Most people don’t think about prisons very often. Unless you are forced to interact with the prison system in some way, it mostly just hums along in the background. It’s unquestioned. It’s unquestionable. There are some people who are actively into it – who comment “bring back hanging!” on every news article about literally any crime and think high rates of reoffending are due to prisons being too nice – and there are certainly lots of people who object to the criminalising of specific actions, from drug possession to sex work to digital piracy, but for most people, most of the time, prisons just… exist. Always have, always will.

Television as a medium has a long love affair with the criminal justice system, but for the most part, only up until you get to the prison gates. There are an unfathomable number of shows about cops investigating crimes and lawyers prosecuting crimes, that take place in police stations and courts and even jails where the defendant awaits trial, but a relatively tiny few set among convicts in prison. There’s Orange Is the New Black, obviously. Oz. Prison Break. That time Deirdre went to prison on Coronation Street. I could probably name ten if I really tried (whereas I’m pretty sure I could name fifty cop shows in half the time while standing on my head). Partially this is due to the nature of the medium: police procedurals and courtroom dramas are both ideally suited to the hour-long TV episode, telling a self-contained story with characters we know and care about, with twists and suspense ideally timed to the ad breaks. It’s both exciting and familiar, and they always get the bad guys in the end. Truly great police or legal procedurals are, in many ways, what TV does best.

But there’s still something odd about a medium so obsessed with retelling the story of how someone gets sent to prison having almost no interest in what happens when they get there. I don’t particularly buy into on-screen representation as any kind of be-all end-all, but when most people don’t think about prisons very often, and television doesn’t portray prisons very often, it’s hard not to see it as an endless feedback loop, each reinforcing the other. The incarceration system relies on this: on us turning away, choosing not to see, not to think, not to question. Cop shows function in large part as propaganda for the police, but the prison system is harder to propagandise for. Cop shows depict a kind of idealised police force, facing down unimaginable danger to catch the bad guys, but there is no similar idealised vision of prison, that makes the audience root for heroic prison officers and glad the bad guys are locked up there. Invisibility is about the best they can do. Television teaches us to root for hero cops, but when it comes to prisons, it asks us to turn away, avert our eyes, keep our heads down. Just don’t think about it at all.

This is part of what makes Porridge such a special show. Originally airing on the BBC from 1974 to 1977, it’s a sitcom set in the fictional Slade Prison in Cumberland. The sitcom may seem like an unnatural format to set in a prison, but that format allows Porridge to depict prison life at a kind of mundane, everyday level. A lot of prison dramas portray the most fucked up, horrible stuff that happens in prison, like rape and violence, but Porridge depicts the thousand tiny dehumanisations that make up prison life even when things are running perfectly smoothly. The oppressiveness inherent to the system, and the tiny victories that make it bearable.

“Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court, and it is now my duty to pass sentence,” the judge intones at the start of each episode, “You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences. You will go to prison for five years.”

Fletch (Ronnie Barker) has been in and out of his prison his entire adult life. His cellmate, Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale), is a young man imprisoned for the first time. They start their sentences on the same day, and Fletch immediately starts dispensing advice, whether it’s how to get the best work assignments (library or kitchen, naturally) or telling the doctor you have bad feet during your medical so you’ll get to wear your own shoes instead of prison boots (if you wear them you will get bad feet). As annoyed as Fletch is not to have a single cell – overcrowding is a consistent enough problem that there is sometimes a third prisoner put in with the two of them as well – he immediately takes Godber under his wing. He teaches him about prison, but also about the world in general. Fletch loves playing the wise older man, and Godber is clearly happy to have someone like Fletch to show him the ropes and stand in his corner when he needs it. Over the course of the show, they become more and more like father and son. After all these years in and out of prison – not living, he says, just marking time – you get the sense that Fletch has had more of an opportunity to be a dad to Godber than he has to his own children.

One of the show’s first episodes focuses on the two of them in their cell overnight. During the day, they can occupy themselves with work or cribbage or talking shite, but at night, their unfreedom is unavoidable, overwhelming, constricting around them. Godber gets scared when the doors are locked, and Fletch helps him through it. Godber says he’d normally only be getting ready to go out at this time – the lights go off obscenely early, like they’re children – and Fletch offers for them to go out to the nightclubs with the dancers off Top of the Pops, or just have a quiet night in. Framing it as a choice to stay in, even when there is in reality no choice, helps Godber cope. It helps him get through the night. This time, at least.

It’s an incredible episode of television, anchored in two stellar performances from Barker and Beckinsale. But what’s especially striking about it is that it’s not about when prison doesn’t operate according to plan, like rape or violence or gangs. It’s not even about something that’s routine but widely acknowledged as a horror that needs to be abolished, like solitary confinement. It’s about prison at its very core: about what it feels like when the door is locked. “It’s unnatural, innit?” Godber says, “Men in cages.”

