The following article discusses two British situation comedies and their relation to one another. Through a comparison of the characters and their class standing, the reader is able to see the complex issues that arise from class distinctions.
Fletcher is the main character in Porridge, a half hour show set in H.M. Slade Prison. Porridge aired from its debut in 1973, to its successful conclusion in 1978. In addition, the show was made into a movie. The main character of the show is a middle-aged repeat convict named Fletcher. His innate ability to fool and exploit the prison guards entertains viewers as they watch him improve his life through the daily activities and circumstances of his position. His cunning wit, luck, and charm all contribute to the positive response from the viewing audience throughout the airing of the show.
Steptoe and Son, the precursor to Sanford and Son in the United States, focuses on the relationship between a father and son. The show, which ran from 1962-1974, was aired on the British Broadcasting Company. The father and son duo are rag and bone men living in a small, shabby house in lower class society. Violent verbal and physical interaction plague their relationship as they make each otherís lives more difficult than necessary; however, these verbal and physical interactions make the show successful through their showing gestures and innuendoes. The father/son dichotomy is the basis for this humorous show where the two men rebel against one another, yet attempt to ignore the enormous amount of dependency they have on one another.
Fletcher, Harold and Unfair Constraints
By Cheryl Pilot
Focusing on British sitcoms as a genre of study, one can see many different levels in the structure of British society. Of particular interest is the classification of the characters into their social classes. In Porridge, Fletcher is seen as a working class convict who is confined to his place in society. However, within his incarceration a hierarchy among his "colleagues" is also apparent. Satisfied with his place at the top of this power structure, Fletcher continually maneuvers himself to improve his life without the ability to leave his social stratum. In contrast to Fletcherís contentment is the character of Harold in Steptoe and Son. As a rag and bone man, Harold occupies one of the least respected jobs and, therefore, one of the lowest social statuses in society. Irritation with his rank propels Harold into trying to "better" his life; however, he is unsuccessful. Because Haroldís ability to improve himself is dependent on intelligence, which he defines as upward mobility on the social ladder, his ignorance prevents him from ever leaving his classified status. By comparing the situations of Fletcher and Harold, we will examine the question of why Fletcher is able to make small advances (even though the cyclical cycle of sitcoms does not allow for permanent change), while Harold is denied any advancement.
Fletcher and his viewers easily accept his place as a convict because background information suggests that porridge life, or prison life, is normal for Fletcher. His characterís main role and source of humor are his continually successful attempts to undermine the authorities and receive the best treatment possible. In the episode entitled, "A Day Out," Fletcher embarrasses MacKay, one of his favorite pastimes. By tricking his way into going out for the day to dig a trench, Fletcher takes advantage of the situation when MacKay leaves Barraclough, his assistant, in charge of the inmates. The role of Barraclough in this sequence is essential to the function of humor, as he must be susceptible to Fletcherís witticisms in order for the comedy to work.
Fletcherís power in the hierarchy and Barracloughís representation of authority can be seen in the instance where a bee stings one of the inmates. Barraclough, who immediately loses control of the inmates after MacKay leaves, is convinced by Fletcher that the inmate needs ointment, otherwise he will die; Barraclough also gives Fletcher money for the ointment. One can already see that Fletcher gets the upper hand in the matter as he exploits Barracloughís gullibility. Traveling into town with money as a free man, Fletcherís social position is altered. The few beers and "crisps" that he buys signify the small amount of normal activities that he can no longer experience because of his current situation.
Joy for Fletcher is derived from undermining the authorities, and receiving simple pleasures. Besides the visit to the pub, he also receives this enjoyment under the "careful watch" of Barraclough. The fact that Fletcher drinks a few beers at the expense of the prison adds irony to the situation; a prison is supposed to deny persons of certain privileges, rather than provide the means to receive them. Mike Storry and Peter Childs, editors of British Cultural Identities, say that Fletcherís immense enjoyment of the drink places him in the working class, "at the bottom end of the social pileÖ[the working class] enjoyed a pint down the local pub" (215-217). Such an enjoyment places Fletcher in this working class society for a brief moment, where he is temporarily free of all realistic constraints.
The plot of this situation comedy revolves around unlikely events, such as MacKayís entrance into the same pub where Fletcher is having a drink. Fletcher treads dangerous realms to achieve the privilege of going into town unaccompanied. Although Fletcher avoids MacKay, he steals a clergymanís bike as a means of transportation. The stealing action encountered here reminds viewers of Fletcherís criminality, and hence the reasons for his restrictions in society. It is imperative that Fletcher is not caught, in order to maintain his dominance over the prison hierarchy and guards.
