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JONATHAN MARSHALL - PAUL VICTOR - PAUL ABLEMAN
adapted from Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
Porridge


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Jonathan Marshall
Porridge
BBC, London, 1975
(price: 60p; 144 pages)

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Paul Victor
Another Stretch
BBC, London, 1976
(price: 60p; 144 pages)

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Paul Victor
Going Straight
BBC, London, 1978
(price: 70p; 176 pages)
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Paul Ableman
Porridge: The Inside Story
Pan, London, 1979
(price: 80p; 224 pages)


The blurbs on the back:

Seven episodes in the life of the wily old lag Norman Fletcher and his mates doing time in a remote Cumberland prison. Ronnie Barker plays Fletcher in the BBC1 comedy series.
'
Porridge is funny, extremely funny' - Stanley Reynolds in the Guardian

* * *

Further adventures in the daily life of Norman Fletcher and his fellow inmates of the remote Cumberland nick where the main object in life is screw-baiting, and Mr MacKay-baiting in particular. Ronnie Barker plays Fletcher in the BBC-1 series.

* * *

Norman Stanley Fletcher - Fletch to his mates - has been released on parole from Slade Prison. After travelling south in the unexpected and unwelcome company of Mackay, he arrives home intent on going straight - well, almost. But life - in the persons of his daughter Ingrid and his old cellmate Lennie Godber, now planning to get married, and of his probation officer Mrs Chapman - seems determined to thwart him. Even a job as a hotel night porter is not as simple as it might seem.
Fletcher's exploits in prison were the subject of the series
Porridge. This book is based on the new series Going Straight, first shown on NNC1 in February 1978.

* * *

'Hello. It's me, Norman Stanley Fletcher. In the nick...'
It's Britain's favourite con, TV's legendary lag, Fletch, the man's who's ticking off the days in Slade Nick and dreaming about freedom in Muswell Hill!
Porridge: The Inside Story
The hair-raising and hilarious tale of how Grouty, the Godfather of Slade Nick, masterminds a prison break cunningly concealed in a celebrity soccer match ... and how it meant that poor old Fletch and Godber had to break back
inside again ... all under the hawklike gaze of Mackay, Hammer of the Criminal Classes ...


I've already had a go at The Two Ronnies, so let me make it clear at the outset that Porridge is a different kettle of kippers altogether. Drawing on the classic British sitcom tradition (i.e. copying Galton & Simpson as closely as possible), it cast Ronnie Barker, somewhat implausibly, as a petty criminal who'd come up against the wrong judge and was just starting a lengthy stretch at Her Majesty's Pleasure.

Like Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, there was thus a tension set up between a central figure characterized by crafty cunning and a situation that allowed for no escape. There was also, in the presence of the great Richard Beckinsale, a foil to Barker that echoed the Steptoes and the Hancock/Sid James relationships. And in the classic 'An Evening In' episode there was a very deliberate nod to the yardstick of all British sitcom: the final BBC series of Hancock that started with an entirely solo episode.

'An Evening In' is one of the seven chapters in the first of these books. And, for a novelization of a TV comedy, it's pretty good. Written in the first person as Barker's character, Fletcher, it concentrates on the scripts and on the dialogue: no frills, no gimmicks, just class writing. And, indeed, class consciousness, because at its best it was a fine piece of social commentary:

'Colditz! You've gotta be joking. Compared with this place, Colditz was a doddle,' I said. 'Load of public schoolboys playing leap-frog and digging tunnels. This is a nick this is. We spend our days slopping out and sewing mailbags. And by seven forty-five our lights are out. Here all you do is think about it, get frustrated and then go to sleep. In Colditz when the lights went out they started brewing cocoa and having pillow fights. No, my old cocker, this is doing porridge, I promise.' (p.34)

For all the class awareness, and despite my excessive Galton & Simpson references, the truth is that Porridge resembles nothing quite so much as the Jennings books. Just better, that's all.

porridge
Fulton Mackay, Ronnie Barker & Richard Beckinsale

Porridge ran for just three series, and then spawned the barely remembered Going Straight, in which Fletcher went home. It wasn't much cop really. The original was a brilliant situation for a situation comedy: it was a hermetically sealed little world, entire unto itself, it was claustrophobic and static and it had very clear battle-lines drawn between cons and screws. All that was lost when the character was relocated to Muswell Hill. Then it just became a domestic sitcom. Significantly, the best episode was the first, set on a train with just Fletcher and Mackay.

No one was much surprised when the show petered out after one series. And unfortunately the book's not very sharp either - Paul Victor, who doesn't even get his name on the cover, fails to make bricks without straw. Just while we're here, however, you might like to note a nice piece of trivia: Nicholas Lyndhurst (in between his roles in The Tomorrow People and Butterflies) played Fletcher's teenage son.

And then we come to the novelization of the movie spin-off, which came a couple of years after the TV series had finished. And - I regret to say - it ain't up to much. Paul Ableman is a decent writer, but he's trying much too hard here and he's imposing his own style on a character so well defined in the popular consciousness that it's never going to work. The result is an over-written stream of consciousness, that simply isn't Ronnie Barker:

But, I hear you object, only I don't hear you object because you are out there engulfing vast tankards of best bitter and I am alone in my dreary cell, but I can still imagine what you would object to if you was here peering over my shoulder which is the height of bad manners inside or outside. So just pull your nose back before I twist it off if you want me to go on. (p.9)

If you'd never seen the TV show or the film, then it might possibly work. But then, why would you be reading it?


ARTISTIC MERIT: 3/5 and 2/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
3/5 and 2/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
2/5 and 2/5


also available...
another Joe Hook
Ronnie Barker, Fletcher's Book of Rhyming Slang
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