(When the morning comes and the doors are unlocked, they pick up their buckets to go slop out, joining a line of prisoners doing the same. Porridge was made in the 1970s, but there are still inmates in UK prisons slopping out now, over a decade after it was banned. We haven’t even nominally banned it in Ireland.)

A lesson Fletch repeatedly attempts to impart to Godber is that you can’t beat the system: just keep your head down and your nose clean. But beating the system is exactly what Fletch devotes himself to doing each day. He’s in a never-ending battle of wills with prison officer Mr. Mackay (Fulton Mackay), a former drill sergeant. Mackay is constantly suspicious of Fletch and trying to catch him out, Fletch is constantly contemptuous of Mackay and trying to get up his nose. It is, among other things, a way to assert his humanity. So much of prison is about not rehabilitation but being ground down, made malleable, compliant, docile. Fletch has been to prison enough to know you have to fight like hell to keep your spirit alive. It comes down to the inmates vs. the screws, and he always knows what side he’s on.

“[T]he conflict between Fletcher and Officer Mackay was about the most authentic depiction ever of the true relationship that exists between prisoners and prison officers in British jails up and down the country,” former prisoner Erwin James wrote for The Guardian,

(Prison officers might disagree, but of course, they would.) I’m not sure how, but writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais understood that it is almost the duty of a prisoner to best the landing officer, the cleaning officer, the workshop officer… They grasped the notion that it is the minor victories against the naturally oppressive prison system that makes prison life bearable.

This conflict is explicitly about class. Although Mr. Mackay is also from a working-class background, he functions as an avatar for the system at large: what Fletch sometimes calls “the establishment”. Mackay explicitly rejects the idea that he and Fletch are of the same class: when Fletch points out that both of them have to spend nights in prison instead of with their wives, Mackay says that the inmates’ wives “belong to the criminal class with its trait of promiscuity.” He talks about them like they’re another species. It doesn’t even matter that their wives haven’t committed any crimes, they’re guilty by association.

Fletch was a Marxist in his youth – conceiving his first child at Karl Marx’s tomb – and although he seems much less interested in politics by the events of the show, he clearly understands the prison system in socioeconomic terms. He tells Godber that his son has gotten into grammar school, and that he was able to get him all the things he needs by stealing them: that if he made an honest living as a “struggling clerk” he wouldn’t have been able to. It’s not that he’s proud of it – in moments where he thinks about how much of his life he’s spent imprisoned, you can practically see the weight of it on him, half his life wasted waiting to be free – it’s that men like Fletch don’t have a lot of options. Not because he’s not bright, or talented, or kind, or hard-working – he’s all those things in spades – but because he was born poor.

This point is driven home when the judge who sentenced Fletch ends up in Slade. Judge Rawley has been convicted of bribery and corruption, and from the moment he walks in the door he’s treated differently. Instead of being brought in for processing as normal, he’s brought to the governor’s office for a nice little chat. The governor introduces him to Mackay as a friend, and Mackay shakes his hand, assuming he’s an important visitor, not a prisoner. (This is the same governor, for the record, who wouldn’t stop going on about his tropical fish having fin rot when a prison officer tried to tell him about an inmate eating lightbulbs because “he couldn’t get any razor blades.”) Rawley is put in Fletch and Godber’s cell, and the staff are all apologies for not giving him a single room. He immediately gets one of the best jobs in the prison, which Mackay justifies by pointing to his level of education.

Fletch is initially enraged. Being sent down by a fellow con stings in a way being sent down by an upstanding citizen doesn’t. (Plus if he’d known the judge was crooked he could have paid him off.) He and Godber debate if Rawley is now one of them or still part of the establishment. Although Fletch is initially resistant, he decides that as long as Rawley’s inside, he’s one of them, and even protects him from being beaten up by a group of prisoners. Fletch still isn’t happy about it, but there emerges a certain rapport. Rawley, like Godber in those early days, practically crumples when he hears the doors lock at night.

But Judge Rawley isn’t one of them. Not really. Which is why he gets out on appeal after just a couple of weeks. “The first twelve months are the hardest,” Godber had told him, but he’ll never find out for himself. When he tells Fletch he’s getting out, he agrees with something Fletch had said when he initially came to Slade: that the difference is he’s rich and can afford clever lawyers.

Rawley gives them a heartfelt goodbye, saying that this experience has totally changed his attitude towards prison. That he’s grateful for their friendship and guidance. He even gives Fletch his watch, telling him that since it’s valuable, he could trade it. But when the other prisoners mention meeting up when they get out, you can tell he’d rather set himself on fire. He is sincerely grateful for their friendship and guidance, but that doesn’t stop them being the kind of people he crosses the street to avoid on the outside.

