Peter Vaughan, of Porridge (Genial Harry Grout), Citizen Smith (Shirley’s dad) and Brazil (the Minister) has died at the age of 93, demonstrating that the terrible sweep of 2016 is not going to ebb away.
I remember him in all three roles, but best of all as Grouty in Porridge. Vaughan played the head of a big London Mob, enjoying a rest at the taxpayers’ expense, but indubitably the real boss of HM Slade. He only appeared in three episodes, but he established himself with quiet menace, the more so for his complete lack of concern for anyone else. Even knowing him to be acting a part, you would have jumped to carry our Peter Vaughan’s wishes.
He’s had a bloody good, bloody long life, and we should not mourn him as we do those younger, but it will be very hard to look at the list of those taken away this year and not feel the extent to which our lives have been diminished. In that company, Peter Vaughan stands very tall.
On a scale of Still Open All Hours to 10, the one-off Porridge revival rated about a 3. That was based on one point for making me laugh, softly, half way through the episode, and two for not being anything like as dire as Still Open All Hours. That still doesn’t mean it was in any way a good idea, nor that the show worked, and it certainly doesn’t mean that time or energy should be expended on making any more.
I picked out Porridge as being the only one of this mercifully short season of sitcom revivals with the potential to work because it was the only one to acknowledge the passage of time since its primary’s heyday. Also, it had Dick Clement and Ian la Fresnais going for it. This showed in the scripting, which was easily recognisable as the duo’s work.
It just wasn’t funny enough, though.
Some of it has to be put down to the actors. Kevin Bishop inherits the Fletch role as grandson of the original (sad to say, his grandad has also passed away, even in fiction, five years before, but he never went back inside, and Uncle Lennie was inspired by him and eventually set Fletch up with a North London pub, a real pub). I’ve not watched Bishop before. He’s not Ronnie Barker, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but on this showing he’s no more than a stereotypical, cheeky chappie Cockney, and he’s considerably younger than the old Fletch.
Clement and la Fresnais are to be applauded for not slavishly following their original, especially when the cell-mates set-up is reversed by having Fletch squared away with an old lag (Joe Lotterby, 77 years old, knew Fletch Senior in Slade, inspired the only real laugh I had when he related the true circumstances of his conviction for murder).
But that exposes a serious weakness in the revival. The point of Porridge was that Fletch was an old lag, a wily old lag, experienced in doing his bird, fly and far ahead of the screws. Nigel Fletch is a smartarse cyber-criminal, doing his first sentence. He’s too young and inexperienced to be a convincing wily old lag, yet that’s what he’s got to be.
As for the rest of the show, Clement and la Fresnais have been wise enough to go for recreating the atmosphere rather than slavishly duplicating the cast. There are recognisable figures: Mancunian gang boss Richie Weeks (Ralph Ineson) is the Harry Grout du nos jours, whilst Dominic Coleman as Senior Warder Braithwaite and Mark Bonnar as Chief Warder Meekie, are obvious replacements for Barrowclough and Mackay.
As for the rest of the lags, we do not have direct substitutes for Warren, McLaren, Godber, Lukewarm, etc., which is good in one way, but none of the new characters are as neatly drawn, nor so deftly played, as a result of which they make little impression. The only one who succeeds is Bonnar, as Warder Meekie, and he is the one who most shamelessly channels his original, Fulton Mackay.
So there you have it. The show fails to be as distinctive and promising as its original because, in a clearly applaudable decision not to duplicate the original, it fails to set a clear enough tone of its own. Nobody is really sure how to play their characters without coming over as plagiarising the first cast, and the only one who says, soddit, I’m going for it, is the most convincing character of all, mainly be reminding us how much better the Seventies Porridge was. And still is.
Let common sense and ordinary decency prevail. Do not order a series. Please.
I warned you about this some time ago, and now the disaster is almost upon us: the BBC’s Classic Sitcoms season, starts on Saturday and runs through the Bank Holiday weekend and into the next fortnight. Do not even think of staying in this weekend, do not switch on your TV set or, if you absolutely must, avoid BBC1 as you value your values and any sense of decency in your life.
Herewith a link to the Guardian‘s summary of what is to come. As you will see, a half dozen unsuspecting sitcoms are to be ravished unmercifully. These include absolute legends like ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Till Death us do Part’ and ‘Porridge’, the popular ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and that pile of steaming old tosh that nevertheless doesn’t deserve it, ‘Are You Being Served?’
