The warnings from history are there. Martin Clunes’ 2009 remake of Reggie Perrin. Ant and Dec’s attempt at The Likely Lads. Paul Merton’s mid-90s punt at reviving Hancock’s Half Hour with no Hancock. These are all things the world could probably have done without.
But with the success of Still Open All Hours (the exception that proves the rule) ringing loud in the ears of BBC comedy commissioners, and the chance to pilot more revivals, a raft of golden (and more often silver, bronze and pewter) geese of British sitcoms are being offered up as part of a ‘celebration’ of 60-years of UK comedy.
Porridge – Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’s well-loved Ronnie Barker vehicle – is perhaps the most important work in the queue – and I can’t help but wish it hadn’t been.
Its revival, scribed by the original pair who made Porridge famous in the 1970s, stars Kevin Bishop as Nigel Fletcher (known as Fletch to his friends) who is sent to prison for cyber crimes in a category C prison almost exactly forty years after his grandfather (Norman Stanley Fletcher, played by Barker) stayed at her majesty’s pleasure at HMP Slade.
It’s important at this stage to say a couple of things. i) This remake will probably bring joy to many lives and I really hope it does ii) Kevin Bishop’s performance is extremely strong. He has clearly spent hours watching Porridge and although he is not meant to be directly playing him, has much of Barker’s iconic character down to a tee. iii) It is extraordinarily hard to remake a show from the 70s because times have changed, and therefore many of the comedic cues have to change too.
However, with those things out of the way, and as someone who grew up watching Porridge re-runs time and again in the 1980s, I have to say I was left feeling rather cold after 30 minutes of Porridge 2.0.
Despite Bishop’s fantastic Barkerism’s, including a healthy dose of visual humour and slapstick reminiscent of the original series, it feels like the writers have tried too hard to bring the series ‘up to date.’
The very fact that Fletch is serving five years as a sophisticated cyber criminal, yet most of his lines are written as if he’s a slightly dense wideboy, jars – but the programme becomes even harder to watch when we’re barraged with near-constant references to technology and ‘modernity.’ From iPhones, drones and laptops, to yoga, gluten free diets, red pepper humous, falafels and granola, the references are an unnecessarily heavy-handed reminder that 40 years have passed, the world has changed and Porridge has been ‘updated.’
Indeed, the best parts of the show – as with any comedy – are timeless. From Bishop’s homage to Barker struggling to get into the top bunk and answering back the bully boy Richie Weeks to the interplay between Fletch and the weak warden, Braithwaite, and the nasty Scottish warden, Officer Meekie.
We learn a little about what happened to his grandfather Fletch and his cellmate Godber after Porridge sequel series Going Straight but where the 30-minute pilot fails is in delivering the pathos of the original show. Barker’s relationship with Richard Beckinsale’s Godber was everything in Porridge, and the paternal bond kept us rooting for them between the jokes, as they battled to do their time in one piece and made us care enough to keep coming back.
It pains me to criticise an episode of Porridge, written by the great men who created it (along with The Likely Lads, Lovejoy and Auf Wiedersehn, Pet) but for me it felt forced.
It has some good jokes (I laughed out loud at one about Viagra – maybe I am puerile) but it felt largely that we were being presented with a carousel of characters doing jokes about it being 2016. That meant there wasn’t time for the quiet calm of friendship within the storm of prison that made the original series so good.
Reviving classic sitcoms is a dangerous business – some might even say criminal – and with a whole raft of them on their way, from Are You Being Served? to Keeping Up Appearances, let’s hope BBC audiences don’t feel watching them is like doing time.
Porridge is on BBC1 on Sunday 28th August at 9:30pm