Prisoners 1 Screws 0
How the sitcom Porridge reflected changes in football in the 1970s
With many of 70s comedy's lead protagonists, their club loyalties were abundantly clear, as were their views on football as it entered the Technicolor era. In Rising Damp, Rigsby bemoaned Leeds United's luck in the 1975 European Cup Final, insisting they were “robbed” and added, "Players prance around like male models… in my day when you scored a goal you got a brisk handshake. Now you get covered in love bites." Alf Garnett was a West Ham fanatic, and described 70s players as “a bunch of long haired poofters”.
'Wolfie' Smith – the ‘Che Guevara of Tooting’ – made frequent references to Fulham's mediocrity in Citizen Smith. "You don't have to tell me what that's like," he tells his girlfriend Shirley when she tells him she’s been depressed all her life: "I've been a Fulham fan all my life." As newly appointed Minister for Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker was mightily miffed in the opening episode of Yes Minister when he realised that instead of attending the Aston Villa v Liverpool game on the Saturday, he'd have to wade through a mountain of red boxes.
Most memorably, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais's two mould breaking 70s sitcoms, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? and Porridge, pushed football to the fore. Likely Lads Bob Ferris and Terry Collier, who once avoided the result of the England v Bulgaria match so they could watch the highlights on Sportsnight in the episode “No Hiding Place”, only to find it was postponed due to a water-logged pitch, were Newcastle United fanatics. Bob later appeared sitting in bed wearing a 70s Newcastle kit, and informed Terry that his hairdresser Gary “…used to do the hair of half the Newcastle team. Bob Moncur, Malcolm Macdonald – he used the same conditioner as me."
But it was Porridge, set in fictional Category C Slade Prison and broadcast between 1974 and 1977, which, with its rogues gallery of working-class lags, most consistently referred to 70s football and mirrored its good and bad elements. Although Norman Stanley Fletcher muddied the waters somewhat in the feature film Porridge (1979) by informing 'Genial' Harry Grout that twenty years of following Orient left him "disenchanted with the game," the TV series left the viewer in no doubt that Fletch was a Tottenham fan. When Fletch was brought before Governor Venables (whose predecessor at Slade – according to the board behind him, was one G Neville) in the “Men without Women” episode, citing emotional stress after daughter Ingrid informed him that his wife Isobel had left him for another man, he mused out loud: "I wonder if Spurs are at home?" when wangling a compassionate weekend back home in Muswell Hill.
Then, when he finally departed Slade in the first episode of the sequel Going Straight, the miserable prison warder Mr Kirby called out: “One Tottenham 'otspur key ring" as he went through Fletch's inventory of items which he left behind the security desk upon being sentenced three and a half years earlier. His naïve cellmate Lennie Godber was a Villa fanatic, revealing: "I prayed when I was a kid, like. When I was up in juvenile court and when Villa looked like doing well in the Cup. But I became disillusioned with religion. I got probation and Villa got knocked out by Rotherham one-nothing." Fletch and Godber's buddy Jim McLaren (the actor Tony Osaba was the first black Scottish actor working in TV) was a Morton fan: "When I'm out there I'm playing for Morton against Celtic at Hampden. And we stuff them."
The laddish banter, misogynistic discussions about women (Fletch has his Page 3 nudes pinned up on his cell wall in each episode), “naffing” this and that, obsession with having a “flutter,” occasional sing-songs (usually to mask the sound of inmates tunnelling out) and crafty smoking and drinking meant that the atmosphere in Porridge was often akin to that of an archetypal dressing room in the ‘70s. Like at football clubs there was a clear pecking order inside and tensions, fears, boredom with the daily grind, personality clashes, highs and lows, youngsters coming through, experienced pros showing others the ropes, old hands leaving. Then there was the football-like proliferation of nicknames. Apart from Godber, whom Fletch referred to by his surname, or in lighter moments ‘Lennie’, and Mr Banyard – 'the defrocked dentist’ – everyone else has a nickname, whether it was 'Bunny' Warren, 'Jock' McClaren, 'Horrible' Ives, 'Lukewarm' Lewis or the unseen 'Light-fingered' Larry. While Chelsea’s Ron 'Chopper' Harris and Leeds’s Norman 'Bites Yer Legs' Hunter revelled in their ‘hard-man’ approach during the '70s, Slade Prison also had its share of nicknamed hatchet men, including 'Crusher,' who was one of Harry Grout's enforcers, and the 'Butcher' of Slade, who was so called because he fiddled the VAT on his sausages.
The entire premise of Porridge was that Fletch and his mates were out to defeat the system (“Prisoners 1 Screws 0” declared Fletch after one such victory) in order to ensure little wins to make their stretches more bearable. 70s football was peppered with examples of increasingly moneyed top-flight players cocking a snoop at authority. A decade or so after the end of the maximum wage, Charlie George clashed with old-school boss Bertie Mee at Arsenal due to the former’s attitude, and in the early 70s Tottenham boss Bill Nicholson refused to allow the team photograph to take place until several of the team had their hair cut. In Slade, Mackay regularly told some prisoners to “get your hair cut.”
