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Series / Porridge


"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."

Named after the then-slang for being imprisoned ("doing porridge"), Porridge is a prison comedy that aired on The BBC between 1973 and 1977 with three seasons, two Christmas specials and a film. It was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who also wrote The Likely Lads and its sequel Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

Set in the fictional Slade Prison, Porridge starred Ronnie Barker as Fletcher, a cynical and streetwise career criminal, and Richard Beckinsale as Godber, a naive first time inmate. The plot centred around the prisoners' attempts to negotiate everyday life in prison and make it more bearable with "little victories" over the guards (primarily the stern Mr Mackay and the soft Mr Barrowclough), avoid trouble with the Prison Governor (who thinks he runs the place) and avoid the wrath of Harry Grout (an East End gang boss who really does).

For reference and interest, the prisoners and their crimes are:
  • Fletcher - Probably breaking and entering, although a speech that may have been a joke claims it was the theft of a lorry (five years).
  • Godber - Breaking and entering (two years).
  • Blanco - Wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, although in the episode "Pardon Me" he claimed he did kill his wife's lover, a crime for which he was not convicted (sentence unknown, had served 17 years by the time he was released).
  • "Genial" Harry Grout - Crime and sentence unknown but required extradition from Italy.
  • Heslop - Robbery (three years).
  • McClaren - Crime unknown (three years).
  • Harris - Mugged an old lady but it went wrong when he found she had a brick in her handbag and successfully pinned Harris down (sentence unknown).
  • Rawley - Three charges: "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" (three years, quashed at appeal. The judge who sent Fletcher down).
  • "Lukewarm" - Crime and sentence unknown but shown to be able to steal a man's watch off his wrist.
  • Bernard 'Horrible' Ives - Fraud. sentence unknown. Universally loathed.

Came seventh in Britain's Best Sitcom. The sequel, Going Straight, depicting Fletcher's life after his release, was also popular (though less so) and won a BAFTA but was limited to one series by actor Richard Beckinsale's very untimely death. In 2003, a Mockumentary, Norman Stanley Fletcher: Life Beyond The Box, gave a complete history of Fletch's life before and after the series, ending with him running a pub in Muswell Hill. This was Ronnie Barker's final TV appearance.Inspired a short-lived American TV sitcom, On The Rocks.

Tropes used in Porridge include:

