More Porridge, anyone?
Dick Clement, co-writer of some of Britain’s most famous sitcoms, has written an update of classic prison laugh-fest, Porridge, writes Grant Smithies.
‘My daughter lives near you,’’ he says, his crisp Essex vowels echoing down a bad line from his writing room in Los Angeles.
Blimey! It’s Dick Clement, screenwriter extraordinaire. I grew up on the classic British sitcoms he wrote with long-term partner-in-crime, Ian La Frenais. Porridge. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The Likely Lads.
‘‘Yes, her name’s Sian and she’s pretty much a Kiwi now. Been there for years, over in Golden Bay. No doubt you know the place? You can smell the marijuana smoke as soon as you drive down off Takaka Hill… ’’
It’s true, and a fine fragrance it is, too. But never mind the weed; I’m having a ‘‘small world’’ moment.
I’m amazed to hear that this venerable soul – a pioneer of the gentle populist piss-take; a much-adored mainstay of the BBC comedy schedules since dinosaurs roamed the earth – has been over here in my Nelson backyard many times, flying in to visit far-flung whanau.
Clement is 80 now; La Frenais is 81. They both moved from the UK to California decades ago, writing a host of comedy series there and fine-tuning the scripts of major feature films such as The Rock and Pearl Harbor.
But they’re still best known for the ground-breaking comedies they created in their homeland during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. A quick scan of online reviews in the British press reveals a great deal of unseemly frothing from journos who, like me, grew up loving these shows. Someone even describes them as ‘‘the Lennon and McCartney of Comedy’’.
Which one’s John, I wonder? ‘‘Yes, well… let’s not go into that!’’ says Clement, his frown strangely audible.
‘‘But yes, we’ve worked together a long time, and we work together still. Ian is sitting right across from me here while I’m talking to you, actually.’’
Clement is on the line to talk up a sitcom reboot. In a fit of misty-eyed nostalgia, the BBC recently decided to commission remakes of some classic 60s sitcoms.
Clement and La Frenais agreed to dust off Porridge for a new audience, with a few significant changes.
The original show followed the exploits of one Norman Stanley Fletcher, played with great skill by the late Ronnie Barker, a cockney career criminal banged up in the fictional Slade Prison, reading The Sun.
Fletcher was a kind-hearted crim, and leader to assorted hapless lags on his prison wing, including his naive young cellmate, Lennie Godber, played by actress Kate Beckinsale’s dad, Richard Beckinsale.
Much humour derived from the trials and tribulations of the captured men, their minor victories against the prison system, and their interactions with the prison officers who held such power over their lives: officious former army sergeant Mr MacKay and the timid, gullible Mr Barrowclough.
That show ran from 1974-77, with three series, two Christmas specials and a feature film, followed by a 1978 sequel series, Going Straight.
‘‘We decided that if we were going to do a remake, we should bring things up to date,’’ says Clement. ‘‘So this series features the grandson of the original Fletch, and he’s a very different sort of criminal, played by the terrific young actor, Kevin Bishop. This time, he’s in jail for IT crime.’’
The BBC loved that one-off show, and commissioned this new series. A second season has been proposed, and is currently awaiting approval.
Clement is delighted the remake has fared so well, but admits to a great deal of trepidation when he and La Frenais first agreed to do it. The original Porridge was, after all, a hallowed comedic institution in their homeland.
‘‘Kevin admitted that taking over from the great Ronnie Barker was a daunting prospect, and of course, there will always be people who say ‘Leave it alone! How dare you touch a classic?’ To which I would say, well, at least it’s us doing it, not somebody else, and we wanted to respect the memory of the original. And when we were shooting it in front of a live audience in Manchester, the audience loved it. The laughs came thick and fast, and we felt good about that. It’s a great feeling, making people laugh.’’
They’ve been doing it now for the best part of 60 years.
Clement was raised in Essex, and La Frenais is from Tyneside. They met in the early 60s when La Frenais was an unemployed insurance salesman and Clement a BBC trainee.
Inspired by class-conscious early shows such as Steptoe and Son and
Z Cars from their own childhoods, they knocked out a rough script about two cocky northerners for Clement’s directing exam.
The BBC top brass liked it so much, they got the green light to develop it into a series, The Likely Lads, the first British TV comedy to be set outside London, and have worked together ever since.
There have been forays into all sorts of other areas – feature film The Commitments; extensive uncredited script work on Bond flick Never Say