The history of ‘Porridge’

When I am asked what television documentary portrays our prison system with the most accuracy, my answer always takes them by surprise. With no shadow of a doubt, the best documentary, which is not even a documentary, is the 1970s sit-com, Porridge. I’ve yet to see its accurate portrayal of prison surpassed. Don’t just take my word for it. Guardian journalist and former prisoner, Erwin James, was quoted as saying:

“What fans could never know, however, unless they had been subjected to a stint of Her Majesty’s Pleasure, was that the conflict between Fletcher and Officer Mackay was about the most authentic depiction ever of the true relationship that exists between prisoners and prison officers in British jails up and down the country. I’m not sure how, but writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais … grasped the notion that it is the minor victories against the naturally oppressive prison system that makes prison life bearable.”

Whilst also adding:

“When I was inside, Porridge was a staple of our TV diet. In one high-security prison, a video orderly would be dispatched to tape the programme each week. If they missed it, they were in trouble.”

To me, after I had a personal experience of prison, watching Porridge became like putting on a comfy pair of slippers. I relate Victorian prisons to prison. I have been in prisons built in the 50s and 60s and also some built more recent, but they don’t feel the same as a Victorian prison.

I recently watched an interview with the infamous Australian criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Reed. It took place in a moth-balled, old-style prison. In the opening scene Chopper was standing in the middle of the ones of one wing, which, with a change of paint, could have been any of the Victorian prisons here in the UK. They look like prison and even over the television I could hear it and smell it. It could have even been the ones in the fictitious prison of HMP Slade featured in Porridge. Or any of the several Victorian prisons I have served time in.

There is another aspect of Porridge that really stood out and that is how most of the characters on Norman Stanley Fletcher’s wing can be found in virtually any prison, and if you’re lucky/unlucky (delete as appropriate) on the same landing, up and down this fine country of ours. Before moving on to those characters, I would first like to provide a brief history on the lifelike and hilariously funny sit-com Porridge.

I believe the accurate portrayal of prison life was due to the research carried out by the two creators of Porridge, Dick Clements, and Ian La Frenais. The two writers first read, then spoke to the author of the book How to Survive in Nick. The book was written in 1973 by former prisoner Jonathan Marshall who advised Clements and La Frenais on the routine of prison, the correct prison language, clothing and so on. It was a comment made by Marshall during one of their meetings that inspired the two writers to create the Fletcher character. Marshall had talked of the little victories you have in prison, no matter how small the victory, a victory against the system is still a victory.

Although Porridge began as a series on the BBC from September 5, 1974 and ran for 3 series (20 episodes in total) until the last episode titled Final Stretch was shown on March 25, 1977 it first appeared on our screens on April 1, 1973, albeit under a different name. Porridge originated from a pilot-episode called Prisoner and Escort, which was one of seven pilot sit-coms staring Ronnie Barker commissioned by the BBC with the best one being selected to be turned into a full series. Prisoner and Escort, which showed Fletcher being escorted to prison by Mr Barrowclough and the originally named Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay played him) was chosen and renamed Porridge. Along with the three series, they made two Christmas specials, 1975 and 1976. In 1979, a full-length feature film also called Porridge and staring all the familiar characters was released.

The feature film was filmed in HMP Chelmsford. All the interior shots were filmed inside of the prison. It was a strange experience playing on the same football pitch when I was in Chelmsford back in 1987. A bizarre journey through the prison got you to the entrance of the pitch, which was a wire tunnel wrapped in rolls of razor wire. On one of the exercise yards in Chelmsford, although not sure of the validity but it was a story around for years prior, you could see where they had replaced the bricks that McVicar had removed during his escape. They could use HMP Chelmsford as at the time it had suffered a major fire and was unoccupied.

The gates of the fictional HMP Slade filmed for the TV series were the entrance gates to the former prison of St. Albans. (https://www.prisonhistory.org/prison/st-albans-prison/) They also used external shots of HMP Maidstone.

“Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court, and it is now my duty to pass sentence. You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences; you will go to prison for five years.”

