Porridge – The Harder They Fall

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Upon hearing the news of Peter Vaughan’s death, I decided  to grab one of his performances off the shelf to watch as a tribute.  But as you’ll see from a quick skim of his résumé on IMDB, he was an incredibly prolific actor (over two hundred individual film and television credits), so which one to choose?

He’s solid throughout The Gold Robbers (1969) as DCS Craddock.  It’s a series that I’ve now moved a little higher up my rewatch pile and I’d certainly recommend picking it up if you don’t own it.  Another memorable performance came in the 1985 BBC adaptation of Bleak House, where he played Tulkinghorn.  Vaughan’s trademark menace is clearly in evidence as he dominates every scene he’s in (frankly he makes Charles Dance, Tulkinghorn in the more recent adaption, look very ordinary).

Vaughan also graced numerous series with fine guest appearances.  One such was The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1991, where he played John Turner in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, opposite Jeremy Brett as Holmes .  Generally, the last few series of Brett’s Sherlock Holmes are a little patchy – partly this was because of various real-life factors (Edward Hardwicke’s availability, Brett’s illness) but it’s mainly because most of the really good stories had already been adapted.  The Boscombe Valley Mystery is something of a rarity then, a decent early tale that hadn’t been tackled, featuring a brief – but compelling – turn from Vaughan.

Having considered these and more, in the end I plumped for one of his signature roles – Grouty in Porridge.  That Vaughan remains indelibly linked to Porridge is all the more remarkable when you consider that he only appeared in three television episodes (this one, No Way Out and Storm in a Teacup) as well as the feature film.  But although his screentime is incredibly limited, it’s interesting how Genial Harry Grout casts a shadow over the whole series.  He’s mentioned in several episodes before he makes his debut (quite late in fact, The Harder They Fall came towards the end of the second series) so the audience has already been well primed about exactly who he is.

Genial Harry Grout’s place in the narrative is quite straightforward.  He always pops up to ask Fletch to do him a little favour, making Fletch an offer he can’t refuse.  As seen throughout the series, Fletch either likes to steer clear of trouble or initiate it himself – only Grouty has the power to manipulate him.  Most of Vaughan’s scenes in Porridge were played opposite Ronnie Barker and it’s a treat to watch the pair of them at work.

Grouty’s first scene is a case in point.  Unlike every other prisoner, he has an impressively decorated cell – pictures on the wall, a bird in a cage, an expensive hi-fi system – which are clear signifiers of his special status.  Quite why Mackay and the Governor turn a blind eye to this is a mystery that’s never answered (there are a few possibilities though – all of them sinister).

Offering Fletch a cup of cocoa and a Bath Olivier, Grouty settles down for a chat.  He reminisces about his time in Parkhurst, this provides Vaughan with a killer line as he tells Fletch what happened to the pigeon he kept there.  This is a mere preamble though, as Grouty soon makes his intentions clear – he has a rival (Billy Moffatt) who’s running a book on the inter-wing boxing tournament.  Grouty wants him taken to the cleaners – so they have to nobble one of the boxers. The scene’s desgned to set up the premise of the episode, but thanks to the writing and playing this never feels obvious – instead, the audience is invited to enjoy the dangerous charm of Harry Grout.

Young Godber is the one chosen to take a dive and it’s down to Fletch to break the bad news.  Both Barker and Beckinsale are wonderful throughout this later scene – capped by the revelation from Godber that he can’t take a dive for Grouty in the second round, because he’s already agreed to take a dive for Billy Moffatt in the first!

The exceedingly good Cyril Shaps plays the twitchy Jackdaw, the newest and weediest of Grouty’s gang, whilst Fulton Mackay has a couple of decent scenes (Brian Wilde only pops up briefly – on film – at the start though).

If the ending’s a little weak (it’s hard to believe that everyone – especially Grouty – was happy with the outcome) then thanks in no small part to the interplay between Barker and Vaughan, The Harder They Fall is still a classic half-hour.

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Seven of One – Prisoner and Escort

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Ronnie Barker’s most enduring comic character made his debut in this instalment of Seven of One, Prisoner and Escort (original tx 1st April 1973).  Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker) is a habitual criminal and therefore someone who’s constantly in and out of prison.  It’s New Years Eve and Fletcher is being escorted to begin his latest prison stretch – in the company of two prison officers, Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay) and Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde).

The three-cornered dynamic between Fletcher, Mackay and Barrowclough would yield plenty of comedy when the series proper launched, and the potential for humour and conflict is just as clear here.  Mackay is a Scottish martinet, unyielding in his contempt for all prisoners, but especially a cynical one like Fletcher.  After he nips off to buy some teas, the much more kindly Barrowclough decides that Mackay is upset because he’s missing the chance to celebrate the arrival of the new year.  Fletcher is rather lacking in compassion.  “Only one thing worse than a drunk Scotsman you know, and that’s a sober one.”

If Mackay is hard as nails then Barrowclough is soft as butter.  Mackay sees criminals as people who need to be punished, whilst Barrowclough wants to rehabilitate them.  It’s plain that his liberal nature is a gift for Fletcher, who begins to subtly manipulate him whilst at the same time he entertains himself by needling Mackay, but always ensuring that he stays just within the bounds of civility.

Barrowclough is proud of the prison, telling Fletcher that it’s an experimental one.  “We’ve got a cricket pitch and a psychiatrist.”  Fletcher’s not convinced but Barrowclough continues to evangelise, telling him that if he knuckles down he could come out as an intermediate welder or an accomplished oboe player.  Barrowclough paints a vision of the prison as a place where prisoners aren’t punished, but instead are treated with compassion and understanding.  This, of course, is far removed from the Slade Prison we see in Porridge, so either Barrowclough is hopelessly deluded or Clement and La Frenais decided to craft a more traditional prison environment when the show went to series.

After surviving a lengthy train journey, they’re now on the last lap – a prison van will take them the rest of the way, across desolate and isolated countryside, to their destination.  Fletcher, desperate to use the toilet, spies an irresistible opportunity after Mackay tells him to go behind the van – he unhooks the petrol cap and relives himself.  The combination of his urine and the van’s petrol is not a good mix and soon the van breaks down, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Given that it’s clear, even this early on, that Fletcher has been in and out of prison all his adult life, there’s something not very credible about his attempt to launch a bid for freedom (as the voice-over states, he accepts arrest as an occupational hazard).  It works in the context of this one-off, but it’s impossible to imagine the series Fletcher ever attempting it.

With Mackay setting off to find help, Fletcher and Barrowclough hole up in a nearby empty cottage.  There’s more lovely interaction between Barker and Wilde as Barrowclough unburdens himself about his desperate homelife.  His wife isn’t a happy woman and this is manifested in different ways, such as “a bad temper and spots and sleeping with the postman.”  A great two-handed scene, which is really the core of the episode.

Fletcher’s escape attempt is dealt with quite neatly (if he’s as inept a criminal as he is as an escapee, then it’s no surprise he spends so much time in prison).  Ronnie Barker may have been initially unsure (as were Clement and La Frenais) that a sitcom set in a prison would work, but Prisoner and Escort clearly points the way ahead.

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