Porridge (Sitcom Season: BBC One Revivals)

by Joshua Gaskell

By Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
BBC Comedy Production for BBC 1
Sunday, 28th August 2016

Nigel Norman Fletcher (Kevin Bishop), grandson of Norman Stanley Fletcher, is doing porridge in Wakeley Prison for cyber crime. As he explains in the dock: ‘I admit to being a hacker, but I wore that black hat proudly. Mine was a victimless crime. Unless you regard the corporate world as victims.’ Like his grandfather, he’s a sympathetic criminal, as is his cellmate Joe (Dave Hill), an aged and unsuccessful heister of the Hatton Garden type. Joe knew Fletch Snr. in HMP Slade, but – a nice touch this – didn’t know him well enough to remember the name of his cellmate, Godber.

Fletch keeps himself sane by winning little victories against the system. That is, against Officers Braithwaite (Dominic Coleman) and Meekie (Mark Bonnar) (both very well cast), who represent a continuation of the Barrowclough–MacKay partnership; that is, a ‘good cop’ and a ‘bad cop’ whose lack of joined-up thinking means that they’re always got the better of by their ward:

MEEKIE: I will bring you down if I ever catch you up to something larcenous.
FLETCH: Then I won’t, Mr Meekie.
MEEKIE: Won’t what?
FLETCH: Let you catch me.

This is a joke that Clement and La Frenais have pinched from their own younger selves. It’s not the only one, but old jokes are sprinkled sparingly enough to remind us of the brilliant original without making the revival seem lacking in new comic ideas.*

Fletch‘A nice B & B in Penrith, with the three garden gnomes. Or was it two?’

The episode isn’t perfect of course: the title sequence is a homage to the original but, perhaps because the programme makers knew it would only be used once, does not manage to capture any of its cinematic or poetic qualities; the plot, involving Fletch using his computing expertise to hack into the prison’s system, is unlikely to be referenced for its structure in any encyclopaedias of semiotics; and some of the unreconstructed prison slang – ‘naff off’, ‘bog paper’ – requires a suspension of disbelief.

However, the programme’s success doesn’t lie in these things. It lies in the dexterous way – through the writing and through Bishop’s performance – in which young Fletch resembles, references, and nods affectionately to Ronnie Barker’s Fletch: the sarcastic way he flexes his eyebrows; the cocky way he over-enunciates when talking to officialdom; the way he amuses himself by pretending not to know where he is (‘Fried bread or porridge?’ ‘I was thinking more yoghurt, organic blueberries, sugar-free granola…’); even the way he stands with his hands in his pockets and stockily fills his prison-issue T-shirt.

Young Fletch is also the same kind of organism, within the prison ecosystem, as his grandfather was: he has the respect of the other prisoners, partly because he’s clever – Joe tells him, ‘You should be working in Silly Cone Valley’ – and he’s ‘normal’:

I don’t smoke snout. I don’t smoke wacky baccy. I don’t do drugs or steroids. And I don’t want sexual favours off a six-foot cross-dresser called Dave.

And, finally, he has that wide boy verbal felicity, as when Officer Braithwaite asks for help with his frozen laptop:

FLETCH: The first diagnostic procedure to recover from an unresponsive state is to power-cycle the device to clear the low-level software error, reinitialise its configuration parameters, and restore it to a steady condition. Do you know how you do that?
BRAITHWAITE: Turn it off and turn it back on again.

The rhythm of this sort of comedy sounds quite old-fashioned. But Yes, Minister cadences – of which we were reminded last week, through clips played after the death of Antony Jay – are still pleasing to the ear (and funny) when delivered well.

And, on the whole, this one-off helping of Porridge is delivered quite well. Fans of the original – to employ a Fletcherism – need not to be too dischuffed.

* My favourite of these involves Meekie, sceptical about Fletch’s sudden interest in yoga, testing the prisoner’s sincerity by asking him to perform ‘downward dog’.
† Having said that, I suppose naffing and naff off were always broadcastable euphemisms. And if viewers want unfunny realism instead, they can watch Life Inside Wandsworth Prison (13th August 2016, BBC News Channel).