Of the sextet, the first three are being remade. Selected scripts have been marginally updated and will be performed by actors prostituting their talent by attempting to impersonate the original stars, looking as much like them as they possible can. Of course, the ‘Till Death’ script has had to be carefully selected to avoid the very satirical purpose of the entire series; in this benighted age you cannot satirise the ignorance of racists unless you can do so whilst not sounding like a racist in the slightest.
Something similar applies to ‘Are You Being Served?’, although that is being honoured with a new, pastiche script, to go with the pastiche acting. A black character is to be inserted but there will not, of course, be anything remotely like the kind of gag the show’s creators, the late Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, would have written when the programme was current.
‘Keeping Up Appearances’ has fared the best of all, by not actually being revived. At least a degree of sanity has prevailed in recognising that it is impossible to duplicate Patricia Routledge. Instead, we will have ‘Young Hyacinth’, a flashback tale of the future Mrs Bucket’s teenage years, setting her snobbery against her lower class family background, starring a much maltreated young actress who will be strait-jacketed into trying to duplicate all Miss Routledge’s mannerisms.
The only one in which I have the remotest interest is ‘Porridge’, which is the only one with the courage to update the story, whilst retaining the situation. Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais are on hand to tell the story of Nigel Norman Fletcher, grandson of the magnificent Fletch who, like Lennie Godber and the unfortunate Richard Beckinsale, remains alive in the backstory of this latest chip off the old block.
It’s the only one of the sextet to show signs of facing the new era, and it’s therefore the only one of these artistic and comedic abortions to stand the remotest chance of being watchable or even, dare I dream it? Funny.
The big danger, as with the wretched ‘Still Open All Hours’, is that one or more of these one-offs will attract enough of an audience to tempt the BBC to order a series. So do everyone a favour, switch off your TVs, do not add so much as an eyeball to the audience of any of these, help avert the further degradation of British TV, that believes that the capturing of lightning in a bottle can be repeated by bringing back comedies that were successful representations of their times, and asking invariably lesser men and women to copy towering talents.
There was an item in the news yesterday about the BBC reviving its 1990s time-travel sitcom, Goodnight Sweetheart – Nicholas Lyndhurst’s first solo vehicle – for a one-off special to celebrate sixty years of sitcoms.
I didn’t so much mind that as I’d never watched the show at the time – I am not fond of the writing of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran – so it mattered not to me whether the revival was either disappointing or pathetic. What concerned me rather more is that the Goodnight Sweetheart revival is, according to the piece, just part of a sitcom season.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a BBC sitcom revival season any day – after all, the BBC’s track record in sitcoms far far outweighs that of ITV – providing that it limits itself to repeats of old favourites.
But the write-up seems to indicate that these revivals are going to be newly-made episodes, a la Still Open All Hours, and you know my opinion of that one.
The only other sitcoms being mentioned are Are You Being Served? (about which I do not care one jot), Porridge (sacrilege! Haven’t you done enough to Ronnie Barker’s memory yet?) and a Keeping up Appearances prequel to be titled Young Hyacinth, which fills me with dread as both an arid concept with a proven track record of unmitigated disaster, and because who on Earth could ever convince anyone they were going to turn into Patricia Routledge (unless the BBC has access to time travel technology and can produce an actual younger Patricia Routledge, in which case I’m going to be down the DG’s offices with a very long list of names).
And these are only the named ones, the ‘include’s. What other horrors have the BBC got up their sleeves.
This is not a good idea. Every attempt to do this has been proved to be a disaster. Why are they insisting on doing things like this? Doesanyonehave an Air Raid Shelter they’re not using?
This paragraph appears on the Guardian web-site as part of a long piece on this summer’s must-watch TV (none of which I want to).
“As sedate as it was, the Open All Hours revival Still Open All Hours was such a hit that the BBC is repeating the idea across the board. Its sitcom season essentially works as a series of pilots for remakes of classic series. They’re remaking Are You Being Served? They’re remaking Porridge. They’re remaking Up Pompeii! and Keeping Up Appearances. They’re throwing everything they’ve got at this and, while there are bound to be a few duffers in the mix, you can bet that your mum will end up loving at least one of them.”