New Fletch, new stretch… but Porridge is still a right old giggle: Christopher Stevens takes a first look at a returning TV classic
- Four decades on, Fletch is back on our screens, but in a modern crime tale
- Porridge revamp features Fletcher’s grandson, serving time in HMP Slade
- Show’s original creators return for one-off which won’t disappoint fans
Some things never change. It’s 43 years since habitual criminal Norman Stanley Fletcher was sentenced to a long sojourn at Her Majesty’s Prison, Slade, and these days the jail doors lock electronically.
There are TV sets in cells, and transsexuals on E Wing. But in 2016, just as in Fletch’s Seventies heyday, the gold standard of jailblock contraband is still the tin of pineapple chunks.
Ronnie Barker, left, as Fletcher and Fulton Mackay, right, as Mackay, in the 1979 classic Porridge
There’s a lovely gag running right through the one-off revival of Porridge, by original writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, that features a pilfered can of fruit chunks in syrup. It isn’t central to the plot; it doesn’t even get opened. But it’s a reminder that life behind bars is much the same, whichever decade we’re in. Plus ca chunk, as the French say.
Porridge ran for four years from 1973, starring the incomparable Ronnie Barker as an old lag who’s spent more than half his adult life in nick, and Richard Beckinsale as his naive young cellmate, Lennie Godber. At heart, it was a father-and-son comedy, and the best moments centred on their bond.
Kevin Bishop, above, stars as Fletch, grandson of the original Fletcher, in the BBC revamp of Porridge, on screens on Sunday night
There was a superb supporting cast too, including Fulton Mackay as a vindictive prison officer (also named Mr Mackay) and David Jason as Blanco, a doddery old con. But the greatest episode, the one with a strong claim to be the sitcom’s finest half-hour, featured just Fletch and Godber, bantering after lights out about an imaginary booze-up. It was called A Night In. Barker and Beckinsale are long gone, and that partnership could never be recreated with different actors. Wisely, the writers don’t try – though they can’t resist telling us what Fletch did next. Here’s a hint: it involved a pub.
Instead, the new Porridge, screening this Sunday on BBC1 at 9.30pm, introduces Kevin Bishop as Nigel Norman Fletcher, the grandson of the original. This Fletch is a hacker, serving five years for credit card crime, and the story involves his attempts to hijack the prison’s wi-fi and delete incriminating files.
Fletch is a barrow boy with a streak of lairy patter a mile wide, which makes him seem an unlikely hacker – you might expect him to nick your car keys but not your laptop password.
Above, a still from the 1970s version of Porridge, with Ronnie Barker. This time around, his grandson is doing time for credit card frau
It doesn’t matter. You can suspend your disbelief, much as Fletch suspends a Pringles can from his cell ceiling to make a wi-fi receiver.
The scenes that work best are the needling bouts between Fletch and Mr Meekie, a perfect impersonation of Mr Mackay by Catastrophe’s Mark Bonnar.
When Fletch claims to have discovered an enthusiasm for yoga, the prison officer challenges him to adopt the ‘Downward Dog’ position. The young lag drops to all fours, and cocks his leg. It’s a gag that would have worked beautifully in the original series – who knows, perhaps the writers have been saving it up for 40 years.
The absence of Godber is felt. The new Fletch is sharing his double bunk with a codger who remembers his grandad, Joe (Dave Hill from EastEnders), serving time for running over a bank robber with his getaway van.
But Porridge fans won’t be disappointed. This is an affectionate tribute to a magnificent series, by the men who created it.
Now might be the time to ask Clement and La Frenais about another of their classic shows – boys, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?