With Are You Being Served? having heralded the beginning of the BBC’s string of classic sitcom revamps at 9pm, Porridge was up next, starring Kevin Bishop as Fletcher – the grandson of Ronnie Barker’s Norman Stanley – who has been imprisoned for cyber crimes.
On paper, Porridge sounded promising. Unlike Are You Being Served?, it was coming from the pens of its original writers and creators, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, and the lead role of Fletch had been put in the capable hands of comedian Kevin Bishop. One can only imagine the pressure that Bishop felt; as recently as last year, Porridge was voted the fifth best-loved British sitcom by the public, proving that our affection for not only the series but the character of Norman Stanley Fletcher, too, was as strong as ever. So, even if he wasn’t playing the same role as Ronnie Barker, as the protagonist in Porridge Bishop had huge shoes to fill and high expectations to meet. I doubt anyone truly expected it to surpass or even meet the standards of the original series, but I found this episode to be poor even on its own merits.
Where was the originality? Where was the charm that made the series so popular in the 70s, and continually so to this day? It all just seemed to be badly pitched and not thought-through well enough at all. One got the impression on watching it that Clement and La Frenais focused too much on rehashing old jokes – from the ‘I won’t let you catch me’ conversation with Mackay/Meekie to the cheeky ‘two fingers’ to the prison officers, via a pineapple chunks motif – that they omitted anything genuinely funny from their script.
Another focus of the writers’ that seemed to have been given undue time and attention was the impression upon the audience that this episode of Porridge is set in the 21st century – unlike the old episodes of Porridge, which were made and set in the 70s. For example, while Barker’s Fletch was banged-up for attempting to steal a lorry, Bishop’s incarnation has committed a string of cyber crimes – because it’s the 21st century, so obviously his imprisonment’s something to do with computers. Then, within the first few post-titles scenes, there are references to gluten-free food, Sepp Blatter and Wikipedia, because those things weren’t around in the 70s but they are now, in 2016, and of course everyone’s dropping them into casual conversation. There was even a young character calling Fletch ‘bro’ – because that’s what all the youth say nowadays, you see, and Clement and La Frenais are so ‘down’ with that. Oh, and they then have a character tell Fletch that he ‘smoked some lethal crow last night’ and ‘was well-blunted’ – you know, just in case you were in any doubt as to whether this was still set in the 70s. ‘Bro’.
Calling this show Porridge was always going to be an albatross around its neck, and so it’s transpired to be. Kevin Bishop may have put in a commendable performance as Fletcher 3.0, but when working with a below-par script that I could scarcely believe was the work of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais themselves, even he wasn’t enough to save it. Then again, I had a similar reaction to the pilot of Still Open All Hours, yet that was commissioned for a full series and has since gone from strength to strength, so perhaps Porridge will follow suit. However, I expect the quality of the scripts would have to improve somewhat, as this seemed to be nothing more than a pale imitation of the original.
All images thanks to Scott Kershaw and ©BBC
Porridge is available on BBC iPlayer until 27th September 2016.
The Landmark Sitcom Season continues throughout August and September across the BBC. Full details can be found on the British Comedy Guide.
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