman “Jackdaw” with a soup ladle after being teased for being dumped by his fiancee Denise who in turn has married a rival suitor. Godber, on something of a rebound, turns his attentions to Ingrid Fletcher when she visits her Dad.
Clement and La Frenais followed up the success of Porridge with the more modest Going Straight. The story of Fletcher’s rehabiltation it is less well known and rarely repeated outside UKTV Gold. Notable for an early comedy performance by Nicholas Lyndhurst as Fletcher’s young son Raymond. The series ends with Godber marrying Fletcher’s daughter Ingrid. In the last episode, which Dick Clement later described as one of his personal favourites, Fletcher is under pressure to do one last “job” that would allow him to pay for the wedding (which a sense of personal pride dictates he should).
There’s a touching scene when Godber asks Fletcher to be his best man, pointing out that after three years as “cellies” they know each other best. Appearing to be going ahead with the crime after all, the most dramatic scene sees Fletcher have an ephiphany in a pet shop. Observing all the caged birds, he is haunted by life behind bars. For once he decides this time he really is going to go straight and buys a canary which he later symbolically sets free.
Successful though the series was, Going Straight had a very tough act to follow. In 1979 Dick and Ian wrote a big screen version of Porridge. Although not up to the standard of the TV series it was, like The Likely Lads, a good deal better than the average sitcom to big screen transfer.
Sadly, only weeks after the film was completed Richard Beckinsale died of a heart attack at just 31.The young actor’s death profoundly affected Ronnie Barker who dedicated the BAFTA award given to Going Straight to his late co-star’s memory.
As a new decade began Clement and La Frenais moved on to new ideas. Next time: how Quadrophenia director Franc Roddam inspired Clement and La Frenais to write a series that became a success on ITV in the Eighties and twenty years later on the BBC. Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
Read last week’s celebration of Clement and La Frenais here.