Porridge is a British sitcom first broadcast on BBC One from 1974 to 1977, running for three series, two Christmas specials and a feature film also titled Porridge (released under the title Doing Time in the United States). Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, it stars Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale as two inmates at the fictional HMP Slade in Cumberland. “Doing porridge” is British slang for serving a prison sentence, porridge once being the traditional breakfast in UK prisons.
Porridge was critically acclaimed and is widely considered to be one of the greatest British sitcoms of all time. The series was followed by a 1978 sequel, Going Straight, which established that Fletcher would not be going back to prison again. On Sunday 28 August 2016, a one-off episode revival of the original series, also titled Porridge, was broadcast on BBC One. It stars Kevin Bishop as Nigel Norman Fletcher, Norman Stanley Fletcher’s grandson.
Porridge originated with a 1973 project commissioned by the BBC Seven of One, which would see Ronnie Barker star in seven different situation comedy pilot episodes. The most successful would then be made into a full series. One of the episodes was “Prisoner and Escort”, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who appear in one episode) about a newly sentenced habitual criminal, Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker), being escorted to prison by two warders: the timid Mr. Barrowclough (Brian Wilde) and the stern Mr. Mackay (Fulton Mackay). It was broadcast on 1 April 1973 on BBC2. Despite Barker’s initial preference for another of the pilots, a sitcom about a Welsh gambling addict, “Prisoner and Escort” was selected. It was renamed Porridge, a slang term for prison; Barker, Clement and La Frenais actually came up with the same title independently of each other.
In their research, Clement and La Frenais spoke to Jonathan Marshall, a former prisoner who had written a book, How to Survive in the Nick, and he advised them about prison slang, dress and routines. Struggling to think up plots and humour for such a downbeat, confined environment, a particular phrase used by Marshall – “little victories” – struck a chord and convinced them to base the series on an inmate who made his daily life in prison more bearable by beating the system, even in trivial ways.
The BBC was forced to look around for locations because the Home Office refused permission for any production filming inside or outside a real prison. Instead the main gatehouse of the disused St Albans Prison (in the town’s Victoria Street) was used in the opening credits. Exteriors were first filmed at a psychiatric hospital near Watford. However, after the completion of the second series, the hospital withdrew permission for more filming following complaints from patients’ families. Another institution near Ealing was then used for the third series. Scenes within cells and offices were filmed at the BBC’s London studios. But for shots of the wider prison interior, series production designer Tim Gleeson converted an old water tank, used at Ealing Studios for underwater filming, into a multi-storey set.
The first episode, “New Faces, Old Hands”, was aired on BBC1 on 5 September 1974, attracting a television audience of over 16 million, and receiving positive reviews from critics. Two further series were commissioned, as well as two Christmas special episodes. The final episode of Porridge, “Final Stretch”, was broadcast on 25 March 1977. The producers and the writers were keen to make more episodes, but Barker was wary of being “stuck with a character” and also wanted to move on to other projects, so the series came to a close. Barker did, however, reprise his role as Fletcher in a sequel, Going Straight, which ran for one series in 1978. A feature-length version of the show was made in 1979 and in 2003 a follow-up mockumentary was aired.
The central character of Porridge is Norman Stanley Fletcher, described by his sentencing judge as “an habitual criminal” from Muswell Hill, London. Fletcher is sent to HMP Slade, a fictional Category C prison in Cumberland, alongside his cellmate, Lennie Godber, a naïve inmate from Birmingham serving his first sentence, whom Fletcher takes under his wing. Mr Mackay is a tough warder with whom Fletcher often comes into conflict. Mackay’s subordinate, Mr Barrowclough, is more sympathetic and timid – and prone to manipulation by his charges.
The prison exterior in the title sequence is the old St Albans prison gatehouse and Maidstone Prison, which was also featured in the BBC comedy series Birds of a Feather (HMP Slade is referred to in Birds of a Feather when the main protagonists’ husbands are imprisoned there after reoffending in Series 7). The interior shots of doors being locked were filmed in Shepherds Bush Police Station – the BBC had a good relationship with officers there. In the episode “Pardon Me” Fletcher speaks to Blanco (David Jason) in the prison gardens: this was filmed in the grounds of an old brewery outside Baldock on the A505 to Royston. The barred windows approximated a prison. The building has since been demolished. The 1974 episode “A Day Out”, which features a prison work party, was filmed in and around the Welsh village of Penderyn, the prisoners’ ditch being excavated by a JCB. Loftus Road, the home of Queens Park Rangers Football Club, was briefly featured in “Happy Release”, standing in for Elland Road in Leeds. In the episode “No Way Out”, Fletcher tries to get MacKay to fall into a tunnel in a tarmac area, these outside shots were filmed at Hanwell Asylum in West London, the barred windows in this case being those of the hospital pharmacy. The interior shots for the 1979 film were shot entirely at Chelmsford Prison, Essex.
by Simon schofield