  • And a Diet Coke: Fletcher is offered cocoa, which he accepts, and then sugar. He refuses the biscuits, citing watching his weight, as he dumps at least four heaping spoonfuls of sugar in his already-sweet cocoa.
  • Artistic License – Law: The opening narration in which Fletcher receives the maximum possible sentence after pleading guilty doesn't reflect the reality of UK sentencing guidelines - one of the incentives to plead guilty is a mandatory sentence reduction of at least 10% and possibly up to 33% depending on the exact circumstances.
  • Bottle Episode: A Night In may be the ultimate example. It consists almost entirely of two men talking in a darkened room.
  • The Boxing Episode: When Godber takes up boxing, culminating in a Double Knockout.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick : According to Fletcher, the prison football team has a good mix of "youth, experience, flair and brutality".
  • British Brevity: 21 episodes. The show came to an end at the height of its popularity, at Barker's request.
  • The Butcher: Parodied with "The Butcher of Eastgate". He fiddled his VAT.
  • Chronic Villainy: Fletcher is described as an "habitual criminal" in the opening narration, and has spent a large portion of his adult life in prison. Explored more in the sequel, as Fletcher attempts to "go straight".
  • Criminal Procedural: Of the convict variety.
  • Cross-Referenced Titles: Episodes 3 and 4 are "A Night In" and "A Day Out".
  • Decision Darts: Fletcher mentions that in his previous prison they used to run roulette by bribing a warden to turn a blind eye, blindfolding the "croupier" and spinning him around when he threw a dart at a dartboard covered with a list of numbers. Until the spinning was a little too vigorous and the warden "turned a blind eye to everything after that".
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Grouty mentions an inmate who put four prison guards in hospital because someone knocked over his jigsaw puzzle.
  • The Ditz: Heslop. Warren too, to a lesser extent.
    Warren: "Objection!"
    Rawley: "... Well go on, Warren. What is your objection?"
    Warren: "... I don't know."
  • The Dreaded: Mackay has this reputation to an extent, his much much worse replacement is a much better example. However London Gangster Harry Grout is the true winner, simply cause everyone knows that angering him could lead to you loosing your life.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Mackay, he even was a sergeant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment, before he because a prison officer. He likewise still acts like he is.
  • Double Knockout: During their boxing match, Godber and Nesbitt knock each other out with the first punch, having both been bribed to lose. It works out well for Fletcher, though, as he was the only person in the prison to bet on a draw.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Genial Harry Grout, a high up London Crime boss. He is always charming, polite and never even raises his voice. If you do a job especially well for him, he'll pay back the favour and he's in a good mood, he might even be willing to bribe others. But fail him, anger him or just simply annoy him and he'll have one of his many heavies break your arms or beat you to blood.
  • Genre Savvy: Mackay has his moments, but Fletcher is generally still one or two steps ahead.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: The prisoners use the words "naff" or "naffing", depending on context, for viewer-friendly swearing.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: Mackay
    Mackay: I want you to know that I treat you all with equal contempt.
  • How Many Fingers?:
    [Godber bangs his head on a goalpost]
    Mackay: [holds up one finger] How many fingers am I holding up?
    Godber: You can't fool me, sir. Five.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: In "A Day Out":
    Godber: You talk with your mouth full. You whistle out of tune. You snore. You spit.
    Fletcher: How dare you! I do not whistle out of tune!
  • Insane Troll Logic: One of Fletcher’s skills acquired over his years in prison, how to give an answer that is seemingly satisfactory but on later examination is either nonsensical or raises more fridge logic than it settles...
    Q: What became of the soil that was excavated from the tunnel?
    A: We dug another tunnel and put it all down there.
  • It Tastes Like Feet: Basically all the food is described like this.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Why Fletch of course!
  • Kangaroo Court: In "Rough Justice" Fletch puts Harris on trial for stealing from his fellow inmates. While the judge (an actual judge, convicted of corruption) tries to maintain some degree of fairness, he's hampered by everyone else's disregard for proper procedure and firm conviction that Harris must be guilty because he's Harris. (Including the defence counsel.) It turns out they're right, and he returns the watch when MacLaren threatens to "extract" a confession.
  • Knight of Cerebus: Harry Grout, specifically the actor was told not to play it like he was in a comedy. Whenever he appears the threats hanging over Fletcher's head get a lot more serious and the show dips into more Black Comedy.
  • London Gangster: Genial Harry Grout, an East London crime boss, serving time for an unspecified big job that required him being extradited from Italy. Grouty pretty much runs the whole prison: rigging sports matches, organising escapes of other high up criminals who can afford to get out and being completely in control of the entire prison drug trade. Likewise you really don't want to get on his bad side. His only rival in the prison, is another London crime boss, the two compete through betting on prison sports matches then rigging them in their favour.
  • Luxury Prison Suite: We see Harry Grout only three times, each time in his large, well-furnished cell. Apparently when he was extradited he paid for himself and the policeman to be bumped up to first class.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Fletch argues this is the moral choice. Since everyone in prison is out for what they can get, manipulating people is better than getting what you want with your fists. His teaching McLaren to do this gave the latter some character growth.
