Porridge originated with a 1973 project commissioned by the BBC Seven of One, which would see Ronnie Barker star in seven different situation comedy pilot episodes. The most successful would then be made into a full series. One of the episodes was "Prisoner and Escort", written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who appear in one episode) about a newly sentenced habitual criminal, Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker), being escorted to prison by two warders: the timid Mr. Barrowclough (Brian Wilde) and the stern Mr. Mackay (Fulton Mackay). It was broadcast on 1 April 1973 on BBC2. Despite Barker's initial preference for another of the pilots, a sitcom about a Welsh gambling addict, "Prisoner and Escort" was selected. It was renamed Porridge, a slang term for prison; Barker, Clement and La Frenais actually came up with the same title independently of each other.
In their research, Clement and La Frenais spoke to Jonathan Marshall, a former prisoner who had written a book, How to Survive in the Nick, and he advised them about prison slang, dress and routines. Struggling to think up plots and humour for such a downbeat, confined environment, a particular phrase used by Marshall – "little victories" – struck a chord and convinced them to base the series on an inmate who made his daily life in prison more bearable by beating the system, even in trivial ways.
The BBC was forced to look around for locations because the Home Office refused permission for any production filming inside or outside a real prison. Instead the main gatehouse of the disused St Albans Prison (in the town's Victoria Street) was used in the opening credits. Exteriors were first filmed at a psychiatric hospital near Watford. However, after the completion of the second series, the hospital withdrew permission for more filming following complaints from patients' families. Another institution near Ealing was then used for the third series. Scenes within cells and offices were filmed at the BBC's London studios. But for shots of the wider prison interior, series production designer Tim Gleeson converted an old water tank, used at Ealing Studios for underwater filming, into a multi-storey set.
The first episode, "New Faces, Old Hands", was aired on BBC1 on 5 September 1974, attracting a television audience of over 16 million, and receiving positive reviews from critics. Two further series were commissioned, as well as two Christmas special episodes. The final episode of Porridge, "Final Stretch", was broadcast on 25 March 1977. The producers and the writers were keen to make more episodes, but Barker was wary of being "stuck with a character" and also wanted to move on to other projects, so the series came to a close. Barker did, however, reprise his role as Fletcher in a sequel, Going Straight, which ran for one series in 1978. A feature-length version of the show was made in 1979 and in 2003 a follow-up mockumentary was aired.
The central character of Porridge is Norman Stanley Fletcher, described by his sentencing judge as "an habitual criminal" from Muswell Hill, London. Fletcher is sent to HMP Slade, a fictional Category C prison in Cumberland, alongside his cellmate, Lennie Godber, a naïve inmate from Birmingham serving his first sentence, whom Fletcher takes under his wing. Mr Mackay is a tough warder with whom Fletcher often comes into conflict. Mackay's subordinate, Mr Barrowclough, is more sympathetic and timid – and prone to manipulation by his charges.
The prison exterior in the title sequence is the old St Albans prison gatehouse and Maidstone Prison, which was also featured in the BBC comedy series Birds of a Feather (HMP Slade is referred to in Birds of a Feather when the main protagonists' husbands are imprisoned there after reoffending in Series 7). The interior shots of doors being locked were filmed in Shepherds Bush Police Station - the BBC had a good relationship with officers there. In the episode "Pardon Me" Fletcher speaks to Blanco (David Jason) in the prison gardens: this was filmed in the grounds of an old brewery outside Baldock on the A505 to Royston. The barred windows approximated a prison. The building has since been demolished. The 1974 episode "A Day Out", which features a prison work party, was filmed in and around the Welsh village of Penderyn, the prisoners' ditch being excavated by a JCB. Loftus Road, the home of Queens Park Rangers Football Club, was briefly featured in "Happy Release", standing in for Elland Road in Leeds. In the episode "No Way Out", Fletcher tries to get MacKay to fall into a tunnel in a tarmac area, these outside shots were filmed at Hanwell Asylum in West London, the barred windows in this case being those of the hospital pharmacy. The interior shots for the 1979 film were shot entirely at Chelmsford Prison, Essex.
Ronnie Barker had suggested the part of Lennie Godber for Paul Henry, but the decision to cast Richard Beckinsale was taken by the production team.
The programme's scriptwriters appear, uncredited, outside Fletch and Godber's cell in the episode "No Peace for the Wicked".
The sitcom ran for three series between 5 September 1974 (1974-09-05) and 25 March 1977 (1977-03-25), with 21 episodes in total including the pilot episode. Each episode was 30 minutes except for the two Christmas specials in 1974 and 1975.
