Diamond in the rough
The series, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, started life as just one of six Ronnie Barker pilots that sprung from The Two Ronnies show. It was called Prisoner and Escort and entailed the journey of a newly convicted criminal to a remote prison in Cumbria. This one-off show was followed by three series, two Christmas specials and a full-length feature film. During the same series, Seven of One, there was an episode concerning a northern shopkeeper who went by the name of Arkwright. The rest, as they say, is history.
There are many elements that make a truly great sitcom but in this case a lot of its popularity was due to Muswell Hill's finest son, Norman Stanley Fletcher. He is a bona-fide TV comedy icon, one of an elite number that also includes Alf Garnett, the Steptoes, Basil Fawlty and Victor Meldrew. Ronnie Barker, who by the mid-1970s was at the height of his profession, was sensational in the role. No wonder BAFTA recently gave a tribute to the great man.
Of course, this is not a one-man show, and Fletcher was surrounded by a real rogues gallery of, well, rogues. The late, great Richard Beckinsale starred as young Godber, while Fulton Mackay became legendary in the 1970s with his excellent portrayal of the stern prison officer or 'screw'. Look out also for a young David Jason, who was only in his mid-30s when he played the character of 63-year-old Blanco.
One of a kind?
Porridge was not the first time prison has been used as a situation for comedy. The 1960 film Two Way Stretch (director Robert Day) featured Peter Sellers as a cockney character akin to Fletcher, Bernard Cribbins as a Godber type and Lionel Jeffries as an officious warden, much like Mackay. The similarities are very striking.