Ronnie Barker’s most enduring comic character made his debut in this instalment of Seven of One, Prisoner and Escort (original tx 1st April 1973). Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker) is a habitual criminal and therefore someone who’s constantly in and out of prison. It’s New Years Eve and Fletcher is being escorted to begin his latest prison stretch – in the company of two prison officers, Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay) and Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde).
The three-cornered dynamic between Fletcher, Mackay and Barrowclough would yield plenty of comedy when the series proper launched, and the potential for humour and conflict is just as clear here. Mackay is a Scottish martinet, unyielding in his contempt for all prisoners, but especially a cynical one like Fletcher. After he nips off to buy some teas, the much more kindly Barrowclough decides that Mackay is upset because he’s missing the chance to celebrate the arrival of the new year. Fletcher is rather lacking in compassion. “Only one thing worse than a drunk Scotsman you know, and that’s a sober one.”
If Mackay is hard as nails then Barrowclough is soft as butter. Mackay sees criminals as people who need to be punished, whilst Barrowclough wants to rehabilitate them. It’s plain that his liberal nature is a gift for Fletcher, who begins to subtly manipulate him whilst at the same time he entertains himself by needling Mackay, but always ensuring that he stays just within the bounds of civility.
Barrowclough is proud of the prison, telling Fletcher that it’s an experimental one. “We’ve got a cricket pitch and a psychiatrist.” Fletcher’s not convinced but Barrowclough continues to evangelise, telling him that if he knuckles down he could come out as an intermediate welder or an accomplished oboe player. Barrowclough paints a vision of the prison as a place where prisoners aren’t punished, but instead are treated with compassion and understanding. This, of course, is far removed from the Slade Prison we see in Porridge, so either Barrowclough is hopelessly deluded or Clement and La Frenais decided to craft a more traditional prison environment when the show went to series.
After surviving a lengthy train journey, they’re now on the last lap – a prison van will take them the rest of the way, across desolate and isolated countryside, to their destination. Fletcher, desperate to use the toilet, spies an irresistible opportunity after Mackay tells him to go behind the van – he unhooks the petrol cap and relives himself. The combination of his urine and the van’s petrol is not a good mix and soon the van breaks down, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Given that it’s clear, even this early on, that Fletcher has been in and out of prison all his adult life, there’s something not very credible about his attempt to launch a bid for freedom (as the voice-over states, he accepts arrest as an occupational hazard). It works in the context of this one-off, but it’s impossible to imagine the series Fletcher ever attempting it.
With Mackay setting off to find help, Fletcher and Barrowclough hole up in a nearby empty cottage. There’s more lovely interaction between Barker and Wilde as Barrowclough unburdens himself about his desperate homelife. His wife isn’t a happy woman and this is manifested in different ways, such as “a bad temper and spots and sleeping with the postman.” A great two-handed scene, which is really the core of the episode.
Fletcher’s escape attempt is dealt with quite neatly (if he’s as inept a criminal as he is as an escapee, then it’s no surprise he spends so much time in prison). Ronnie Barker may have been initially unsure (as were Clement and La Frenais) that a sitcom set in a prison would work, but Prisoner and Escort clearly points the way ahead.