Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais created 'Porridge', which remains one of the most hilarious sitcoms in the history of television, and which continues to air in repeats in Britain. (Anyone who has ever had brekkie in Her Majesty's Prisons has no need to ask why this series was called 'Porridge'.) 'On the Rocks' was Clement's attempt to adapt this sitcom for American television, with a multi-ethnic Yank cast. When compared to the original, 'On the Rocks' is a pale imitation indeed. However, on its own merits, 'On the Rocks' is much funnier than many other US sitcoms from the same period, and it's regrettable that this series did not receive a longer run.
Most of the recurring characters in 'On the Rocks' are one-to-one equivalents of characters in 'Porridge', and some of the actors in the American version seem to be actively imitating their British counterparts ... such as Tom Poston (whom I've never liked) doing an imitation of Brian Wilde's character Barrowclough, the downtrodden and overly sympathetic warder. Some of the best characters from the original 'Porridge' (and its cinema film) have no equivalents in 'On the Rocks': it would have been nice, for example, to see counterparts to Harry Grout and his henchgoons Samson and Delilah. Perhaps if 'On the Rocks' had run longer, such a supporting cast might have developed. Although 'Porridge' boasted an excellent cast of supporting characters, all the comedy centred upon main character Norman Fletcher, brilliantly played by the great Ronnie Barker. 'On the Rocks' went for more of a repertory feel, with Hector Fuentes (the Fletcher character) still at the centre of the mayhem but dominating it far less.
The opening episode of 'On the Rocks' brings back to prison habitual criminal Fuentes, who takes the experience in stride. Coming into the same prison on the same day is first-timer Nicky Palik. This is his first offense, but he's been convicted of multiple counts of grand theft auto. (He stole one of those trucks that transports multiple cars.) Palik is the weakest character in this series, blandly played by an obscure actor, but he serves the useful purpose of giving Fuentes an excuse to indoctrinate the audience (from Palik's viewpoint) into the intricacies of prison life. This first episode recycles the 'bad feet' routine from 'Porridge', in which the old lag Fletcher/Fuentes is determined to have his medical file contain a listing for podiatric problems, so that he'll be permitted to keep his own shoes rather than be assigned prison shoes (which would *give* him bad feet). As performed in 'On the Rocks' by José Pérez, this set-piece routine is funny, but it was much funnier with Barker's expert timing in the original. Palik and Fuentes are assigned a cell with DeMott, the character equivalent to Lennie Godber, who works in the prison kitchen and therefore has opportunities to steal food (which he smuggles out of the kitchen under a tall chef's hat).
The prison governor was played by Logan Ramsey, whom I've liked in other roles but who seemed radically miscast here. Ramsey was effective in petulant and epicene roles, but here he's completely unconvincing. A much surer performance, as a no-nonsense prison warder, was supplied by Mel Stewart.
A few characters in the 'On the Rocks' repertory had no 'Porridge' predecessors. Consistently the funniest performance in 'On the Rocks' was given by Rick Hurst as a big dumb Southerner on the lock-in; something of a stereotyped role, but Hurst brought it some originality. Patrick Cranshaw played Gabby, an old lag who reminded me of Moore Marriott, although I doubt that any of the actors in this sitcom ever heard of him. Jack Grimes played Baxter, a cynical inmate who got up everyone else's nose.
The single funniest joke in 'On the Rocks' was re-worked from David Jason's last episode of 'Porridge', but was far more hilarious here than it had been when first filmed on the low production budget that the BBC stinted to 'Porridge'. As Baxter (America's equivalent to the Jason character) was nearing the end of his sentence, he heard rumours that Gabby had concealed a large sum of cash (the proceeds of a robbery) somewhere on the out, and he began to pressure Gabby to tell him where it was. Fuentes persuaded Gabby to pretend to talk in his sleep, divulging a fake location for the swag. The end of this episode placed the camera at ground level, aiming upwards at Baxter in an outdoor area as he carefully counts off paces and begins to dig for the dosh. As he sinks his shovel into the earth, the camera cuts to a different angle ... then pulls back rapidly to reveal that Baxter is in the middle of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles! The shot was not faked, and the producers of 'On the Rocks' must have gone to considerable trouble to set up this one joke. A pity that nothing else in 'On the Rocks' was on this level of hilarity. Still, during its brief run 'On the Rocks' was consistently funnier than a lot of long-running sitcoms I could name.
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