  • Master Poisoner: Riggs, who now works in the prison kitchens.
  • Military Moonshiner: Or prisoner moonshiner in this case.
  • Moral Dissonance: Blanco, a kindly older prisoner who insisted for years that he was innocent of murdering his wife, later telling Fletcher it was his wife's lover who had actually done it. As he's now paroled pardoned, Fletcher tells him not to go looking for revenge, but Blanco replies that the lover is long dead, and he should know.
    "I was the one what killed him".
  • The Movie: aka Doing Time in the U.S. Made in 1979, featuring the same cast and writers but with no BBC involvement. Not as well-received as the series, though not as bad as some TV spin-offs. This was Richard Beckinsale's last performance before his untimely death.
  • Never Learned to Read: "Bunny" Warren claims to be in prison because he could not read the sign: "Warning, Burglar Alarm". He also gets Fletcher to read him letters from his wife.
  • No Theme Tune: The opening is the top-of-the-page quote (voiced by Barker as the judge) over a locking-the-prisoners-up montage. There is a closing theme tune.
  • Odd Couple: Both Fletcher (cynical old timer) and Godber (naive young criminal), and Mackay (strict and nasty as they come) and Barrowclough (soft as ice cream in a Californian heatwave.)
  • The Old Convict: Fletcher to some extent, but Blanco plays this more straight. He's completed a replica of Muffin the Mule in the prison workshop: "You know, him what's on television". (Muffin the Mule was broadcast from 1946 to 1957. The Porridge episode was broadcast in 1975.)
  • Opening Narration: See the top of the page.
  • Pet Homosexual: "Lukewarm".
  • Prison: The setting, though unlike most examples its a comedy, their is very little violence or focus on the more dangerous inmates. Instead the focus is on more average people dealing with being imprisoned, and winning the occasional little victory.
  • Rule Number One: According to Mr. Mackay, there are only two rules in Slade Prison. Rule number 1: Do not write on the walls. And rule number 2: Obey all the rules.
  • Scary Black Man: Jock McLaren (though he's more of a scary Scot who happens to be black).
  • Scary Minority Suspect: Ditto.
  • Second Episode Introduction: Godber, and all other prisoners except Fletcher himself, does not appear in the pilot.
  • Shout-Out: Harry Grout, who bears something of a resemblance to a certain Mr. Bridger, is apparently doing time for some sort of job in Italy...
  • Status Quo Is God: Averted. Fletch is sentenced to five years; as the original series had run for four, the sequel Going Straight focused on Fletch's release back into society.
  • Tragic Villain: Reg Urwin from the Christmas Special "Desperate Hours" he's perfectly happy to hold Fletcher, Godber, Mr Barrowclough and the Governor's secretary at gunpoint and contemplates homicide a few times. However all he wants is to get out of Prison and be free again as he's clearly not coping with his incardination and is also clearly mentally unwell. Its revealed he was recommended for Psychiatric treatment three times before this events, but never got any and he admits if he doesn't get out he'll kill himself, having already attempting suicide once before. When Fletcher disarms him, he outright breaks down to tears. Fletcher and Godber even pass up a chance of a pardon for stopping him, so that Reg can surrender on his own and finally get some much needed help.
  • Trans Atlantic Equivalent: ABC's short lived On The Rocks.
  • Treasure Map: Blanco has a map showing where his ill-gotten gains are buried, though it turns out to be a fake. Another inmate, Norris, gets caught trying to dig it up under a football pitch.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Retasked the existing word 'naff' as an expletive, as in "naff off". Also created 'nerk' (presumably in place of 'berk') and possibly 'scrote'.
  • Vetinari Job Security: When Mr Mackay is promoted a stricter, crueller screw from a prison Fletcher had been in earlier in his life replaces him and bullies both the criminals and Mr Barrowclough. The prisoners get rid of him by orchestrating a Crowning Moment of Awesome for Mr Barrowclough and welcome back Mackay with a rendition of "For he's a jolly good fellow".
  • Violent Glaswegian: Jock McLaren, again.
  • Wardens Are Evil: Averted, the Warden of Slade Prison is a all around genial, cheerful and friendly man, who firmly believes in treating the prisons correctly and rehabilitation. While the inmates aren't above taking advantage of his occasional native he never the less even strikes up a reasonably friendly relationship with Fletcher.
  • We Meet Again: Fletcher and Mr Wainwright. Fletcher and Judge Rawley.
  • We Want Our Jerk Back: As mentioned above, Mr Mackay's overly-cruel replacement had the prisoners getting nostalgic.
  • What Are You in For?:
    Fletcher: Got caught.
  • Worthy Opponent: Fletcher and Mackay, make no mistake both of them will never miss a chance to get one over or humiliate the other, but their is a clear unspoken level of respect between the two. It says something that when they meet up after Fletcher is released, while starting off hostile they are soon cheerfully drinking together and reminiscing about their past. They even part on mostly friendly terms.

Tropes used in Going Straight include:

  • Expository Theme Song: "I'm going straight, along the straight and narrow, and I don't mean straight back to crime..."
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: All the episodes begin "Going..."
  • Noodle Incident: The hotelier who gives Fletch a job has never regretted giving prisoners a second chance "except on... two unfortunate occasions".
  • Reformed, but Rejected: Fletcher's efforts to go straight are sincere, but, doomed to a life of low paying menial work and surrounded by temptation, he almost becomes this.
  • Spinoff Sendoff

Tropes used in Norman Stanley Fletcher: Life Beyond The Box include:

  • Character Outlives Actor: Ingrid (Fletch's daughter, who married Godber in Going Straight) gets a phone call from her husband to say that he can't make it back for the documentary. Richard Beckinsale died shortly after Going Straight completed filming.
  • Distant Finale: Quite literally.