Porridge is a British situation comedy broadcast on BBC1 from 1974 to 1977, running for three series, two Christmas specials and a feature film. 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 imprisonment, porridge being once traditional breakfast in UK prisons.
The series was followed by a 1978 sequel, Going Straight. Porridge was voted number seven in a 2004 BBC poll of the 100 greatest British sitcoms.
Porridge originated from an idea used in a 1973 series called Seven of One, also starring Barker. Each of its seven 30-minute episodes saw him playing a new character in a different setting. In the second, “Prisoner and Escort”, a prisoner, Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker), is being escorted from Brixton Prison to Slade Prison by two warders: the easy-going Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde) and the stern Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay). After a long train journey, Fletcher asks to relieve himself at the tiny station where the prison minibus is waiting to take them to the prison. He urinates into the petrol tank, and Mackay strides off to the prison for help when the van stops in the middle of the moors.
Fletcher encourages Barrowclough to spend the night in an abandoned cottage. Here, Fletcher escapes and spends the night on the moors. He hides in a second empty building. He finds he is not alone and prepares to attack. Only then does it become obvious the other resident is Barrowclough and that the cottage is the one from which he set off. Back at the prison, Mackay tells Fletcher that the petrol tank was fuller than when checked and that it was “definitely not 5-star”.
Thus started the humorous conflict between Mackay and Fletch.
A year later this episode was chosen when the BBC was looking for a sitcom to star Barker. The first Seven of One programme also developed into a series: Open All Hours.
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.
Each episode begins with a narration by the judge (voiced by Barker):
“ “Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court, and it is now my duty to pass sentence. You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences — you will go to prison for five years.” ”
The prison exterior in the title sequence and some episodes is Maidstone Prison, which was also featured in the BBC comedy series Birds of a Feather. 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 property 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. The 1979 film was shot entirely at Chelmsford Prison, Essex.
There was a rule among that prisoners did not ask each other their crimes and specific offences were usually not mentioned in the dialogue. However, references were made in some episodes.
Fletcher: in “A Day Out” Barrowclough says Fletcher was convicted for breaking and entering. In the pilot episode Fletcher recounts how he “should have stuck to what I knows best, house-breaking”, but stole a lorry. The brakes failed and he crashed through a series of gardens, finally coming to rest in a tool shed. When asked if he was arrested for wilful destruction of property, to wit “knocking that wall down” he replies, “Oh yeah, an’ I asked for six other fences
[offences] to be taken into consideration. Get it? Get it?” indicating it may all be a joke. (5 years)
Godber: breaking and entering, as mentioned by Mackay in the first episode, “New Faces, Old Hands” (2 years)
Blanco: wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, although in the episode “Pardon Me” he was pardoned. He then admitted that he did kill his wife’s lover (the actual murderer of his spouse), a crime for which he was not convicted.
Lukewarm: not mentioned but he once jokingly relieved Mr Barraclough of his wristwatch whilst shaking his hand, suggesting skills at pickpocketing. Length of sentence unknown but he was paroled three weeks before Fletcher.
Hislop: robbery; mentioned by Mackay in the opening episode of the series (3 years)
McLaren: not mentioned but by way of character maybe grievous bodily harm (3 years)
Keegan: murder — poisoning his wife, as he admits in the Christmas special “The Desperate Hours”
Jarvis: football hooliganism, as implied by Mackay in the final episode, “Final Stretch” (5 more years)
Harris: according to Fletcher, Harris mugged an old woman but it went wrong when he found she had a brick in her handbag and pinned Harris down.
Rawley: by his own description in the episode “Poetic Justice”, Rawley was indicted for “party to criminal conspiracy, forgery of legal documents under the Forgery Act of 1913–1948, and accepting an illicit payment as an officer of the crown”. Fletcher calls them bribery and corruption. His original sentence was three years, but it was overturned on appeal. He left the show after two episodes.