Category Archives: Landmark Sitcom Season

‘Porridge’ (BBC1) Review

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 Mark Bonnar as Officer Meekie alongside Kevin Bishop as Fletch 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 Dave Hill and Bishop as cellmates Lotterby and Fletch70s. 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.

The cast of 'Porridge'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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‘Are You Being Served?’ (BBC1) Review

Following on from a very vague press release in September 2015, earlier this year the BBC announced full details of its Landmark Sitcom Season, launched to celebrate 60 years since Hancock’s Half Hour began on television. Some noted at the time that it would perhaps have made more sense for the BBC to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its first-ever, and arguably the world’s first-ever, TV sitcom, Pinwright’s Progress in 2016, rather than the sexagenary of Hancock – but those small voices were quickly silenced by other, louder ones, who focused on the news that, in addition to documentaries and panel shows and new pilots for BBC2, a host of classics would be resurrected as part of the celebrations. The announcement of new episodes of Porridge, Are You Being Served? and Goodnight Sweetheart, alongside a Keeping Up Appearances prequel, saw some comedy fans rejoicing. Many more, however, adopted the same attitude that is exhibited towards most comedy remakes, and were understandably wary.

Kicking off the Landmark Sitcom Season last night wasSherrie Hewson as Mrs Slocombe alongside Niky Wardley as Miss Brahms Are You Being Served?, which came from the pen of Benidorm creator Derren Litten, following David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd’s deaths in 2011 and ‘14, respectively. So, with the creators and writers having passed away, and only one original cast member surviving, many were sceptical as to whether the new Are You Being Served? could match its predecessor. Of course, deep down everyone knew that it never would – but I doubt I’m alone in being surprised that Litten came closer than anyone imagined.

A heavy plot was neither needed nor provided, with broad innuendoes and cosy nostalgia being the order of the day. From the first trill of the cash register and sweeping shot of the set, a se nse of familiarity was immediately instilled, and this continued throughout the next thirty minutes. Despite  Sherrie Hewson’s Mrs Slocombe (pictured, above) appearing to be little more than a watered-down Joyce Temple-Savage – her formidable manageress character in Benidorm – the cast and script were as near perfection as it was reasonable to expect. Litten proved quite quickly that his intention was not to create entirely predictable innuendo or simply rely on the show’s age-old catchphrases, as once Mr Humphries had declared ‘I’m free!’ and Mrs Slocombe’s pussy had Jason Watkins as Mr Humphrieshad its moment in the spotlight, what the audience were left with was a pleasing script with moments of genuine brilliance, delivered by a cast of sitcom regulars who pitched their performances just right; distinguishable from their predecessors while also instantly familiar. Jason Watkins’s Mr Humphries (pictured, left) was a particular delight, providing proof – if proof were needed – that he is an actor of supreme talent. Few spring to mind who could portray Christopher Jefferies, the former teacher who was falsely accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010, with such sensitivity and authenticity, then slip into the kitten heels of the limp-wristed Mr Humphries – yet seem entirely suited to both.

The episode may have seemed cut-short, being wrapped up just as a plot was begin to take form, but this was an otherwise perfectly-pitched remake of an audience classic. One would have struggled to think of a writer better qualified to bring back Are You Being Served?, and I would be incredibly surprised if it didn’t follow in the footsteps of Still Open All Hours and were not at least considered for a more permanent return.

The cast of 'Are You Being Served?'All images ©BBC 

Are You Being Served? 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.

What did you think of Are You Being Served? Do you agree or disagree with this review? Please comment below or tweet @UKTVReviewer.