Porridge (1979)

Genre Comedy  
Country UK  
Director Dick Clement  
Screenplay Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, based on their TV series Porridge  

Starring Ronnie Barker, Richard Beckinsale, Fulton Mackay, Brian Wilde, Peter Vaughan  

Running time 93 mins   |   Colour Eastmancolor   |   Aspect ratio 1.85:1  

This feature film version of the classic 1970s sitcom Porridge sees Slade Prison cellmates Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) and Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale) becoming involved in a football match against a visiting celebrity team. But the football match is also being used as cover for a daring escape attempt, leading Fletcher and Godber to find themselves on the wrong side of the prison walls. 

The film begins with a new intake of prisoners arriving at Slade. Among them are young first offender Rudge (Daniel Peacock), who is later advised by Fletcher on coping with life in prison, and armed robber Oakes (Barrie Rutter), who is being transferred from another jail. Oakes is six years into his sentence, and is eager to escape to the sun to spend more time with the money he has liberated. 

The prisoners' lives are overseen by the ever-watchful prison warders. In addition to the TV series' regular prison officers, strict Scots disciplinarian Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay) and the naive and soft-hearted Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde), the film also introduces a new warder to Slade Prison, Mr Beal (Christopher Godwin). 

Life in the prison is overseen, officially and unofficially, by two men. These are the prison's Governor (Geoffrey Bayldon) and the prisoners' own supremo Harry Grout (Peter Vaughan). The latter is a big time crime boss who still runs criminal schemes from the comfort of his jail cell.

Hoping to escape, new arrival Oakes approaches Grout to help spring him from Slade in return for a hefty fee. Grout suggests a football match against a visiting celebrity side, to provide cover for the escape attempt. Fletcher then finds himself reluctantly involved, as he is roped in to coach the prisoners' side. Godber, meanwhile, takes up football training, hopeful of winning a place on the team. 

While the celebrity side turns out to be a disappointment, Oakes's escape disguised as the visitors' bus driver is much more successful. Unfortunately, circumstances mean that he has to take Fletcher and Godber with him, initially at gunpoint. The two are free at last - but, with only a little time left to serve on their sentences, do they really want to escape?

Original British poster for the 1979 film Porridge
The original British film poster for Porridge

Porridge was an unlikely success story in the 1970s, a sitcom set in the very unpromising environment of a prison. But in the hands of regular sitcom writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (of The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen Pet, among many others) and with an expert cast of regulars, the series was a sizeable hit for the BBC. Porridge would run for three seasons and became one of Britain's most celebrated and best-loved sitcoms. 

The series' unusual title refers to a slang term for serving time in prison. According to its star Ronnie Barker, the series was originally set to be called "Stir", another slang term for prison, until he suggested the less ominous-sounding "Porridge" instead. It seems that this film version was re-titled to the more self-explanatory "Doing Time" for a US release, but it must have been a very limited one or a video-only one, as many of the jokes and references would probably be lost on an American audience. 

In the 1970s the British film industry turned repeatedly to successful TV series, especially comedies, to bring audiences back into cinemas. That meant film versions of Dad's Army and Please Sir! (both in 1971), Bless This House (1972), two Steptoe and Son films (in 1972-73) and three films based on On the Buses (in 1971-73), among others. By the time they came to make the film of Porridge, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais had already written a film version of their other sitcom The Likely Lads, released in 1976. 

The Porridge film came very late in this sitcom-to-film trend, with the cycle ending the year after this film was released. In fact, not only had the TV series of Porridge finished by this point, having run from 1974 until 1977, but it had also spawned a six episode sequel, Going Straight, in 1978. Going Straight followed Fletcher and Godber on their release from prison, so the Porridge film is presumably set before that, finding the two characters on their final stretch before release. 

The film version of Porridge has prominent roles for the four main characters in the series, led by Ronnie Barker as the old lag Fletcher. Fletcher is a wily shirker with a dry wit, a regular prison internee who regards doing time as an unfortunate "occupational hazard". He is always looking out for himself and, at times, his friend Godber, while trying to navigate the twin hazards of the prison authorities and the sinister crime boss Mr Grout.

Richard Beckinsale is always likeable as Fletcher's younger, less worldly cellmate Lennie Godber, while Fulton Mackay as the martinet chief warder Mr Mackay, and Brian Wilde as his naive colleague Mr Barrowclough provide memorable foils for Fletcher's wit. 