I’ve taken the following selected list and descriptions from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Porridge_characters where you can see more characters listed. However, I have chosen the select few as this is the group that, if not all, most of who whom you will still find walking the same landings of today’s prisons. I have tried to bring each one up to date as they would be now, if any have changed that is, with one or two anecdotes of my own thrown in for good measure.    

Norman Stanley Fletcher was played by Ronnie Barker. Known as ‘Fletch’, he is the principal character in the series and shares a cell with Lennie Godber. A habitual criminal from north London, Fletch has previously served several terms of imprisonment.

Among a few others I have Fletch, and Porridge, to thank for teaching me how to do prison in not so much the right way, but in a way that suited who I was. An honest grafter in a dishonest world. Being ‘handy’ in prison can make life not just more bearable but also enjoyable and worthwhile. When I say ‘handy’ I don’t mean in the ‘Grouty’ way but in the ‘Fletch’ way. Those ‘little victories’. I have several memories which I could recount, probably enough to produce a series of blogs on their own, however, one of Keef’s favourites was from a time I worked in the kitchens of a particular prison. My personal officer back on the wing had moved in with their partner and needed boxes. Working in the kitchens made me an obvious target for a request of “you must have a few spare ones in the kitchen”, which, although flat-packed, after we had unloaded the contents onto the storage shelves, we had a few. The kitchen supervisor said that I could have as many as I could carry. I put a large box back together and, confident it wouldn’t be searched, helped myself to several items from the freshly stocked shelves, including a tray of eggs, and placed the flat-packed boxes on top. Fortunately, the box I used was large enough for two to carry back, ensuring it didn’t look overly heavy. The load made it successfully back to my wing, and my personal officer was so pleased with the boxes I received a positive write-up in my page 16. Funny story around my ability in securing fresh eggs. I used to charge a ¼ Amber Leaf for half a dozen eggs. One potential customer complained that £2 was pricey for 6 eggs, “fine, buy them off the canteen then”.

Leonard Arthur “Lennie” Godber was played by Richard Beckinsale. Godber is from Birmingham, supports Aston Villa, has an O Level in geography, and studies for a history O Level while in prison. Before he was arrested, he shared a flat with his girlfriend Denise in nearby Smethwick. In an effort to get her a gift, Godber broke into a neighbour’s flat. He was caught, and it was for this that he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Denise later broke up with Godber through a Dear John letter.

Godber, Godber, Godber. God bless ‘im. Regardless of the negative media that our prisons and prisoners receive, there are more Godber’s in our prisons than probably anyone else in this list. And in the same vein as Fletch, I would also take the Godber’s under my wing. One thing that never left me, or will ever leave me, was the feeling of my first time behind the door. I cried myself to sleep. Once prison took over and for a while became my life, why on earth would I want others suffering? Fortunately, there are also a high number of Fletcher’s in our system looking after your fathers, sons, brothers, and nephew’s. From what I have been told, I’m extremely confident the same applies to the female estate.  

Harry Grout, also referred to as Grouty, is feared by all prisoners. His schemes include running a drugs ring funded by the doctor’s office and fixing boxing matches. If crossed, Grouty has little hesitation in setting one of his various heavies on those who displease him.

Over the years, the Grouty’s in prison have become less and less. They still exist, but these days with CCTV and body-worn cameras things have to be done with more subtlety. The showers and cells, however, remain camera free and will always provide the Grouty heavies, or Grouty himself, with a venue to carry on business as usual.  

Harris is a prisoner played by Ronald Lacey. A middle-aged Teddy Boy with a fish face and ginger hair, Harris–much like “Horrible” Ives–is loathed by warders and prisoners alike. His sly manner, cowardice, and utter lack of integrity–accompanied by an insistently oleaginous manner–irritates even the easy-going Lukewarm and emollient Mr Barrowclough. Harris is a thief (an activity taboo inside prison) and a cheat, and bullies anyone whom he deems to be weaker than he is. However, he in turn is dominated by all those above him, such as Harry Grout, Mr Mackay, and Fletcher.

