Lockdown: Week 4

It really is still the Easter break and, as I said last week, I wouldn’t usually be sharing a message. But I will and you can choose to read, or not. A rhetorical question: Am I just doing these for my own sanity / routine / structure?

We’ve had a number of pupils in school throughout the week, but numbers have been down. I suppose we and they need that break. We, who work in schools, are creatures of habit or slaves to the school calendar (delete as appropriate) and many of us and then hold onto the rhythms of the school year. Even when those days / dates have been wrenched away from us we do seem to function better knowing that we are following something of the ‘normal’ structures. We haven’t been sending work to our pupils this week but many of us and them will have been getting up at the same time, working in the same way and taking breaks to the school clock. The very least of this is that one can feel free to break for the day come 3.20pm or 4.00pm or 6pm or whenever is the typical / usual end to the working day. The evenings, the time spent with our partners, our families, our children are more acutely felt and appreciated if we have ‘earned’ that time.

Last week I did make mention of all those who are suffering financially or economically during this crisis. However, this week I have given thought to those who might be suffering dislocation and loneliness. I feel privileged to have my immediate family close at hand. I can ‘meet’ wider circles of family and friends through Google Meet, Zoom and Facetime – it may not be ideal, but it is a substitute of substance and comfort. My personal situation brings into sharp focus the acute differences others may experience. There are many who will be living alone; social distancing and socially isolated. There are many who cannot make real human connections; be that in the real world or through the IT packages available. There are many who, without daily connectivity with other people, will feel deep despair, loneliness and hopelessness. If you are one of those people please find a connection, make some contact and reach out. If you know one of those people, please make a connection and reach out.

Yet again in the words of Jesse: This week I have been mostly….

I moved on to baking a Victoria Sponge. And, critically, a bag of plain flour has been sourced – so we can have Yorkshire puddings again this Sunday and I can plan next week’s cake now.

Sadly, Linguistica Spanish has come to an end – they were asking for a subscription; I’m not that keen! I’m now on with Duolingo – it looks like a primary school children’s website, with lots of cartoon characters to help me on my way, but it’s free and accessible.

Stay strong, stay safe, stay healthy, stay connected and stay sane. And remember that this will pass.

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.” John F. Kennedy 

Don’t feel the need to read on but if you want to …

Ongoing Comedy Connections. All roads lead to this sitcom. The ‘daddy’ of them all, with the Godfather of all British sitcom performers: Ronnie Barker (not the small Scottish Ronnie with glasses!) Again, it really is in the script but, equally in the performances. The characters, singular and different, all come together in this desperate place, for desperate men. On the surface this sitcom is lighter of touch and shallower than the others I’ve suggested, however there’s so much to it when the surface is scratched just a little.

The connection is Richard Beckinsale. Last week a lead in Rising Damp, this week Porridge. These two comedies were massive in the seventies (registering over 10 million viewers each) and Beckinsale straddled both. He was the ‘pin up boy’ of comedy acting, however it seems that he was a damn fine actor with a deft comic touch. To a degree he was learning from the best of the day; Rossiter in Rising Damp and Barker, Mackay and Wilde in Porridge. Barker is brilliant but Fulton Mackay as the prison officer Mr Mackay matches Barker step by step, insult by insult. Mackay’s twitching, seething character is every bit as magnificent as Rigsby.

The script: Porridge was written by two Geordie playwrights: Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clement. The BBC commissioned seven sitcoms for Barker. Porridge’s pilot was called Seven of One: Prisoner and Escort. Open All Hours emerged from this, by Roy Clarke. Le Frenais and Clement’s second effort (I’ll fly you for a quid) didn’t get beyond the pilot, despite being Barker’s favourite.

It being the early seventies there are some uncomfortable references in Porridge but remarkably few when compared to much of the rest of the TV output at that time. Without being too pseudo-academic about it, I truly believe that Porridge is the first (and maybe the only) postmodern sitcom. It references so infrequently its time or its place; its characters could be from anytime and anywhere. The lazy stereotyping of the early seventies was challenged: a gay character who wasn’t the target of cheap jibes and was accepted as all other prisoners were accepted (by the ‘screws’ and ‘nerks’ alike); a black character who spoke about social depravation, adoption, domestic difficulties, social inequality and whose Scottishness was far more significant than the colour of his skin; the desperation of the staff as much as the prisoners. You can get the full ‘box set’ of Porridge via the BBC iPlayer (with the exception of the film, imaginatively called Porridge: The Movie), which I think says something about the series. It can be played some 46 years after airing.

I have chosen a very particular episode. I have written about the pathos at the heart of the great British sitcom. This is no exception. It is as dark and desperate as the previous sitcoms. It’s characters, despite how they present on occasions, are sad, lonely and desperate men. They know their place and, yet, don’t have a place. Most of the Porridge episodes are ensemble pieces; the regular characters tumbling in and out Fletcher’s cell or situations; however, this episode, from series one brings out the best in Barker and Beckinsale and is much more akin to the earlier sitcoms, especially Steptoe and Son. Most of the episode is just Fletcher and Godber, in their cell. Godber, new to life in prison, is finding it hard to come to terms with being locked up and locked in. The wisdom and compassion of the ‘old lag’ is woven into the verbal and physical comedy. (Just a note, EastEnders did a two header like this, with Dot and Ethel (?) many years later to great critical acclaim)

And another little aside: No theme tune at the start of any episodes. It starts with the voice of Ronnie Barker as the judge who sentences Fletcher. That judge turns up in series 3; Judge Stephen Rawley is incarcerated and shares a cell with Fletcher and Godber.

Enjoy: A Night In from 1974.