In Porridge, football was often used as a distraction. Warren and Fletch engaged Barrowclough in a pointless discussion about the outcome of the 1962 FA Cup Final in order to palm Barrowclough's bike ("You mean that you came into work as a cyclist but will leaving as a pedestrian?" Godber enquires), and the entire premise of the 1979 movie was that the football match between Slade and a Showbiz XI ('Which one's the Goodie?' enquired Warren when the visitors turned out to be – the weatherman from Anglia TV aside – a bunch of nobodies) was simply a ruse to allow the new prisoner Oaksey to escape. At various points, Fletcher used others' passion for playing football on a Saturday afternoon to indulge his passion for reading the Sun on his bunk: "While you nurks are out there, I'm in here getting some time to meself," he informed McLaren.
One liners in Porridge referred to some key events within 70s football. In the pilot episode “Prisoner And Escort”, broadcast in 1973, Fletch is asked by Barrowclough why he's uttered the expression “Cobblers”. "What Brian Clough says about London clubs," Fletch responds. On different occasions, the Derby boss Clough had suggested that it was tough for a provincial club like Derby to gain points in London, as referees would automatically favour the home club. During the 72-73 season, he also referred to the fact that he believed both North London giants had gone “soft”. Clough wasn't wrong; within two seasons both Arsenal and Spurs would be embroiled in relegation dogfights. He also invoked Crystal Palace’s ire. Two months before the Porridge pilot episode went out in April 1973, Derby, who were 6th in the First Division at the time, lost 3-0 at home to Stoke, who were struggling in the lower reaches. Clough had fielded five reserves in the Derby line-up, a move that infuriated Crystal Palace manager, Bert Head.
Palace were battling relegation along with Stoke and Head believed that Clough's line-up was picked with Derby's forthcoming European Cup semi-final with Juventus in mind. Stoke, Head felt, had been virtually handed the two vital league points as a result. He called it “a farce” and said, “Our boys are wild about it. There is no action I can take. It is a ridiculous situation. When the European Cup gets more important than the Football League, it's time to pack up.” It was an accusation that Clough, of course, refuted, insisting that “Our best hope of qualifying for Europe next season lies in finishing in the top places of the First Division.” In 1976, after Bertie Mee resigned as Arsenal boss, Clough said. "I could never see myself managing a London club. Northern fans have more passion and soul."
In “Prisoner and Escort”, Mackay insisted to Fletcher that he was "hard but fair”. "Like Leeds United?" asked Fletch. "If you like. You play ball with me, and I'll play ball with you, and you'll find me a reasonable man," Mackay explained. A later episode saw McLaren claim that Mackay sounded like "Leeds United" when the latter claimed that he treated all inmates "with equal contempt". Ironically, by 1972, Don Revie had begun to loosen the shackles on his team, dispensing with the dossiers, and encouraging Giles, Bremner et al to entertain the Elland Road crowds more. Despite the fact that Leeds still took no prisoners, there was more encouragement from their manager to fulfil their attacking potential. In 1972, Manchester United were hammered 5-1 at Elland Road, and Southampton annihilated 7-0 in front of Match of the Day cameras. The Daily Telegraph led the plaudits: "Leeds, with their breath-taking efficiency, left no doubt about the sheer quality of their football. Leeds, as manager Don Revie has claimed, had more than a passing resemblance to Real Madrid in their prime." Yet McLaren's comment in Season One (broadcast in 1974 after Revie had departed for the England job) demonstrated how, in forward Peter Lorimer's words: "Our reputation for grinding out results and playing negative football preceded us, and despite the fact that we played some glorious stuff later on, it was a tough one to shrug off."
Given the proximity of BBC TV Centre to Loftus Road, it was unsurprising that Porridge reflected QPR's rise to prominence in the mid-70s. After Rangers finished runners up to Liverpool in the 75-76 campaign, they swept aside Brann, Slovan Bratislava and Köln in the Uefa Cup, before crashing out to AEK, scoring a barely credible 26 goals in the process. The back pages of Fletch's copies of the Sun reflected the stellar form of skipper Gerry Francis (“Oh Gerry – You're A Gem!” read one headline) and maverick forward Stan Bowles (“Stan – You're The Man!” read another). After becoming a tabloid at the beginning of the decade, the Sun specialised in back-page headlines that were short, daring, and to the point. Stan Bowles was perfect tabloid fodder. “Bowles In Flare Up!” blasted another of Fletch’s Sun headlines, reflecting Bowles's penchant for squaring up to hatchet man defenders who took it upon themselves to flatten him week after week.
By contrast, although the Steptoes’ yard was in Oil Drum Lane, Shepherds Bush, there was only one reference to QPR in any of the Steptoe and Son episodes, when Harold complained about the traffic because “Rangers are at home.” On one memorable Porridge occasion, ‘Nasty' Norris, having earwigged a conversation between Fletch and 'Old Man' Blanco (played by David Jason) in the prison infirmary, was seen digging up the turf at Elland Road (although it's actually Loftus Road), believing that, having taken possession of a map from Godber, Blanco's stash is buried at those precise coordinates.