Why is it important for MacKay to enter into the same pub? Besides the obvious comic reasons, MacKay always seems to be very close to catching Fletcher, but never close enough. This cat and mouse game signifies that Fletcher is faster than MacKay, and recognizes the absurdity of a police officer that can be continually outwitted by the convict. The ideal situation is that those in positions of authority are able to keep people seen as threats to society under control, yet, in this episode Fletcher is able to outwit two officers and have a splendid day out. Fletcherís actions suggest quite the contrary to the positions of authority, and therefore MacKay is lucky that Fletcher never tries to escape. Rather than remaining in prison, Fletcherís day out allows him to cross over into the outside world where he does not resist his incarceration. He does not attempt to escape while he is alone and could easily abandon prison life. All of these characteristics and pleasures lead viewers to believe that Fletcher does not resist his standing in society. Viewers are amused by Fletcherís antics and luck as a folk hero. He is never caught doing things wrong, and somehow manages to "better" his life in every episode, although the betterment is both restricted and temporary.
Fletcherís subversion of authority is reinforced on the opposite side by the authorityís faith in his sly thinking. When Fletcher and the inmates are unknowingly locked into the church, it is Fletcher who Barraclough asks for help. Fletcherís successful outing and momentary pleasures, in conjunction with Barracloughís request for assistance, work together to boost Fletcherís confidence in his view of his own superiority and Barracloughís subordination. Fletcherís position as the head of the inmate hierarchy is also reinforced because of everyone expects that he will resolve the problem. The fact that the inmates are not responsible for their location is also pertinent here, as any of the other men who have the capability to assist Barraclough may be apathetic to the situation.
Another amusement for viewers is Fletcherís interaction with the other characters, particularly Lenny. Fletcher takes a fatherly attitude towards Lenny, guiding and protecting the thoughts and actions of his young cellmate. He also conditions Lenny into understanding the workings of the prison. Therefore, Lenny is always included and accepted by the other prisoners in the hierarchy because of his friendship with Fletcher; the acceptance of Lenny also fortifies Fletcherís position of power in the structure. For instance, Lenny is not verbally attacked by anyone throughout the show, unlike his fellow cellmates. Fletcherís fatherly attitude towards Lenny makes him a more amiable character, which leads viewers root for Fletcher, "the nice guy," to achieve small steps in the episode.
As viewers take pleasure from Fletcherís cunning character, it should not be surprising that they also enjoy watching Harold attempt to move out of his stagnated social status. Haroldís character on Steptoe and Son contrasts Fletcherís character because of Haroldís never-ending fight to change his social status. Harold, who lives with his father, also a rag and bone man, recognizes that he is at the bottom of the social world. Their house is despicably dirty and both men are extremely crude. It is apparent that Harold resents his father, as he refers to him as "you dirty old man." Because of examples such as the latter statement, Steptoe and Son has been accused of being a dramatized poverty full of blackmail, deceit and psychological dependence.
The episode entitled "A Star is Born" gives a good glimpse at the complex confinement of Haroldís life and how his upward journey to a higher class is not fulfilled. Hope for the future is given to Harold when the lead actor drops out of the play for which he is providing props, and he is cast into the lead role. In an attempt to impress his fellow cast members, he dresses in a manner that completely negates his normal attire. Haroldís idea of sophistication provokes humor in the audience as he wears sunglasses, a dress coat, and smokes a cigar. His representation of his audience shows the ridiculous stereotypes that the lower classes have of them, assigning and reaffirming Haroldís layer in society. The contrast between the two wardrobes is so great that rude conversation is provoked between Harold and his father, Albert. Albert does not believe that Harold will ever be able to gain class status, and therefore steps into his usual demeaning role where it often seems that he sabotages his sonís prospects.
This conversation produces resentment in Harold as he tells his father, "you never encourage me to try...it would really get you if I became a star." It is apparent that Albert has psychological control of the situation because his son reacts in such a childish way to the statements. This reaction is expected, of course, because of Albertís own childish mannerisms, yet somehow Harold is much more affected by Albertís statements than vice versa. The significance of recognizing Haroldís behavior(s) is that no matter how hard Harold may try, some force (his father in this instance) always holds him back.
