It’s difficult to know why this new serving of Porridge was ever cooked up.
The idea of a wisecracking Cockney criminal detained in a 21st century prison with a twitching Scottish disciplinarian warder keeping an eye on him sounds like a rejected sketch from a piss poor comedy series (like, say, The Kevin Bishop Show): a spoof of an acknowledged classic set in the present day to make a clumsy satirical point that was thrown out long before filming started.
Actually producing a 30 minute episode along these lines, stuffing the script with scrotes, screws, naffings off, tins of pineapple chunks and ‘accidental’ two-fingered salutes, seems like grand folly.
Giving the role of Nigel ‘Fletch’ Fletcher – grandson of the great Norman Stanley – to the reliably disappointing Kevin Bishop elevates a monumental commissioning blunder to an act of cultural heresy on a par with casting Russell Howard as Baz Fawlty Jr, manager of a Torquay Travelodge. Not so much porridge as gruel.
There is some mitigation. The episode is written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, creators of the series, and while the story is resolutely contemporary – the new Fletch is a black hat cybercriminal and subjects given the humorous treatment include drones, OCD, shaved fennel and internet porn – there are clear echoes of Slade Prison’s finest in the dialogue. One anecdote in particular, the story of how Fletch’s elderly cellmate Joe Lotterby came to be incarcerated, would fit snugly in an episode from the 1970s without looking out of place. It offers a faint hope.
Unfortunately, the ties that bind the new Porridge to its illustrious predecessor also strangle it. Clement and La Frenais can recreate the cadence of the original Fletcher’s speech perfectly, but they can’t sustain the wit to match it.
The idea of Fletch 2.0 following his forerunner into crime and ultimately imprisonment is plausible, but the likelihood of him encountering a warder exactly like his grandfather’s nemesis who isn’t a descendant of Mr Mackay is implausible to the point of nonsensical. Mark Bonnar’s more than passable imitation of Fulton Mackay is irrelevant without a point to it.
Kevin Bishop’s eponymous comedy series was a horror show with a single passable skit (the Yorkshire version of American Pie raised a pained laugh at the line, ‘There’s jizz in that!’) but he’s a hell of a lot more palatable as a leading man in someone else’s story. Trouble is, he’s not Ronnie Barker. It’s impossible to avoid drawing comparisons between the two Fletchers and there can only be one winner. The original cannot be surpassed by a recreation – and this is the problem with Porridge 2016 in a nutshell.
A remake has to add something worthwhile to what has gone before. At best, this new version is an irrelevance to the classic Porridge series; at worst, it detracts from one of the few truly great television comedies that were wise enough not to outstay their welcome.
Going Straight was interesting enough to justify its brief existence; Life Beyond the Box: Norman Stanley Fletcher was an affectionate footnote. Neither diminished the parent programme. This new version of Porridge risks doing just that.
Aired at 9.30pm on Sunday 28 August 2016 on BBC One.
What did you think of Porridge? Let us know below…