Porridge also covered the dramatic rise and fall of Derby boss Dave Mackay. In 1973, he was appointed successor to Brian Clough at the Baseball Ground, as Clough's former charges threatened to strike in protest at his departure. Mackay's impact at Derby was immediate. In his first full season, the team won the First Division title and then reached both the European Cup and FA Cup semi-final a year later. Yet after a poor start to the 76-77 campaign, Mackay was unceremoniously fired in November. Mackay recalled, "It was a whirlwind period. I barely had time to draw breath, and yet whenever I watched Porridge at that time – a show I really enjoyed – the cuttings on Fletcher's pin board were a reminder of what had happened." Initially, the headline was positive: “Mackay In Line For Top Job” – a reference to the fact that he (a former Derby star who'd skippered the Rams to the title under Clough's tutelage) was poised to leave Forest for Derby. But by Series 3, the banner headlines told a different story, with “Mackay Sacked”, “Mackay Gets The Boot” and “Mackay Fired” pinned up in Fletch's cell. "Of course, it's what the inmates wanted to happen to Mackay the prison warder, but, if you were into football it was also a reminder to me and 20 million plus TV viewers that Derby had fired Mackay the manager," (Dave) Mackay explained.
Inadvertently, Fletcher also crystallised a key reason why both Workington and Barrow slipped out of the Football League during the 1970s. After Barrowclough explained that his wife was "terribly unsettled every time we come back from our monthly trip to Workington," Fletch mocked, "Amenities in Workington? Ain't got Christianity up here yet so you can't even go on a church social." When Heslop tells Fletch that his wife was planning to stay in Barrow-in-Furness prior to visiting him the following week, Fletcher insisted, "Not fair on anyone to stay in Barrow-In-Furness." By the early '70s, both clubs – always run on shoestring budgets – were struggling to survive. The former Workington boss Bill Shankly once described the town as "a remote, freezing outpost" and when the Porridge pilot episode went out in 1973, it was still part of Cumberland, where Slade Prison was situated. "We are two weeks from Euston," joked Mackay, and there is little doubt that geographical isolation in the extreme North-West of England, along with that of Southport, who also fell out of the Football League in the 70s, contributed to their dire financial situations and unsuccessful re-elections during the decade.
The last Porridge episode, “Final Stretch”, reinforced the view that football in the 70s was distinctly blue collar, even brutal. After Godber and Jarvis (whom Mackay accused of orchestrating hooliganism on Old Trafford’s Stretford End) scrap in the prison yard, they informed Mackay, “We were just re-enacting a big moment from last Sunday’s football on the telly. The bit where Peter Shilton dived at Charlie George’s feet.” Mackay responded, “I don’t recall Charlie George smashing a dustbin lid over Peter Shilton’s skull. Not even in the action replay.” The 1979 movie carried on in the same agricultural vein. As the team prepared to play the Showbiz XI, they trained on a snow-covered mud heap (the 1978 Winter of Discontent – complete with big freeze, was in full swing during filming) and training consisted largely of multiple laps of the pitch, minus the ball. Fletch was selected as trainer by Grout – not because of his own abilities in that area (“I thought you detested physical exercise,” Mackay pointed out. “Ah – but not in others,” Fletcher responded) but because he’ll go along with Grout’s plan to bust out Oaksey, who despite being useless, made the Slade XI, as a kind of anti- footballer. Young Rudge, we were informed, “had a trial with Brentford, before he had a trial for shop lifting.”
In the dressing room prior to the match, Fletch told his charges: “Don’t let them panic you into playing football,” and instructed them to kick Mr Beale, the warder who’s commandeered by the Showbiz XI due to them being a man down, “to kingdom come”. When the game was in full swing, Fletch yelled, “Put the boot in, E wing” on a couple of occasions, and two lags removed Mr Beale from the equation with a twin assault. Fletch shoved his magic sponge into Mr Beale’s face to “help him feel better.” On top of that the referee – Mr Mackay – was pompous and over-officious and Mr Barrowclough predictably useless as the linesman, raising his flag and then putting it down when under pressure. Oaksey, who needed to get into the sanctity of the dressing room to escape on the Showbiz XI’s bus, crashed to the turf with a cartilage injury, which scuppered many a football career in the 70s. Perhaps most tellingly, Fletcher informed Grouty that the Slade XI would be a blend of “youth, experience, flair and brutality” and the team “will be able to put the boot in when needed.” Elements of the humour deployed in Porridge now seem jarring, but so does the sheer physical nature of football back in the era of mutton chop sideburns.
In the first Porridge episode, Fletch told Godber, “Cheer up. Could be worse. State this country’s in. Could be free. Out there with no work and a crumbling economy. Think how ‘orrible that would be.” And when he was finally released from Slade in Going Straight (broadcast in late 1979), Mr Kirkby told him, “There’s precious little to smile about out there. Good luck son…” With three-day weeks, power cuts, strikes, inflation, unemployment, and freezing winters and hooliganism it was a turbulent decade.
Football and Slade Prison were arguably the best forms of escape, and Porridge remains a comedic prism through which to view perceptions of 70s football, in an era when the game took no prisoners.