The rest of the men in Slade are ordinary working-class criminals. They’ll spend years here, and none of them will get out on appeal. As we spend time with them, it’s harder and harder to see any good in them being here: the show doesn’t go into backstories, but it’s obvious that none of them are in prison despite having a ton of options outside of crime, and nothing about prison seems intended to help them live a law-abiding life in the future. Warren (Sam Kelly) is illiterate, and although prison is apparently where his dyslexia was finally diagnosed, there seem to be zero resources to help him overcome it. Lukewarm (Christopher Biggins) is openly gay, and although homosexuality was no longer a crime in England (for men over 21, at least), I’m sure it’s not like he would have had a ton of opportunities outside of thieving. McLaren (Tony Osoba) is a black Scottish adoptee, and when he reacts to racist abuse from prison officers, he’s the one who gets punished.

And Godber. Poor, sweet Godber, with his O-level in geography and his doe eyes and easy smiles and wide-open heart. Godber, who’s in prison because he tried to steal a present for his fiancée Denise, who unceremoniously dumps him via letter while he’s inside. Fletch says that young men like Godber shouldn’t be imprisoned – that it’s just “public revenge.” It’s hard to disagree with him.

The prison apparently has a welfare officer – he’s mentioned but unseen – but for all intents and purposes, Fletch is the welfare officer. He’s the one Warren goes to read his wife’s letters, and to write his own letters back. Fletch makes gay and black jokes, but Lukewarm and McLaren are his friends, and his willingness to go to bat for them is a form of protection. He even helps Lukewarm write letters to his boyfriend, no different to the other men’s wives. And when Godber wants to get an O-level in history, he steals the exam paper to make sure he passes.

When Godber is trying to study, Fletch isn’t particularly supportive, basically saying that it’s a waste of time. Godber argues that it’ll show his initiative and hard work to potential employers when he gets out. Once Fletch realises how important it is to Godber, he makes a plan with Warren to steal the paper. Godber, of course, doesn’t want it: he wants to pass on his own merit. He tells Fletch that the only person he’d be cheating is himself. Fletch is furious.

“You’re at the crossroads of your life, Godber. You better start making yourself a few breaks, mate, ‘cause when you get out there, there’ll be precious few for you,” Fletch says. Barker normally plays Fletch as cool and quippy and lighthearted, but here, he’s full of rage, and sadness, and desperation, and love, like he’s not sure if he might punch Godber or burst into tears. “Listen, you could go for a job one morning, with all the qualifications in the world, and be pipped to the post by some nerk who’s never passed an exam in his life. But he speaks with the right accent. He plays for the cricket club. And he ain’t never been in no nick!” He throws the exam paper at Godber and storms off.

Fletch is right, of course. People often propose education as a blanket solution to poverty and class inequality, I think in part because there’s something more palatable to the middle-class mind in imagining your own economic security as being thanks to your education. Something you might have had greater access to than your poorer peers, but at least actively participated in, rather than primarily an accident of birth. But education doesn’t fix poverty. (Wealth redistribution does.) It’s wonderful that Godber wants to get another O-level – it’s the closest thing to rehabilitation anyone at Slade has bumped up against – but when he says that employers will be impressed that he got his exam even under the difficult circumstances of being imprisoned, he sounds hopelessly naive. It’s not impossible, but no matter how many O-levels Godber gets, he’s still only moving the needle a tiny amount. He’s still a working-class kid from Birmingham, still doesn’t know any of the right people or speak with the right accent. He’s still an ex-con, and that’s a brand he will wear for the rest of his life, no matter what he does.

The gag at the end of the episode is, of course, that because Warren can’t read, he stole the biology paper instead of history. Godber thinks the exam went well anyway. Roll credits.

Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais, the creators of Porridge, spent most of their TV careers telling stories about the British working class, especially in the north of England: The Likely Lads is a brilliantly funny show about young factory workers in Newcastle, and sequel series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is a moving, hilarious, sometimes painful examination of social mobility and urban decay; Auf Weidersehn, Pet is about bricklayers going to Germany for work and it’s a brilliant, angry, wonderful look at Thatcher’s Britain at 600 miles distance. But there’s something particularly special about Porridge. Part of that is how great Barker and Beckinsale are in it, but part of it is that what it has to say about class feels that much rarer.

We’re meant to look away from incarceration. From the incarcerated. Even when we watch it depicted on-screen, we look away: squirm in our seats and avert our eyes, reassuring ourselves that the more extreme stuff on-screen probably doesn’t happen all that often, really. Porridge depicts prison in a way that’s palatable, that’s fun to watch, without making prison itself seem palatable or fun. Instead, it’s a hundred thousand tiny dehumanisations: none of them enough to make us turn away, but collectively a horror.

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