Monday, 19 March 2018

"Twenny-six pee for a beer?!"

"Twenny-six pee for a beer?!"

Everyone rightly talks about the original run of 'Porridge' as one of the most successful comedy series of the 1970s. With rock-solid scripts from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais brought to life by a host of talented actors, it usually features very strongly in Top Ten lists.

Which is one of the reasons people tend to ignore its spin-off 'Going Straight' which ran for a mere six weeks from February to April 1978. It's not that it's bad in any way, just that it's not quite as good as 'Porridge'.

But to be not quite as good as 'Porridge' is in itself a major achievement that most shows could only dream of. Ironically for a series set in a prison, 'Porridge' can be quite comforting on occasion. The audience at home know the routine as well as the inmates and that feeling of security is only really shaken when Fletcher is finally thrust out into the dreaded Real World.

'Going Home' is the transitional episode, detailing the difficult journey from prison cell to the Great Outdoors. But the genius twist here is that Mr Mackay is on the same train, facing looming retirement. Suddenly, he and Fletcher are in danger of being in the same boat, abandoned and ignored by society at large.

It's basically a 30-minute play and as befits the carefully-structured script this episode has a fantastic cast. Ronnie Barker and Fulton Mackay are as brilliant as ever, with Mackay's traditional physical tics being one of the most reassuring things on display.

There's an awful lot of drinking going on here and Fulton's portrayal of his descent into an alcoholic haze is carefully judged.

There are brief but memorable appearances from Tony Osoba, Timothy Bateson and Michael Turner; some heavyweight names giving their usual great value for money.

Milton Johns is suitably world-weary as Mr Kirby, who goes through Fletch's belongings in the opening scene, but he is human enough to wish the old lag good luck for the future, however grudgingly.

Norman Jones has got his best clobber on and fools Mackay with his commanding voice and personality. His unloading of the bag of swag onto the poor Senior Prison Officer is calculated and cynical.

A nod also to Bunny May as the Bar Steward who (rightly as it turns out) assumes that his train is full of criminals. I am drawn to his beer cans and whisky miniatures as a snapshot of 70s packaging design as much as for their contents.

The plot is simple, but this is all about dialogue and character. The series will go on to explore how difficult it is for an ex-con to keep on the straight and narrow, but Fletch's rejection of temptation here gives us hope for his future.

No, maybe it's not quite as good as 'Porridge' - I only wish I could write something that was not quite as good as 'Porridge'!

And there's even a theme tune to which you can sing along!

(By Andrew Trowbridge)

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