While virtually every British sitcom of the 1970s was blown up for the cinema screen, only a couple made the transition successfully. The two Steptoe And Son pictures have their defenders, as does Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' The Likely Lads. However, it's another Clement/La Frenais entity that best made the trip from its 8.30 TV slot to the local Odeon. Arguably the greatest situation comedy of them all, 'Porridge' was so small-scale it appeared about as easy to blow-up as a leaky air-bed. Hats off then to the writers for knowing how to inflate their meisterwork, and congratulations to the cast for keeping their characters small without diminishing the size of the laughs.
With day-to-day life as grim as ever at Her Majesty's Slade Prison, everyone from the governor to the oldest of lags is delighted when ageing recidivist Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker) suggests bringing a team of celebrities up to play football against the prison first XI. Fletch, though, is but the front for a scam cooked up by prison bigwig Harry Grout (Vaughan) for whom the match is a means to freeing the Ronnie Biggs-esque Phil Oakes (Rutter). But with matters failing to run smoothly, it's Fletch and cellmate Lenny Godber (Beckinsale) who find themselves on the outside. And since both are near the end of their sentences, they don't want out - they want back in!
This nice inversion of the standard prison break scenario is just one of the redux Porridge's many delights. Of course, the real pleasure is to spend another 90 minutes in the company of Fletch, Godber and Co. fully two years after the series ended. While time had passed, the iron hadn't gone cold on Clement and La Frenais's greatest creation (quite a statement given that they also cooked up both incarnations of 'The Likely Lads', 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' and The Commitments). Indeed, there are lines here so witty, wise and resigned they wouldn't look out of place in a Pinter play. "A weatherman, eight small parts and a Widow Twanky," is Fletch's swift summary of Slade's star-barren opponents. And what is said meteorologist's match prediction? "He says it's going to rain," our hefty anti-hero replies.
With so many of the Porridge cast no longer with us, there's an undeniable poignancy to the piece. Naturally, the never-bettered combination of Barker and Beckinsale are the stars of the show, but everyone gets their moment to shine - Ken Jones is superbly slippery as "horrible" Ives, Brian Wilde marvellously melancholy as Mr Barrowclough. Most interestingly of all, the newcomers to the mix - Geoffrey Bayldon and Philip Locke as the Governor and defrocked dentist Banyard respectively - are such good stand-ins, it's hard to imagine anyone else inhabiting their roles. But then, with material as good as this, Porridge would be appetising regardless of whom had been sent to Slade.
In a nutshell: The best ever sitcom-to-big-screen adaptation, Porridge provides great characters with more room to breath while serving as a wonderful if tragically premature send-off for the wonderful Richard Beckinsale.
By Richard Luck