Porridge almost never got made because Ronnie Barker dithered over the role, its writers have revealed.
Instead, the actor almost took the part of a Welsh gambling addict in another sitcom, which would have spelt the end of Porridge before it began.
The prison sitcom started life as a one-off comedy called Prisoner And Escort, which aired on BBC Two as part of a series of Barker showcases called Seven Of One in 1974.
But writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais also wrote another show in the series, I’ll Fly You For A Quid, about the die-hard gambler. The BBC subsequently offered them the chance to make either one of them into a full series - but they couldn’t decide which.
At an event at the BFI Southbank in London last night, La Frenais said: ‘We debated it with Ronnie and he didn’t mind either.
‘But eventually we decided the prison one would be riskier, so we decided on that.’
‘We went to Brixton and Wandsworth and thought we’d made a mistake – we thought we can’t be funny in these places.
‘Then we met this criminal – or ex-criminal, rather – who’d been inside the Scrubs and he gave us the crucial phrase. He talked about winning “little victories” such as getting one over on the warders or getting an extra serving of potato at dinner. We thought, “That’s it!” We had Fletcher and this would be his credo.’
Clement added: ‘Ronnie thought he was going to be doing Bilko in prison – that was his idea. But prison is not a fun place, so we ended up writing something different.’
Porridge was not the only sitcom about criminals Clement and La Frenais created that year. They also wrote Thick As Thieves, which starred Bob Hoskins as a lag who comes out of jail to find his wife living with his best mate, played by John Thaw.
So when it came to Prisoner And Escort, they decided to write about someone just arriving in prison, rather than just coming out.
Clement and La Frenais also spoke of their experiences adapting the show for the American market. Unlike many transatlantic exports, the remake – On The Rocks – enjoyed some success, running for 22 episodes, but nevertheless the duo said they found the process a strain.
La Frenais said: ‘Nothing made us appreciate the [British] cast more than doing the US version.’
Clement agreed: ‘We didn’t like the series. The lead actor [Jose Perez] was no Ronnie Barker. They made him Puerto Rican because they thought that was the nearest equivalent to Cockney.’
He added that Hollywood producers had their own ideas about the series: ‘One of them said to us “it’s a bit glum – do you think we should set it in Hawaii?” As if a glimpse of palm tree out of the window would make any difference.’
Despite working conditions much more gruelling than they were used to, La Frenais said: ‘It was an important apprenticeship for us.’
Both now live and work in Hollywood, where they put their time during the recent writers’ strike to good use by creating a Likely Lads stage show.
The play, currently premiering at the Gala Theatre in Durham, is set in 1973, at the same time as Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, when Bob is climbing the middle-class ladder while Terry still wants to hang on to his old life of lads’ nights out.