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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.
It's true that I've never seen "Porridge," but I think this show was genuinely underrated. As far as I know, about the only attention it got was negative - it was called too light a comedy (considering the subject), and was also accused of being full of ethnic stereotypes, which it really wasn't. And it was full of very good comedy actors, some of whom I've hardly seen since, like Jose Perez as Fuentes, the leader of the group. And Melvin Stewart, one of the most underrated character actors of all (even his great "All In The Family" character seldom gets mentioned when people write about that show), as the nasty guard (at least, by LIGHT COMEDY standards), always trying to get something on the main characters, especially Fuentes. And Tom Poston as the nice, put-upon guard (again, I've never seen Porridge, so I don't know the similar character on that show, but Poston was very good). And Rick Hurst, who's made a career out of playing likable oafish characters.
I thoroughly enjoyed the series and agree with the above comments. I only want to add that the series ended probably because of the setting. People don't want to be identified with convicted criminals. However, I could see through that. This series, overall, was hilarious and I don't remember any character being miscast. Great comedy, great acting, great writing, uncomfortable setting. My favorite episode had to do with writing love letters. The lead character, Fuentes, was the letter writer to the spouses and girlfriends of the other inmates. He rented out his services for a small fee. I would love to be able to see all the episodes again. The stories depicted the inmates as just ordinary human beings who made mistakes and ended up in prison. The prevailing thoughts of many in that time period was that all incarcerated criminals were evil human beings who are a threat to society. The series portrayed them as a lot more gentle inside. It would be safe to say that if a new series debuted today it would be shot down right away. The quality of the program can be confirmed by the many actors who moved on to become household names in comedy and drama. Many of the actors are still active in 2010, or they are still available though in an advanced age. Hopefully though someone can bridge the gap and give us this type of humor again.
The gag with someone digging for loot in the centre of a well known
sports pitch did appear in an episode of the original British series
called "Happy Release". This concerned a soon to be released prisoner
called Norris, who is tricked into buying a treasure map from Blanco
Webb (David Jason). At the end of the programme Norris is arrested
trying to dig up the centre circle of Elland Road football ground, home
of Leeds United. The episode was first transmitted in November 1975.
Coincidentally, supporters of George Davis (who was in prison after being convicted of bank robbery) dug up the pitch at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds during an England/Australia Test match in August 1975, causing it to be abandoned.
The last comment about the bit that the BBC could not have afforded to
do is wrong, they did that bit at Leeds Football ground when an inmate
is released and Fletch and Blanco (David Jason from Only Fools &
Horses) conspire to fool him.
Happy Release (Originally Transmitted 14 Nov 1975)Fletcher is enjoying a stay in hospital but has to stay in the ward with the unpleasant Norris. Norris is due to be released and Fletch cons him into buying a treasure map with the possessions he took off old lag Blanco Webb. Norris hilariously finds himself digging for treasure in the middle of Leeds United's football pitch.
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