Harold, lacking psychological support, exercises his physical control over the situation by attempting to bribe his father to leave the house. But, because Albert is aware of his sonís embarrassment of him, he refuses to leave. Forced to accept the situation, Harold tells his father to be quiet while his friends are there, otherwise he will inflict harm on his fatherís "goolies." The crudeness of the many statements Harold makes next, including picking up a sword and pointing it at Albertís "goolies," is one of the main reasons viewers discredit Harold. It is difficult to pity him because he can be a dislikable character, someone whose actions and cockney accent may be laughed but never accepted. Storry and Childs state, "British people reserve their most negative comments for accents associated with areas containing large groups of working class people" (207). Therefore, while the upper class rejects Harold, the lower class in which he belongs may also reject him for his attempts to shift his status. Once Harold takes on a "better than you" attitude, even his father becomes discouraged and views Harold as a traitor to his class.
Self-motivation during the rehearsal drives Harold to praise Rupert who has the potential to aid Haroldís rise in class status. However, Haroldís actions only exemplify his rank and ignorance when Rupert decides to cast Albert in an empty role. Throwing a fit, he begins to yell at his father. When Rupert tells Harold he is not giving his father a chance, viewers look sympathetically on Harold because he wants a chance to better himself. It is further insulting to Harold that the reprimand comes from Rupert. Albertís lack of education also contributes to Haroldís embarrassment as he yells at Albert for mispronouncing words. In a twist of irony as the episode concludes, a theater reviewer asks Harold about a mispronounced word, diminishing the little confidence he holds in his performance.
As always, the show concludes with Albert receiving the upperhand in the battle father and son. Albert receives the most applause during the final bow, indicating that his performance was superior to Haroldís. Thus, Haroldís dream of this role being a way out of his limited category is destroyed, and his attempt to move to a higher level is denied.
Why is it that the little steps Harold takes to improve himself are never successful? Is his attempt to better himself by reading books dismissed by the audience as foolish because a rag and bone man can never rise in society? If so, then why does Fletcherís character as a criminal allow him little, impermanent, advances? What would be so wrong about allowing Harold to succeed? Why can a convict advance when a law-abiding citizen cannot? One answer to these questions is that Harold is a threat to society. Although this upward mobility for a rag and bone man to rise to a higher division in society is unlikely, British culture has experienced such a jump in class status before. Storry and Childs state, "anyone can rise to the top in British society, whatever their social origins" (203). If Harold were to be successful, then viewers could see his lower class as threatening their higher place in society. Caught in a catch-22, Haroldís attempted rise is discouraged by his father who represents the low, working class society. Therefore, a rise in class may categorize him as a traitor by the lower classes and an insufficient candidate by the higher classes. Fletcher, on the other hand, is not seen as a traitor by attempting to better his life because any improvement he makes will not move him far enough out of the inmate hierarchy to have an effect on society.
As comedy focuses on making fun of those lower than you, Haroldís small steps to rise have a realistic quality to them, and the capability to change the whole course of class standing in British society. Because other classes confine the majority of rag and bone man and other jobs to low statuses in society, the fact that there is no physical barrier between Harold and middle class viewers may be a difference between the threats that Harold and Fletcher impose. Fletcherís actions and attempts are seen as less intimidating because he is trapped in a jail cell. While he may make fun of the police officers, Fletcherís humor and actions are all entertaining because he cannot breach his social position. The fact that Fletcher does not desire to escape from the prison supports this idea that he does not desire to upset the external world, rather, his disruptions are only in the internal, enclosed society that separates him from viewers. In contrast, Haroldís main goal is to enter and maintain a higher-class level in society.
The purpose of analyzing the characters and the double standard amongst these characters was to see that class status is important in British society. By looking at the complexity of these two characters and their positions, the hypocrisy of the restrictions is revealed. Viewers tend to give Fletcherís character more freedom because he cannot disrupt society any more than he already has, while an upward movement by Harold may reveal a sign of weakness in the class distinctions of the viewers. In addition to viewers from a higher class looking down upon Harold, one must also consider that those within his class may disapprove of his attempt to change positions in society. Therefore, when analyzing a situation comedy and considering a characterís attempt to shift from one social class to another, one must recognize the unfair restrictions placed on the characters, and the implications that movement may have for the viewers.
Storry, Mike and Peter Childs eds. British Cultural Identities. New York: Routedge, 1997.
"A Day Out" Porridge. British Broadcasting Company. BBC. 26 September 1974.
"A Star is Born." Steptoe and Son. British Broadcasting Company. BBC. 28 February 1972.