He was arrested when an attempt to mug an old lady went wrong, when it became evident that she had a brick in her handbag. The old lady succeeded in pinning Harris down until the police arrived.

It saddens me somewhat to say that the Harris’s of our world, especially in the prison world, are very much still alive and kicking. However, just like the character the Harris’s of prison do see karma appearing on regular occasions. Fuck doing bird this way, always looking over your shoulder. It’s bad enough as it is in prison without the added aggro of Harris’s.

Last but not least in my list of the residents of HMP Slade is:

Bernard “Horrible” Ives is a prisoner serving time in Slade for committing fraud. He was played by Ken Jones. Ives is a creep, a cheat, and a snitch, universally loathed by the other inmates of Slade Prison. Almost all his spoken sentences begin with the words “‘ere listen”. Fletcher once commented “Ives is such a loser that if Elizabeth Taylor had triplets, he’d have been the one in the middle, on the bottle.”

Horrible Ives is another one unfortunately who is still alive and kicking off on the landings in our prisons, but still universally hated by his fellow prisoners. The Ives character, and the Harris’s, seemed to grow larger in numbers following the introduction of Mandatory Drug Testing (more commonly known by its acronym MDT’s). You would probably expect a former prisoner to have a moan about MDT’s. Spoils a good night out having to spend the next days or weeks sweating on being ‘randomly’ picked up by the MDT screws, unless of course a pharmaceutical top up of some sort is digested and the sweating starts all over again. I have, however, spoken to several prison officers over the years who are very much in agreement. I’ve also had prison officers walk in on me and my mates having a sneaky joint in the shower block and the only words used were “make sure you open the window lads” as he continued on his way. At a jail I frequented occasionally, a certain officer (retired now) would point me in the right direction of who was holding once I had arrived on the wing.

It would be rude of me and unbalanced not to include the two erstwhile prison officers, Mr Barrowclough, and Mr Mackay.

Henry Barrowclough is a prison officer, portrayed by Brian Wilde. Unlike Mr Mackay, whose harsh and confrontational methods he disapproves of (though he dare not make this known to Mr Mackay), Barrowclough is a timid, sympathetic man who firmly believes that the role of prison is to rehabilitate rather than punish. He does not share Mackay’s tough military background, having done his National Service in Royal Air Force stores in the comfortable surroundings of Singapore.

Mr Barrowclough does not seem to be cut out for the life of a prison warder, and he says in the movie version whilst in conversation with a new officer that Slade prison is a miserable place and that the only reason he stays is that it’s either this or being at home with the wife. Fletcher and the other prisoners constantly abuse his leniency to acquire more pleasant jobs, cells or special privileges. They also know how to forge his signature. However, despite this, the prisoners do hold a great deal of fondness for Barrowclough. At one point, in an attempt to raise his prestige due to the vicious nature of Mr. Wainwright, the (temporary) replacement of Mackay, they stage a riot, refusing to stop for even the harshest of threats, including Wainwright himself. But when, on Fletch’s suggestion, Barrowclough is called into the hall, they fall silent as he nervously enters, and do not hesitate in obeying his rather timid requests, such as ‘now, why don’t you all put those things down…’ and ‘in the meantime, why don’t we all file back to our cells in a nice, orderly fashion…?’

However nervous his job makes Mr Barrowclough, it is nothing compared to the fear he has of his oft-mentioned but never seen wife, Alice. It is partly because of Fletcher’s advice on dealing with his wife that Barrowclough is especially lenient when dealing with his requests and misdemeanours. Fletcher once described him as looking like ‘Arthur Askey on stilts’.