The opening credits consist of outside shots of Slade prison and of several doors and gates being closed and locked, which was intended to set the scene for the programme. In the first series, there were also shots of St Pancras railway station, which was changed in subsequent series to shots of Fletcher walking around Slade prison. Title music was thought unsuitable for a show set in prison, so instead there is a booming narration (performed by Barker himself) given by the presiding judge passing sentence on Fletcher:
Subsequently, Barker is reported to have said that he regretted recording himself as the judge, a character role subsequently played by Maurice Denham in two episodes of the third series.
The theme music for the closing credits was written by Max Harris, who had also written the theme music for numerous other TV shows, including The Strange World of Gurney Slade and Doomwatch, and would go on to write the theme for Open All Hours, another of the Seven of One pilots. The cheery theme was "deliberately at variance with the dour comedy" and given a music hall feel by Harris because of the lead character's Cockney origins.
A sequel to Porridge, Going Straight, was aired between 24 February and 7 April 1978. Beginning with Fletcher's release from prison on parole, it follows his attempts to "go straight" and readjust to a law-abiding life. Richard Beckinsale reprised his role as Godber, now the fiancé of Fletcher's daughter Ingrid (Patricia Brake), and the couple married in the final episode. Nicholas Lyndhurst also featured as Fletcher's gormless son, Raymond. The series lasted six episodes, and generally was not as well received as its predecessor, although it did win two BAFTAs, for Best Situation Comedy and Best Light Entertainment Performance (jointly with The Two Ronnies) for Ronnie Barker.
On 29 December 2003, a mockumentary follow-up to Porridge was broadcast on BBC Two. It looked back on Fletcher's life and how the various inmates of Slade had fared 25 years after Fletcher's release from prison. Warren is now a sign painter, Lukewarm is married to Trevor, McLaren is an MSP, Grouty has become a celebrity gangster, Horrible Ives collects money for non-existent charities, Godber is now a lorry driver and still married to Ingrid, and Fletcher runs a pub with his childhood sweetheart, Gloria.
On Sunday 28 August 2016, a one-off sequel to the original series, also titled Porridge, was broadcast on BBC One. It starred Kevin Bishop as Nigel Norman Fletcher, Norman Stanley Fletcher's grandson, who is serving five years in prison for computer hacking.
The special was written by the original creators and writers of Porridge, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. It gained praise from both viewers and TV critics, with many calling for a full series to be made. The overnight ratings showed that 4.4 million people had watched it. Following the success of the initial episode, in October 2016 the BBC announced that a full series of six episodes had been commissioned, with production to start in January 2017.
Following the example of other sitcom crossovers, such as Dad's Army, Steptoe and Son and The Likely Lads, a feature-length version of Porridge was made in 1979. Barker again starred as Fletcher, and most of the supporting cast also returned. Unlike the television series, it was actually filmed at a real prison as HMP Chelmsford was temporarily vacant following a fire.
Novelisations of the three series of Porridge and the film were issued by BBC Books, as well as an adaptation of Going Straight. BBC Enterprises released an LP record featuring two Porridge episodes, "A Night In" and "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1977.(REB 270) Two volumes of audio cassette releases (comprising four episodes each) were issued in the mid-1990s. They were later re-released on CD.
In 2009 Porridge was adapted into a stage show, also written by Clement and La Frenais, starring former EastEnders actor Shaun Williamson as Fletcher and Daniel West as Godber. Peter Kay, a fan of the show, was previously offered the role but turned it down. It opened in September 2009 to positive reviews.
An American version entitled On the Rocks (1975–76) ran for a season, while a Dutch version Laat maar zitten (free translation: Keep 'em inside) ran from 1988 to 1991; later episodes of the Netherlands version were original scripts, the series also had a very successful Portuguese remake entitled Camilo na Prisão ("Camilo in Prison")
Porridge was immensely popular with British prisoners. Erwin James, an ex-prisoner who writes a bi-weekly column for The Guardian newspaper, stated that:
He also noted:
The script allowed the prisoners to swear without offending viewers by using the word "naff" in place of ruder words ("Naff off!", "Darn your own naffing socks", "Doing next to naff all"), thereby popularising a word that had been recorded at least as early as 1966. Ronnie Barker did not claim to have invented it, and in a television interview in 2003 it was explained to him on camera what the word meant, as he hadn't a clue.
A genuine neologism was "nerk", which was used in place of the more offensive "berk". It should be noted that "berk" has changed meaning since its inception, and is generally used now to mean "fool" while the original rhyming slang meaning refers to female genitalia. Another term was "scrote" (presumably derived from scrotum), meaning a nasty, unpleasant person.