The former EastEnders actor Shaun Williamson is to step into the shoes of one of Britain's comedy greats, the late Ronnie Barker, in a new stage production of the classic TV series Porridge.
Williamson will play Norman Stanley Fletcher – career criminal and lovable rogue – in the revival of the Seventies TV sitcom this autumn. Barker won critical acclaim for his on-screen relationship with cellmate Lennie Godber, a first-time offender whom Fletcher took under his wing at HMP Slade in Cumberland.
The BBC sitcom ran for three series between 1974 and 1977 and was voted seventh in a 2004 poll of the 100 greatest British sitcoms. There were two Christmas specials, a feature film and a sequel – Going Straight.
Williamson – who achieved fame as the pitiful Barry Evans in EastEnders – won the role after Phoenix Nights creator Peter Kay turned down the part. The decision may come as a surprise to his fans as Kay has in the past publicly credited Porridge and Ronnie Barker as his comedy inspirations. But perhaps Kay was unwilling to take on what will no doubt be a difficult role in a difficult theatre production. Adapting well-known TV shows for the stage is tricky at the best of times, but even more so with a show like Porridge, which is largely devoid of visual humour, and relies instead on the relationships between characters.
The former EastEnders actor is reported to be both "terrified and excited" at the prospect of playing one of British comedy's greatest anti-heroes. Williamson has more recently won praise for his roles in Ricky Gervais's Extras and the West End production of Saturday Night Fever.
Fans of the TV series will be delighted that the original writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, are penning the stage play, and will hope the show brings more of the perfectly crafted dialogue between Fletcher, Godber and prison wardens Mackay and Barrowclough.
The two writers, whose other TV credits include Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and The Likely Lads, enjoy one of the most acclaimed partnerships in British television. They have also written a number of screenplays, including the celebrated 1991 adaptation of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments.
The show is being put on by Calibre Productions, which recently finished touring Dad's Army: The Lost Episodes.
The first night of Porridge will be on 28 August.