22 March 2010
Norman Stanley Fletcher, the habitual criminal who sees arrest as an occupational hazard, and one of sitcom's greats. Beyond the scripts and the expert facility to make comedy from desperation, the reason I like him so much is that he took Ronnie Barker miles away from his comfort zone.
As marvellous as Barker was, he was also a very safe performer. He was the light entertainment king, renowned for writing and performing in sketches that specialised in silliness and puns and playing characters that were buffoonish and very much family-orientated. He never swore and only went risque by "accident" (such as the bloke who specialised in pismronunciation - oh snigger, he kind of said "piss"!) and openly disapproved of anything approaching toilet humour.
I have no idea what he thought when he first saw the script for Prisoner & Escort, the Seven Of One edition that introduced us to Fletcher, but I assume it's a credit to Clement and La Frenais that he agreed to do it. Sometimes the insubordination within a script is worth it if it is very well written. You can't imagine Barker ever believing that taking a slash in a petrol tank would be funny enough for him to consider until he was given that script.
Once he was in and it was such a success that the BBC demanded a series, Barker would have had to work harder than at any point in his career. He had to play a character that was, to all intents and purposes, a genuinely bad one. He was a thief, a wisecracker, prone to a potty mouth and unedifying prejudices, grouchy, selfish. This was as dramatic as Barker in his pomp could ever have been, despite the many laughs within, and while he rarely needs help to be outstanding, on this occasion the scripts were never short of flawless and authentic and, presumably, helped him relax into the part despite the material reservations.
Porridge is, without exception, fantastic each time you see it. Fewer episodes were made than we realise, and Barker is sublime throughout, of course. I assume that he just took on the role as someone he acknowledged existed, even though Fletcher's character, mannerisms and habits represented everything Barker didn't like in other people's comedy. He swore (well, he used the expression "don't let the bastards grind you down" and we all knew exactly what "nerk" really alluded to, while "scroate" is one syllable away from being waaaaay beyond Barker's expletive comfort zone) and issued insults, made threats and read pornography. Fletcher's brilliance came as much from these foibles as it did from his wit, experience and ability to smart-alec his way out of situations and get an intellectual highground over Mr Mackay. In the end, one suspects Barker appreciated the quality of the role without ever really finding it fun to do.
The television-watching public are a little one-dimensional at times, and I reckon Barker was frequently stopped in the street asking how he can be so joyful and child-friendly with his silly outfits, comedy accents and quirky news stories with his diddy partner on a Sunday evening, and then appear so surly and vulgar under the brown hair dye in midweek. But so good is Fletcher that sometimes it's easy to forget that it's the same Ronnie Barker who was the king of family entertainment on television at that time.
This isn't to say that Porridge isn't family entertainment. The concocted synonyms for swearing and the absence of proper prison violence does sanitise it enough for kids to watch it, both back in the 1970s and now. It remains a pre-watershed programme when the digital channels and BBC2 repeat it - indeed, it is on in the daytime a lot now - and barring the odd flash of Patricia Brake's bra, I can't recall too much that would take it to the point of corruption of minors. And despite watering down of prison life necessary for sitcom, it doesn't glamorise prison life at all. It would be harder to make Porridge today, were we to believe the stories about prison conditions now compared to the indignities and squalor of the 1970s.
Barker was proud of Fletcher all of his subsequent career and life, even reviving him in 2003 (albeit momentarily) in that Life Beyond The Box mockumentary. Yet he wasn't remotely representative of what Barker stood for as a comedy performer, and one recalls Not The Nine O'Clock News satirising the Two Ronnies over Barker's dislike for "smutty" alternative comedy while writing and performing his own sketches that "nearly" mentioned sexual acts and bodily parts but just went "woo!" a lot at the optimum moment. Norman Stanley Fletcher is arguably the greatest legacy Barker left us, and yet also the character's success was as much despite Barker as because of him.