Porridge – No Way Out

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Originally Transmitted – 24th December 1975

Christmas is approaching in Slade Prison and Godber, for one, is getting into the spirit.  He’s encouraged by the number of cons who have congregated around the Christmas tree to sing carols, but Fletcher has to break the bad news to him.

They’re singing in order to drown out the noise of a tunnel that’s being dug in order to allow Tommy Slocombe to escape (“Yeah, that’s the big occasion around here.  It’s not the coming of our Lord, it’s the going of Tommy Slocombe”).  Genial Harry Grout (Peter Vaughan) is behind the escape, so everybody will have to play their part, as Fletcher so memorably puts it “If we are asked to assist, we are in no position to refuse are we?  Otherwise, we’ll wake up one morning and find two more things hanging on the Christmas tree.  Us”.

Fletcher plans to go away for Christmas by wangling a stay in the comfort of the prison infirmary.  But the doctor (Graham Crowden) is having none of it and packs Fletch off to the local hospital for some tests instead.  This allows somebody to slip Fletcher a package containing a blank passport, which is another piece of Grouty’s puzzle, but he still needs something else – a bicycle.  “Certainly” says Fletch.  “What colour?”.

Fletcher, Godber and Warren are able to relive the unfortunate Mr Barrowclough of his bike and Fletcher then professes ignorance when Mr Barrowclough asks him if he knows where it is (“Let’s get this straight.  You are saying that you came to work this morning as a cyclist and will be leaving as a pedestrian?”).

But all of Grouty’s plans seem to have come to naught after some petty pilfering means that the screws declare that Christmas will be cancelled.  This seems to scupper the escape plan but Fletcher has an idea.  Why don’t they let the screws discover the tunnel and whilst they’re busy congratulating themselves, Grouty can quietly spirit Slocombe away by another route?

Grouty agrees and Fletch is delegated to reveal the tunnel to Mr Mackay.  He wants to arrange that Mackay will literally drop right into it.  Unfortunately, it’s Fletcher who drops into the tunnel, right before the astonished eyes of Mackay, but this does mean that Fletch will be able to spend Christmas in the infirmary after all.

Mackay has one unanswered question and promises Fletcher a bottle of scotch if he’ll answer it.  What did they do with all the earth from the tunnel?  Fletch’s answer (“They dug another tunnel and put the earth down there”) is a killer final line.

The first of two Porridge Christmas specials, No Way Out adds another ten minutes to the normal running time, which allows for a few more gags but isn’t so long that it begins to feel drawn out.  That’s one of the problems with Christmas editions of sitcoms when they started to be produced in a 90 minute format – what works in 30 minutes doesn’t always work when extended to 90.  Thankfully, Porridge didn’t go down that route.

Harry Grout is probably the role that Peter Vaughan is most associated with, which is a little surprising when you consider that Grouty only appeared in a handful of episodes.  He is mentioned in a number of others though, so that his presence is always felt (even when he’s not actually seen).  Vaughan’s ability to play everything deadpan and calm is one of the reasons why Grouty works so well – he doesn’t have to raise his voice, just a word or a snap of his fingers will do the trick.

No Way Out is a hardy Christmas perennial, usually to be found each year on BBC2 and certainly receiving several airings on Gold.  Its familiarity might have dimmed a little of its power (and it’s difficult to rewatch it now without hearing the man with the irritating laugh in the audience) but it’s still a Christmas treat.

Porridge – The Desperate Hours

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Originally Transmitted – 24th December 1976

The second and final Porridge Christmas special splits rather neatly into two sections.  The first fifteen minutes or so follow Fletch and Godber’s illegal booze making activities and their attempts to interest their fellow prisoners in purchasing the fruits of their labour.  Two selections were on offer – the two-star and the five-star.  Upon sampling the five-star, Fletcher had very specific instructions.

Now, I must warn you, this should be sipped delicately like a fine liqueur.  It should not be smashed down the throat by the mugful.

Judging by their expressions, Warren, McLaren and Tulip found it powerful stuff – although quite what was in it was something of a mystery.  Next up was the two-star and Fletcher warned them that this wasn’t quite so smooth.

So go carefully, otherwise not only will you lose the flavour and the bouquet but you’ll also lose your powers of speech.

Sadly, their activities were discovered by Mackay who promptly marched them off to the Governor’s office.  The second part of the episode runs for about thirty minutes and it’s possible to believe that this was a normal episode which was expanded with the home-brew opening to produce this Christmas special.