There are also small roles in the film for the TV version's regulars Sam Kelly, as the not-so-sharp Warren, and Tony Osoba, briefly included as Scotsman McClaren, although Christopher Biggins as camp prison chef Lukewarm is absent. 

Of the semi-regulars, Peter Vaughan gets by far the most prominent role as Grout, the prisoner who thinks he actually runs the prison and, as far as the other inmates go, he probably does. His prominent role in the film may be one reason why Peter Vaughan is so well-remembered for Porridge, despite appearing in only a few episodes of the TV series.

Like Noel Coward as Mr Bridger in the 1969 film The Italian Job, Grout has all the comforts of home in his cell. These include pets, a radio, a picture of the Queen on the wall and, of course, he still manages to retain his criminal business interests both inside and outside the prison. This particular prison's Mr Big, though, is much more intimidating than Noel Coward's Mr Bridger, and Peter Vaughan is very effective as the sinister, cold-eyed and humourless old Grouty.

Ronnie Barker and Fulton Mackay in Porridge
Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) with Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay)

The prison also has a new governor in the film in Geoffrey Bayldon, who is around to look sceptical about the idea of a football match against a visiting team, but can be won over by the promise of celebrities. As well as by Mackay's unwittingly false assurance that the idea did not emanate from the prisoners themselves. It did, of course, come to Mackay from Fletcher, but in a roundabout way so as to disguise its true origins. 

The film's introduction of a new prison officer, who Fletcher can rile, and Daniel Peacock as a new inmate he can take under his wing, helps to act as an introduction, or reintroduction, to the series and its cast of characters.

The film's supporting cast is full of British sitcom actors in early roles, including Gorden Kaye ('Allo 'Allo) as the driver of the visiting team's bus, Karl Howman (Brush Strokes, Mulberry) as an inmate on the prisoners' football team, and Duncan Preston (Surgical Spirit, Dinnerladies) as one of the visitors' side. The celebrity team is led by Julian Holloway, a semi-regular in the Carry On films.

While there are still plenty of one-liners in the script, the film has a rather bleaker, more airless feel than the TV series. This is particularly noticeable in the earlier scenes, before the action of the football match kicks in. This is probably due to a combination of shooting on film, instead of on tape as in the TV version, the absence of the usual TV laughter track and the use of a genuine prison as a filming location. 

This lends a rather colder atmosphere than is apparent in the TV series, which was filmed under brighter television lighting and in the more agreeable environment of a TV studio. Even the exteriors seen in the TV series weren't usually of a real prison. In the film, though, everything feels a little more real, lending the situation a more melancholy edge than usual. 

The film's exteriors were also clearly filmed in the chill of a cold winter, meaning that even the world outside Slade Prison looks quite unfriendly and unenticing. This sense of chilly realism is augmented by the lack of a music score, with most of the music in the film being whatever is heard playing on the radio in the background. 

The film suggests that there are actually two classes of inmates at Slade Prison; not just the prisoners themselves, but also the prison officers. Right at the beginning one of the prisoners laughs, only half-jokingly, that the new prison officer is just as trapped in this remote place as they are. 

The two groups of men at Slade each also have their own governors. For the prison officers it's the official prison governor, while for the inmates the real governor is the sinister Mr Grout, who acts as a sort of shadow governor.

That the two classes of inmate are not quite so different as it first appears is suggested by the exchange between Barrowclough and Beal, when the latter asks them to take him to the prison in their minibus, saying "It saves me the cab fare." "Aye well," Barrowclough replies, "I'd still claim for it, though".

Ronnie Barker as Fletcher in Porridge
Ronnie Barker as Fletcher

In the film, Mr Mackay presides over a new bar on the premises for the warders only, with a running joke about how unfriendly and poorly frequented it is, even though there's really nowhere else to go. Mr Barrowclough is there, but as he admits, this is because it's preferable to the only alternative - going home to the wife.

Although it's still amusing, the film admittedly lacks drive until the football match and escape plot are introduced, at which point it picks up momentum considerably. As some viewers may have noticed, the premise of a special football match being used as cover for an escape attempt by prisoners anticipates the plot of the Sylvester Stallone-Michael Caine film Escape to Victory made only two years later.

