Porridge is a much loved and acclaimed sitcom but it’s something that I’ve never been a huge fan of despite liking Ronnie Barker an awful lot elsewhere. A good friend suggested I give this episode a go though as it has particular resonance during these strange pandemic times as Fletcher and new cell mate Godber (Richard Beckinsale) reminisce about the times they were able to be carefree and fancy free and lark about in nature, or down the local pub at the very least, and it tackles the manner of how we survive when our freedom is taken away.
For those who are either young or not based in the UK, the series is set in a particularly rundown prison in the nineteen seventies where sentenced for five years Norman Stanley Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) is something of a geezer, a bit of a lad, a blokey bloke, and one who is trying to serve his prison sentence in as much luxury as he can, not that there’s much as this is seventies Britain where everything’s grim and grimy so don’t expect to see a cell with playstations or even tvs in them, but he does his best to bend the rules and be as cheeky a fucker as possible.
This fourth episode sees Godber (Richard Beckinsale) become Fletcher’s permanent cellmate, though initially it’s suggested it’s only a short term measure after his previous cellmate Mighty Joe Banks threw a prison guard off the top landing and is presumably now in solitary confinement, though the guard survived thanks to a safety net. It’s an example of the kind of disdain the show has towards authority and especially prison guards and is why it’s unlikely it would be remade without major script changes now, and understandably too as it mocks what must be a horrendous job to do.
Also something that if you’re forgiving you’d describe as “Of its time” is some of the very casual and very unfortunate sexism and homophobia in the episode. Fletcher talks about the page 3 model in a bleak manner and we briefly see a shot of a topless woman in the newspaper, and when he discusses his fondness for dance group Pans People he comments that “There’s one special one, Beautiful Babs…Don’t know what her name is”, while when Godber is talking about his fiancé Denise he pretends to be her only for Fletcher to snap at him not to do that as “Half the fairies round here would go in to a frenzy” if they saw him.
It’s unpleasant for sure but not exactly a surprise. The first episode of Last of the Summer Wine also featured a shot of a topless woman in The Sun newspaper and saw the characters being tediously sexist, and that has a reputation of being the meekest and gentlest of comedies, and it seems that it’s very rare that a sitcom made during this period is completely free of problematic elements. But if you can ignore them, or at least tolerate such shittyness, this episode of Porridge does have a lot going for it. As a study of male friendship it’s often surprisingly sweet natured, and it doesn’t shy away from tackling the harsh realities of prison life, which are quite similar (though of course far, far worse) than life under lockdown.
The most difficult aspect is coping with the lack of freedom, the lack of choice, but both Godber and Fletcher manage to deal with this by pretending that they do have it, that if they wished they could have a night on the town but instead choose to have a quiet night in, and the dialogue between the two of them is quite affecting. When they discuss how their lives used to be it borders on questionable territory again, at least when Fletcher boasts of being “King of the Teds” and “”Smashing up an amusement arcade” but most of the time he’s aware of his flaws and doesn’t take issue with Godber referring to him as a “Cantankerous Old Git”.
When it comes to women there are of course no female characters given the setting, and the way they’re discussed is fairly dodgy, but there’s a level of mockery of how they deal with the lack of sex as Fletcher believes “Carnal thoughts are fatal” while looking at page 3, and at least when Godber talks about his fiancé Denise it’s largely with respect. There’s also some nice jabs involving the nature of religion and how people only pray in the face of adversity, and how Fletcher copes by looking forward to dreaming, as “Dreams is freedom. No locked doors, is there”.
Even better is Godber’s admission to struggling with his mental health and depression, both were either ignored or mocked at the time but here it’s dealt with in a pleasing considerate and thoughtful manner as Godber thanks Fletcher by saying “When that doors locked I am depressed and I am afraid and you just make it that bit more tolerable like” and Fletcher responds in a warm and caring way, suggesting that despite what he said at the beginning of the episode he’d like to have Godber as a cell mate, and that he will be there for him if need be.
The whole thing is shot through with melancholy in a manner which we rarely see in sitcoms these days, and while I can’t say it’s a series that I’m any more passionate about given its questionable elements, having rewatched this episode it’s certainly given me more respect for it. We definitely could do with more sitcoms like it in the current era, cutting the dodginess would need to happen of course but one which explored difficult scenarios, mental health, and the bonds between men in unpleasant times would be fascinating to see, and if you’re struggling with life in these pandemic times or in future lockdowns this could be just the tonic.