Shiny Shelf

Life Beyond The Box: Norman Stanley Fletcher

By Jim Smith on 05 January 2004

One of the things that deeply worried me about this special (I worry about things like this, me) was that the death of Richard Beckinsale would prompt the marriage of Lennie Godber to Fletch’s daughter Ingrid – which formed the feelgood finale of ‘Porridge’ spin-off ‘Going Straight’ – to be shown as having collapsed at some point in the Eighties.

This may sound foolish, indeed it is, but the BBC’s record at coping with the absence of dear, departed actors is not good (remember the execrable ‘The Legacy of Reginald Perrin’?) and the simple truth remains that even now ‘Porridge’ is the best sitcom the BBC has ever made. The idea of its finest moment being ex post facto ruined was something that troubled me. The alternative option – re-casting Lennie Godber – seemed nearly as unpleasant.

Fortunately, this didn’t happen. His still-devoted wife explained Lennie’s absence, to camera, as being related to him being lost on the motorway. Memories of one of TV’s most beloved creations unsullied, I was able to sit back and enjoy the rest of the show.

Now, whether this was entirely down to my subsequent chilled out status or not, I don’t know, but the second half of this special struck me as vastly better than the first.

Early in the documentary Fletcher’s early life was illustrated with ‘recreations’ starring an unconvincing ‘Young Fletcher’ who played out dramatized anecdotes from episodes. While these were acceptable they were nowhere near the quality of ‘Porridge’ itself and the cutting in of sequences from the series proper, all of which served to demonstrate what a pale imitation this ‘Junior Fletch’ was, didn’t help this unsteady approach at all.

However, once the special reached, chronologically, a point in Fletcher’s life we as an audience were au fait with, familiar characters began to appear by the truckload. Virtually the entire surviving semi-regular cast turned up – only Brian Wilde was absent, but then he’s still bitter about his billing in ‘Radio Times’ for this series (seriously) – all giving effortlessly good performances, and the attention to continuity details in the script becomes obsessive.

Someone, perhaps ‘Script Consultants’ Clement and La Frenais themselves, had clearly been through the script with some unfeasibly finely toothed comb to ensure that all the continuity was 100% accurate. Suddenly it all seemed very, very real.

The progression of Fletcher’s life from the last episode of ‘Going Straight’ onwards made perfect sense too and was far from the lazy, uninspired continuation I’d seriously feared. From nightwatchman to reluctant Australian immigrant to publican it all seemed worked out from the very sane basis of thinking about the character. That might sound like the only starting point for something like this but I again point you to ‘The Legacy of Reginald Perrin’ or (God forbid) the insultingly dire, bland and cruel post-1996 ‘Only Fools & Horses’ episodes.

Logical too, were the fates of the other characters last seen in the late Seventies; McLaren (Tony Osoba) got his life together and is a prominent MSP; ‘Groutie’ (Peter Vaughn) was a beneficiary of the revolting 1990s fetish for ‘reformed’ gangsters; ‘Lukewarm’ (Christopher Biggins) is cheerfully married to another old man and Warren (Sam Kelly) is an inept road sign painter.

Best of all though, Fletch himself, though seventy, is happy, hale and hearty. He’s still played by Ronnie Barker too and in an astonishing moment of TV history-in-the-making we get to see him again, and Barker’s performance is spot on. God, I nearly welled up. This is how all those mad Americans felt during ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ isn’t it? Heaven help me if Kyle McLachlan ever plays Dale Cooper again. I think I’d die.

Apart from a shaky start then, this was a major success for the Beeb this holiday season, and I await the second programme (on Margot from ‘The Good Life’) with far less trepidation than before. In fact I’m really rather looking forward to it.

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