Things take an unexpected turn when the new trusty, Urwin (Dudley Sutton), takes Barrowclough, Fletcher, Godber and the Governor’s secretary (Mrs Jameson) hostage.   He has two demands for Barrowclough (“shut that blind and get me a helicopter”).  The first is easy enough, but the second is going to be more of a problem.

During the course of the siege we learn that Mr Barrowclough and Mrs Jameson are more than friends (something which Fletcher will no doubt make use of in the future) and we also discover a great deal about Urwin.  It’s a lovely performance from Sutton who really is the focus of the episode.

Urwin is a somewhat pathetic character.  Passed over for psychiatric treatment, it looks as if the system has driven him to this desperate course of action.  Eventually, Fletch is able to take his home-made gun off him (a tense and well-acted seen between Barker and Sutton).  Just prior to this, Fletch spells out to him exactly why he’s never going to make it.

There ‘aint no way.  The worst thing that could happen to you is if they say OK.  ‘Cos you know as well as I do that you’d never make it to that helicopter.  They got marksmen out there that can shoot a fly’s eyebrows off at 400 yards.  And if flies had other things they could shoot them off ‘an all.

Fletch shrugs off the admiration of Godber.  It was nothing, he says, since he knew that Unwin’s gun was a fake (it wasn’t, of course, which Fletch inadvertently demonstrates by shooting a hole in the ceiling!).

Less Christmas orientated than No Way Out, The Desperate Hours is a cracking episode, full of the usual witty banter and a fine guest turn by Dudley Sutton.

BBC Landmark Sitcom Season

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Running across BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4, the upcoming Landmark Sitcom Season is a series of one-off specials designed to celebrate sixty years of the British sitcom (Hancock’s Half Hour, which debuted on BBC tv in 1956, has been taken as the starting point).  Of course, if any prove to be popular they can be developed into full series, which means that the cynics amongst us might regard this as little more than a season of pilots …..

For the purposes of this blog, there’s seven which are of interest – four on BBC1 and the other three on BBC4.  BBC1 gives us Porridge, Are You Being Served, Goodnight Sweetheart and Young Hyacinth (a prequel to Keeping Up Appearances) whist BBC4 has Hancock’s Half Hour, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son.

Goodnight Sweetheart is notable because it’s the only one able to reunite the original cast (alas, time has caught up with most of the stars from the others).  Marks and Gran have already revived another of their sitcoms, Birds of a Feather, on ITV, so it’s not difficult to believe that this has been made with one eye on a full series.

Young Hyacinth is another that’s easy to imagine has been crafted as a back-door pilot.  Writer Roy Clarke has form for this – First of the Summer Wine was an effective (if not terribly popular, ratings-wise) prequel to Last of the Summer Wine – and the current success of Still Open All Hours suggests that Clarke would be up for a revisit of another of his old shows.  Some other time I’ll cast an eye over Clarke’s whole career – it’s amazing that he’s still going strong and it has to be said that his CV is a varied one with a lot more to offer than just umpteen years of Summer Wine.

Are You Being Served looks to be a pitch-perfect recreation of the original series, complete with all the familiar catchphrases.  Whether this is a good or bad thing is very much down to personal taste of course ….

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Porridge looks to be doing something a little different.  It would have been easy enough to cast someone not physically dissimilar to Ronnie Barker (Peter Kay for example) and simply rehash old glories, but the clips show that it’s very much set in the present day (unlike Are You Being Served which remains stuck in the mid eighties) .  One positive is that the updated Porridge has been scripted by Clement and La Frenais themselves, although it’s slightly concerning that they’re not adverse to plagiarising themselves.  Familiar gags (“I won’t let you catch me”) and a martinet Scottish prison officer are present and correct.

Whilst the BBC1 revivals feature new scripts, the ones on BBC4 take a different approach.  Steptoe, Hancock and Till Death are newly recorded versions of wiped originals …. well sort of.  All the Steptoe episodes still exist, so they’ve chosen one which only remains as a poor quality B&W video recording.

These three episodes have a very different feel to their BBC1 counterparts.  The original sitcoms tended to be rather studio-bound, but these new recordings heighten this feel.  The lack of solid walls in the sets makes them seem rather theatrical and artificial, although it’s more than likely that this has something to do with the fact that BBC4 has a considerably lower budget than BBC1.

Although some of the efforts look interesting rather than rib-tickling, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the Hancock episode.  Kevin McNally has already recorded a number of missing HHH radio scripts for Radio 4 (jolly good they are too) and his performances make it clear just how much love and respect he has for the Lad Himself.

When the season’s up and running I’ll be blogging about some of my favourite British sitcom episodes.  So I guess now’s a good time to go off and do some research …..

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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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.