A contemporary report from the location for the BBC's Nationwide programme stated that the film was made on a budget of £1 million on a tight four week shooting schedule. The location filming took place at Chelmsford Prison, which was available for filming at the time as it was being refurbished after a fire. 

The film was directed by co-writer Dick Clement, who would later direct the Bulldog Drummond spoof Bullshot in 1983 and the satire Water in 1985, before concentrating with Ian La Frenais on TV and film writing (including the films The Commitments and The Bank Job) and script doctoring. 

The ensemble cast of Porridge shows how easily excellent character actors could be overlooked by the cinema, even in the busiest years of British film comedy in the 1950s and 1960s. TV star Ronnie Barker had worked in films on and off for 20 years, although never very memorably, his only other memorable film role being as Friar Tuck in Richard Lester's 1976 film Robin and Marian

Fulton Mackay barely troubled cinema screens at all until he found success in TV, which got him cast in character roles in the 1980s, including in Clement and La Frenais's film Water and as the old beachcomber in Bill Forsyth's 1983 comedy Local Hero. Brian Wilde was another who was barely noticed by the film industry, his most memorable film role being as the doomed Rand Hobart in Jacques Tourneur's horror Night of the Demon in 1957.

The British sitcom-to-cinema cycle finished in 1980 with films of the ITV comedies George and Mildred and Rising Damp. The latter was set to star the TV version's regulars, including Leonard Rossiter and Porridge's Richard Beckinsale, but was doomed by the tragic death of Beckinsale, the father of actresses Kate and Samantha, from a heart attack at the age of 31. This necessitated his replacement for the film version by Christopher Strauli.

The British sitcom films of the 1970s generally get a bad rap, and mostly for good reason. They were usually over-stretched, suffered from weak scripts and were often marked by a coarsened sense of humour. 

But Porridge is one of the few films that bucks that trend. The TV version has deservedly become one of the most beloved of classic British sitcoms and the characters and situations have transferred very satisfactorily to the film version. For that reason, it's probably the best of the 1970s sitcom films. Inevitably, like all of these films, it does work much better for those already familiar with the TV series. But unlike many similar films, it doesn't over-stretch the material and it remains true to the characters and the spirit of the TV original.


Cast 

Ronnie Barker  -  Fletcher
Richard Beckinsale  -  Lennie
Fulton Mackay  -  Mackay
Brian Wilde  -  Barrowclough
Peter Vaughan  -  Harry Grout
Julian Holloway  -  Bainbridge
Geoffrey Bayldon  -  Governor
Christopher Godwin  -  Beal
Barrie Rutter  -  Oakes
Daniel Peacock  -  Rudge
Sam Kelly  -  Warren
Ken Jones  -  Ives
Philip Locke  -  Banyard
Gorden Kaye  -  Dines
Oliver Smith  -  McMillan
Andrew Dunford  -  Armstrong
Steven Steen  -  Wellings
Ivan Steward  -  Simkin
Derek James  -  Small
Karl Howman  -  Urquhart
Rod Culbertson  -  Callaghan
Zoot Money  -  Lotterby
Derek Deadman  -  Cooper
Robert Putt  -  Atkinson
Allan Warren  -  Whalley
Stewart Harwood  -  Whittakar
Tony Osoba  -  McClaren
John Barrett  -  Hedley
Paul Barber  -  Morgan
Sebastian Abineri  -  Hayward
John Dair  -  Samson
Barry James  -  Delilah
Jackie Pallo Jnr.  -  Jacko
Robert Lee  -  Tinkler
Robert Hamilton  -  Cox
Charles Pemberton  -  Miller
Colin Rix  -  Lassiter
Paul McDowell  -  Collinson
Michael O'Hagan  -  Medical officer
Paul Luty  -  Chalky
Duncan Preston  -  Weatherman
Bunny May  -  Alf
Elizabeth Knight  -  Sheila
Nicholas McArdle  -  P.C. Townsend
Jean Campbell Dallas  -  Old lady
Bill Kerry  -  Old man

Producers Allan McKeown, Ian La Frenais  Cinematography Bob Huke  Art Director Tim Gleeson  Editor Alan Jones  Musical supervisor Terry Oates  Camera operator Freddie Cooper  Make-up artist Sarah Monzani  Production manager David Wimbury

Production company Witzend Productions; presented by Jack Gill for Black Lion Films

Distributor ITC Entertainment

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