The BBC has reimagined Porridge in the modern day as part of its new sitcom series, but is there anything to laugh about in the modern prison system?
The broadcaster has revisited a number of its classic comedies, celebrating a rich history of characters.
Monday saw the premiere of two new takes on golden oldies. There was a fairly by-the-book new episode of innuendo-heavy Are You Being Served? followed by a contemporary take on Porridge.
The reboot moved the show from the windswept HMP Slade of 1970s Cumberland, to a modern day inner-city prison – where Norman Stanley Fletcher’s grandson Nigel (Kevin Bishop) is banged up for cyber crimes nearly four decades on.
Alex Cavendish was imprisoned in 2012 on a non-violent charge and went on to serve two years, staying at six prisons in that time, ranging from category B to an open facility.
Cavendish is now an academic and blogger, who runs the website Prison UK, where he offers factual advice, comments on the system and his own personal insight into time inside.
He watched the new incarnation of Porridge and shared his thoughts on what they got right, what they got wrong, and whether there is any humour still to be found in the UK prison system.
On how it looked:
Accepting that the set was understandably far smaller than expansive prison surroundings, Cavendish believes it struck the right note when it came to the look of a modern UK prison – though it perhaps overstated technological advancements.
“Certainly visually, it was pretty accurate – what people were wearing and the furnishing of the cells was pretty much spot on. Although most British prisons don’t have electronic locking doors.
“I never came across electronic locks of any description. They were all traditional key operated and all staff had big bunches of keys. I suppose it was a nod in the direction of their story where everything went wrong electronically.”
On the noise level:
An aspect that didn’t sit quite right with Cavendish was the hushed quiet of the wings.
“The average prison wing would have anything from 60 to 180 people on it, depending on how many storeys it is.
“One of the things that strikes you is the sheer noise volume – you hear a lot of people shouting to get other people’s attention or shouting across walkways or down stair cases. That often goes on from early morning, sometimes right through the night.”
One scene sees the young Fletcher drop into a therapy session unannounced without supervision. Although his arrival stretches the truth, Cavendish believes that they were representing a change in the prison system.
“You do have more focus on what are called Offending Behaviour Programmes, which generally involve some sort of group work. There was an element of it being more believable because of that.
“A lot of people do them because it’s in their sentence plan – not because they think they’ll get anything from them. Most people who have done these courses will say ‘I did it to tick the box’.”
On the system of privileges:
Another plot point sees Fletcher being given a TV for his cell after assisting the prison Governor, another point which rings true for Cavendish.
“There is an incentives and earned privileges system, the IEP system, which determines if you get a TV. It’s not given free – you have to pay a weekly fee for it.
“Your day to day life does depend on what level you are in the IEP system. For people who don’t tow the line…they can end up on the bottom level which is basic.”
On tough prison officers:
As for the prison officers, the regimented Scot Mr. Mackay is reborn in his modern counterpart Mr. Meechy – similarly out to get the show’s protagonist. But do the strict prison officers of that bygone era really still exist?
“There are people who are more like Mackay than Mackay.
“If they can apply their own personal punishments to make day-to-day life as miserable as possible, they will.
“I remember a young prisoner dropped a tray of food, which splashed the uniform leg of one of the officers. This guy literally bashed his head against the railings, knocked his front teeth out and dragged him off to the segregation unit. That happens, this is reality. I’ve seen it.
“On the other hand, you find some officers who really are willing to be helpful and go the extra mile to treat people humanely.”
On the reality of the prison officer role:
Although the Mackays still remain, most prisoners wouldn’t enjoy the repartee that Fletcher has with Meechy and Braithwaite in this reboot.
“You have big reductions in the number of staff. They don’t have time to deal with individual prisoners and their problems.
“You used to have four or six officers on a wing whereas now you might have two. They have much less time to speak to you, engage with you, to do anything other than open doors. They are really reverting to the traditional turn-key role.
“This system doesn’t work. I was in one prison for about six months and I had no idea who my personal officer was.”
On the power balance inside:
Another part of Fletcher’s charm is his ability to play both sides, the crime kingpins and the wardens alike. But it’s not an easy game.
“There are people who try to maintain good relations on both sides. But anyone who is seen as being that bit too close to the staff will be under suspicion.
“Drug culture is so prevalent and dealers tend to run wings and enforce debts. They really are the guys with the influence. They’re always nervy about people who talk to staff.
“One prison we had a thing called the 30 second rule, which was that you don’t speak to a member of staff, particularly in the office, for more than 30 seconds on your own. Because if you do, you’re automatically assumed to be informing.
“You also don’t get many prison officers who go into cells alone these days, because the prevalence of violence is so high. They tend to not to venture into cells unless they’re doing a structured cell search, whereby they have sufficient officers to rip the cell apart.
“Prison officers are so demoralised at the moment, people are very unwilling to take risks.”
On prisoner camaraderie:
How about the spirit of camaraderie that is the linchpin of Porridge?
“I wouldn’t say it’s as strong as it was years ago. You’ve got a lot more prisoners serving parole sentences. They literally have the rest of their life to lose if something goes wrong. These people, who now number in the thousands, really don’t want to take any risks.
“You’ve also got a much bigger prison population. In England and Wales as of this week, there are 85,100 prisoners, including young offenders. It’s approaching the maximum capacity of the system.
“There was always cell sharing, as we saw from the original, but it wasn’t as commonplace then as it is now.
“I think that has hit the idea of camaraderie. If you’ve got to share a tiny cell with someone for 22 or 23 hours a day, even if you get on, there are tensions. It’s not like a big boy’s night in.”
On the mental health issue:
Deeper issues aren’t being highlighted either.
“You’ve probably got 40% or 50% of the adult male prison population that has serious mental health problems. That can range from self-harming, attempted suicide, violent outbursts, smashing up the cells, attacking other inmates.
“It’s a toxic combination of overcrowding and under-staffing. People are now being sent to prison for offences that, in the past, would have been treated as mental health issues.
“It’s not equipped to deal with enormous numbers of people with mental health problems. That certainly didn’t come over at all in Porridge.”
On the current reality of prisons:
Expanding on this, Cavendish believes that the real issues are not being covered enough for any humour to be found.
“I very much enjoyed the original series, but I think one of the dangers of a series like Porridge in this present era is that our prisons are facing an unprecedented crisis. We’ve got a historically high prison population, incidents of violence, incidents of drug-taking, self-harm and attacks on staff.
“Prison reform has slipped off the political agenda, to the point where pretty much everyone has abandoned any hope of serious reform in this parliament. I would question whether now is the time to do a prison comedy.
“Although there are elements of truth in it, it isn’t a representation of the day-to-day reality. There’s always a danger about making a comedy about a situation which is anything but comic.”
Porridge is on BBC One on Sunday at 9.30pm, and you can catch up on the iPlayer.