The tragic story behind beloved sitcom 'Porridge'

Old lag Fletcher (Ronnie Barker), fellow prisoner Godber (Richard Beckinsale) and prison officer Mackay (Fulton Mackay) during location shooting for the film version of their TV series "Porridge" at Chelmsford Jail, which has been empty since a fire last year. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Arguably one of the best-loved sitcoms on British TV, Porridge was some of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ best work – some achievement considering they also wrote classics like The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

It succeeded not merely because of the skilful turn from Ronnie Barker as its protagonist Norman Stanley Fletcher, but because of the pitch-perfect chemistry between Fletch and Lennie Godber, his naïve cellmate played by Richard Beckinsale.

That Beckinsale died just as the show had been brought to its natural end in 1979 remains a tragedy of unfulfilled potential.

English actor Richard Beckinsale (1947 - 1979). (Photo by George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Beckinsale studied at RADA, appearing first on TV as the policeman in Coronation Street who had to arrest Ena Sharples in 1969. He then went on to star in the sitcom The Lovers, before landing two huge roles at the same time in 1974; the medical student Alan in the classic series Rising Damp with the legendary Leonard Rossiter, and Godber in Porridge, both of which were huge successes and catapulted Beckinsale to stardom.

Read more: The glorious life and sad death of Terry-Thomas

Both shows ran until 1977, with the Porridge spin-off series Going Straight running for six episodes the following year. Beckinsale also reprised his role in the Porridge feature film in 1979.

Old lag Fletcher (Ronnie Barker), fellow prisoner Godber (Richard Beckinsale) and prison officer Mackay (Fulton Mackay) during location shooting for the film version of their TV series "Porridge" at Chelmsford Jail, which has been empty since a fire last year. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

But it was while he was making his next project Bloomers, a new sitcom set in a florist, that he began complaining that he felt unwell, suffering dizzy spells and blackouts. He also spoke of suffering pain in his chest and arms. According to his co-star David Swift, of Drop The Dead Donkey fame, his health quickly deteriorated, and he began looking ‘greyer and greyer’.

He was set to attend a rehearsal for the six and final episode of Bloomers, having already filmed five of them, but when he failed to turn up, a member of the production called his home. A friend staying with him while his wife, the actress Judy Loe, was in hospital failed to rouse him. It emerged that he had suffered a heart attack in the night. A post-mortem revealed that he had an unknown congenital heart defect. He was just 31.

Actress Judy Loe (left), widow of actor Richard Beckinsale and their daughter Katy, receive condolences from actor Richard Briers, outside the Actors' Church, St. Paul's, Covent Garden after today's Memorial Service for Mr Beckinsale. (PA Images via Getty Images)

His Porridge co-star Ronnie Barker said of him: “He was so loved. He hadn’t done much but he was so loved that there was a universal sort of grief that went on.”

His daughters Samantha and Kate, who were just 13 and five when he died, followed him into the acting business. Kate, who’s starred in the Underworld series, as well as movies like The Aviator and Pearl Harbor, said earlier this year that she’s still often asked about him.

“If I’m back in Britain it doesn’t matter how many movies I’ve done, he is always the Beckinsale who’s really important – and I’m really happy about that,” she told the Daily Mirror.

Kate Beckinsale attends Vanity Fair and Lancôme Toast Women in Hollywood on February 06, 2020. (Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

“I love it when I’m in M&S and someone says ‘excuse me’, and I know it’s going to be, ‘I really loved your dad’. I’m really grateful that people remember him and I get to enjoy how loved he was.”

In 2020, in the wake of basketball player Kobe Bryant's death aged 41, Beckinsale shared a touching poem written by her late father.

"It hurts your heart and softens your soul when you see a man die, long before, even before, only before he's old," were the words posted to her Instagram in a photograph.

Kate, who paid tribute to her father in 2019 on the 40th anniversary of his passing, wrote alongside the picture of the poem: "And not just a man either. My dad wrote this not long before he died very young."

"Love to everyone hurting today x," the 46-year-old added along with purple and yellow hearts in reference to the colours of Bryant's team, the LA Lakers.