Classic TV sitcom Porridge has become a play – and it’s coming to Birmingham. Graham Young reports.
Everyone has their favourite television comedy, but few people have the insight of author Mark Lewisohn.
When the BBC first published his definitive 800-page Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy on October 8, 1998, it included some personal lists.
Lewisohn rated prison-based Porridge the second greatest comedy in British TV history, with Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads – from the same writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais – at six.
Even when American shows were considered, Porridge still came in fourth, with Seinfeld at No 1 followed by Fawlty Towers at No 2 and The Phil Silvers Show at No 3.
The guide’s forward was written by a laughter legend.
“This book is a monumental work,” wrote Ronnie Barker, aka Norman Stanley Fletcher at HMP Prison Slade in Porridge.
“I am so glad it recognises and lists those people who are indispensable to the success of any comedy. Writers, especially, deserve a separate accolade, because if a show is badly directed not many viewers will actually notice, but if it is badly written it will never work.”
Almost 33 years after the TV series ended, Porridge is coming back to life – as a stage production at the Alexandra Theatre.
Thankfully, the original writers are behind Calibre Productions’ revival.
With Ronnie Barker (d 2005) following co-star Richard Beckinsale (d 1979) to comedy heaven, there is, of course, an all-new cast.
Ex-EastEnders’ star Shaun Williamson plays Fletcher, who takes the Brummie character Godber (Daniel West) under his wing.
Clement and La Frenais base the first act on a TV episode about a fixed boxing match and the second on an escape tunnel at Christmas.
Their professional relationship began about 46 years ago when Dick, an urbane southerner undertaking a BBC trainee directors’ course in television, needed a script on the cheap.
With no contacts, he approached tousle-haired Geordie Ian, then an out-of-work salesman, whom he had first met in a pub in Earls Court, London.
The pair wrote a script about two friends who were naturalistic, rather than exaggerated TV personalities, and ‘likely lads’ Bob and Terry were born.
They have now spent 34 years in the States and had a Columbia studio office until Dick’s wife extended the Clements’ house, which nestles in the Hollywood hills three miles above Sunset Boulevard.
The writers’ daily ritual is still the same as it was when I last met them, at the 1998 London launch of their movie, Still Crazy.
Ian takes a ‘planet-friendly’ three-minute walk to Dick’s house and they work from 9.30am-4pm, with a break to watch football at lunchtime.
Doesn’t Ian owe Dick a fortune in ‘dinner money’?
“No, he often brings his own sandwiches!” says Dick.
Films are their business these days, with everything from The Rock and a Pearl Harbor assist on their CV, through to musical adventures such as The Commitments, Still Crazy and forthcoming movie Killing Bono – about an Irish group trying to make it at the same time as rivals U2.
Michael Crawford’s musical Billy was another hit but, in Britain at least, they will always be best remembered for their TV work.
Of the Porridge revival, Dick says: “I’m planning to see it in Belfast and, after that, in Buxton.
“I’ll say ‘hello’ to the cast, but not the audience as such.”
Dick and Ian do not write by email, or even use tapes. The only time they came in handy was for trying to capture the improvisational work of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore when Dick was directing them.
They have spent so much time in the States, Dick says it no longer feels like they are living the dream.
“This is home. We have wildlife like coyotes and deer and you hear of problems with skunks, although we haven’t had one on our street.
“I’ll always want to keep in touch with Britain and Europe by visiting two or three times per year.
“Here, the fires are frightening, though we’ve just had a week of rain and this is the best time of year to be here.
“The fires are much scarier than the earthquakes, although we haven’t felt one of those for a while... ’96 was the last big one.”
Even after Richard Beckinsale’s death, Dick wishes they could have done one more series of Porridge.
“We met Richard’s daughter, Kate, on the set of Pearl Harbor where her mother, Judy Loe, was looking after her baby.
“They found the connection with Porridge very satisfying.
“Richard’s death was a blow for all of us and we also miss Brian Wilde (Mr Barraclough) and Fulton Mackay (Mr Mackay).”
Although concentrating on films, Dick says there are no plans to use the current stage production to generate another Porridge movie.
“It belongs on stage, now,” he says.
At 72 and still as sharp as ever, Dick is naturally against the idea of people having to retire at 65.
“I don’t think we have become worse writers, because we have a wider knowledge of experience to draw on,” he says.
“We just hope we can keep going. The Swedes have it right where they phase people down to four days and then three days.
“I don’t want to retire – and I never did.”
Future plans, though, do not include a return to TV sitcoms.
“We’re in talks with a bestselling novelist to do some classy TV, more like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” says Dick.
“There’s less tyranny involved when you don’t have to find a joke on page one and it would be so much more difficult to make an impact with a sitcom now there are so many more channels.
“We want to do more movies and writing for the stage. Billy was our only hit musical, but it would be nice to do more.”
Dick’s favourite Ronnie Barker story is the day they came up with the title for Porridge.
“We’d been struggling to think of one when we all said we’d come up with one. Ronnie went first and said: ‘Porridge’ and we said: ‘That’s our title’.”
Just 21 episodes of Porridge were made.
After a pilot edition on April 1, 1973 – just three months before Kate Beckinsale was born – three six-part series of Porridge were screened from September 5, 1974 to March 25, 1977, with two Christmas Eve specials going out in 1975 and 1976.
Now, thanks to the magic of theatre, it’s back.
* Porridge is on at the Alexandra Theatre from Monday-Wednesday, February 8-10. Tickets from: 0844 847 2302 or visit www.AlexandraTheatre.org.uk