The prison system needs its Mr Barrowclough’s and over the years I have met quite a few. One specific former postal worker, who became a prison officer, springs to mind whenever I see the original Mr Barrowclough. My Mr B began his life on the induction wing of a prison in which I was one of the induction orderlies. Bless him, he was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I had told him he reminded me of Mr Barrowclough. A few months later I was transferred to another prison (they ghosted me out, but that’s another story) from where a few months shy of a year and a half they released me. I wasn’t out on licence long before they recalled me back to the prison they ghosted me from and back to my old mate Mr Barrowclough. Coincidentally, he was still working on the induction wing, although the induction wing was now in a different part of the prison. The first thing he said upon my arrival, “see you Breakspear, I’ll fucking give you Barrowclough, it took me ages to shake off that name after you had left. I’ve been in the job a while now, so good luck with your apps and requests” I should add it was all in good jest and I didn’t have any issues with my apps or requests. He’s a CM (custody manager) now, and a bloody good one at that. I suppose this is one of those needed to be there stories. haha!

Mr Mackay is played by Fulton Mackay. Mackay is a tough prison warder whose constant obsession in life is to catch Fletcher out. Mackay has the authority to make decisions affecting the entire wing, such as banning Christmas celebrations in the episode No Way Out, so is presumably the wing Custodial Manager. Fletch’s sly tactics in misdeeds ranging from fixing boxing matches, stealing pills from the prison doctor and eggs from the prison farmyard right through to finding new and imaginative ways to stick two fingers up at Mackay and get away with it, were specially designed to get up Mackay’s nose. In return, Mackay’s frenzied attempts to catch Fletch out, when fruitful, gave Mackay a level of smugness and satisfaction which was only accentuated by Fletch’s hostility and skulking. Born into a poor family, Mackay went on to be a drill sergeant (though in Going Straight this is changed to Warrant Officer Class 2) in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and ran a boarding house in Peebles with his wife, Marie, before joining the prison service. Mackay’s temper is agitated by the constant suspicion he has of Fletcher, and his despair at the leniency of his other polar opposite in the series – his optimistic, mild-mannered, kind-hearted colleague Mr Barrowclough. Mackay’s homeland of Scotland serves as a constant source of entertainment for Fletcher, who is always on the lookout for an opportunity to antagonise Mackay. In one episode Mackay asks Fletcher whether he felt he was working class. Fletcher responds ‘I did, until I visited Glasgow. Now I think I’m middle class.’

Mackay appears in the first episode of Going Straight, where it is revealed he has left Slade Prison after reaching the compulsory retirement age for prison officers.

During the series, Mackay regularly wore his army service ribbons on his uniform. During the run of the series he wore the General Service Medal 1918–1962, the Korea Medal, and the UN Korea Medal. For the film this was inexplicably expanded to an additional row containing the 1939–1945 Star, the Defence Medal, the War Medal 1939–1945, and lastly the Jubilee Medal, 1977, which was awarded on the 25th anniversary of Elizabeth II’s rule.

Similar to Mr B, I have met several Mr Mackay’s. In fact, go back a few years and every landing, or at least wing, had their very own Mr Mackay (I daren’t use Mr M even in a blog. Mr Mackay would turn in his grave if I did). We didn’t have apps, or request and complaint forms. Then again, we didn’t have menus or canteen sheets either. Nor did we have healthcare apps. You turned up to morning sick parade and took it from there. In those days, if you wanted something or had a complaint it was the Mr Mackay you would have to ask. You’d normally get the same reply from Mr Mackay as you did from the MO’s (medical officers, or screws in white tunics instead of black) “NO! Now fuck off”.

One thing to say about ‘back in the day’ in prison. You knew where you stood. Especially with the Mr Mackays. In their minds, you were/are entitled to fuck all, and they made/make sure you got plenty of it. The best thing about those days is that you had no expectations, you also had no hope, but with no expectations you weren’t let down and on the flip-side you appreciated what you got a hell of a lot more. ‘Little victories’.

I hope you enjoyed this brief history of the best real-life prison documentary Porridge and some characters that serve within the fictitious HMP Slade and our real HMP’s. Please do not forget this is my own perspective, and one you may not agree with, but one I am sure I share with many others.

Laters!

4 thoughts on “The history of ‘Porridge’

  1. Hello Dave,

    Hope you are well and OK.

    Really enjoyed this read about the insights and background to the TV series – well written and interesting.

    Are you still on Twitter?

    Take care and all the best.

    Tony Mac

    Like

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