TV: Down memory lane

Written By: Les Hull
Published: July 13, 2017 Last modified: July 14, 2017

Who Do You Think You Are?
BBC 1

Porridge: Inside Out
Yesterday

It might have been tempting, at one point, to have marvelled at Who Do You Think You Are? (the latest series has just started) for its good fortune in choosing its subjects. Every single time that a well-known person investigates his or her past, it’s always a good story. Until, that is, we learned from Michael Parkinson that family trees are investigated well in advance and if your ancestors prove to have been a bit boring, as Parky’s apparently were, then the offer to appear on the programme is withdrawn.

The family history of Charles Dance (pictured) obviously passed the researcher’s test – he kicked off this 14th series. Dance already knew that his mother had worked as an under parlour-maid; the question was: what could be discovered about his father? Such quests tend to take the viewer all over the world. Dance’s attempt to get a fix on his dad ranged from a Cambridge museum to a point in Belgian history when they were having their own version of the French Revolution, and finally to the Boer War with the actor heading off to South Africa to meet a long-lost branch of his family.

This is an unusual example of reality television; it would not work without the subject being famous and yet it is the stories behind the ancestors the celebrity is connected to that provide the most moving moments.

TV programmes made to pay tribute to other TV programmes often amount to little more than an excuse to run old clips interspersed with talking heads stating the obvious. It is possible, however, to produce something genuinely informative. Porridge: Inside Out certainly falls into that category. As well as the celebrity fans, this retrospective took the trouble to consult those who actually made the show for insights into what they were trying to achieve; not least writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Watching playbacks of key moments of Porridge, they discussed their thinking when they were putting this classic together.

Cast members such as Tony Osoba, Christopher Biggins and Sam Kelly also shared their memories. And we also heard from that often under-mentioned practitioner of BBC TV comedy, producer and director Sidney Lotterby. His contribution to Porridge and many other great BBC comedy shows is often neglected. If funny moments are not filmed in precisely the right way, they can be killed stone dead.

The sad thing about this stroll down memory lane, of course, is that Brian Wilde, Fulton McKay, Richard Beckinsale and the legendary Ronnie Barker are no longer with us. But their performances still shine.