ALL-IN academic decadence satire-cum-farce (sat-arce?) from the cosily deviant pen of TOM SHARPE, as adapted for the telly by MALCOLM BRADBURY, who knows a thing or two about lurid goings-on in bent universities. The master of perfectly corrupt Cambridge college Porterhouse succumbs to the titular fatal ailment (a stroke brought on by over indulgence) and fails to name a successor. The PM steps in, appointing vegetarian liberal former Minister of Social Security Godber Evans (IAN RICHARDSON) to shake up the port-swilling, degree-flogging, swan-scoffing ways of the ancient institution, much to the consternation of both dons and servants, led by head porter Skullion (DAVID JASON), who firmly believe that “everything works if you leave it alone”. Cue plot and counter-plot between the old order and Richardson (or, more, accurately, his domineering charitable wife BARBARA JEFFORD), involving archaic voting systems, eavesdropping via the radiator pipes, GRIFF RHYS-JONES as an old boy turned Robin Day-alike TV presenter, CHARLES GRAY as an old boy turned bondage party hosting landowner, and good old BOB GOODY as Skullion’s number two.
Amidst all this donnish intrigue, Sharpe’s regulation kinky subplot falls a bit flat, with a half-arsed JOHN SESSIONS in standard “uptight sitcom suburbanite” mode as nerdish virginal student Lionel Zipser, obsessively floating a load of dodgy rubber johnnies up the chimney while succumbing to the come hither blandishments of his sizeable bedder. It all seems a bit outdated, even for a socially retarded Oxbridge college in 1986, but it does at least give Jason the chance to do some old school slapstick quasi-military bursting of a quadful of gas-filled sheaths with a broom handle. It’s a top turn all round by the master of faux-old-man acting: Jason’s a born gentleman’s gentleman, noisily slurping wine to look like a connoisseur, and full of disdain for hard-working scholarship boy Zipser (“Studying in his rooms during Newmarket week! A gentleman would be at the races!”)
But the real comic joy, inevitably, is the gaggle of fruity old thespian buffers playing the conclave of bumbling dons. There’s Pinter vet PAUL ROGERS as the irascible Dean, HAROLD INNOCENT’s epicene Bursar, JOHN ‘Merlin off of Knightmare‘ WOODNUTT as a hawkish senior tutor, WILLOUGHBY ‘And Did Those Feet..?’ GODARD, IAN ‘My Music‘ WALLACE, a maladroit TIM PREECE and, best of all, LOCKWOOD ‘Timothy’s Dad’ WEST as a post-deaf Chaplain. Individually, they’re terrific value. Together, they’re a director’s dream, a source of endless fun in their complacent crepuscularity. (“Arthur, remove the chaplain’s leg from the fire! He’s been dreaming of the girls in Woolworth’s again!”) Simply gather that lot round a big old table, stick a glass of port under their noses and cock their eyebrows at just the right quizzical angle, and you’re away.
There’s much more to the production than that, of course. It looks fantastic, giving the grandiose pretension of the college enough realistic rope to hang itself. A portentous choral soundtrack, by The Flying Pickets of all people, adds to the weirdly sepulchral atmosphere. Apart from that, the comedy is poured off. Where the BBC’s earlier Tom Sharpe adaptation, Blott on the Landscape (also scripted by Bradbury) looked like a sitcom with ideas above its station, Porterhouse Blue resembles a “heritage” product of the British film industry that’s become infected by a rather embarrassing social disease. And notwithstanding Skullion’s mutterings to the effect that “I don’t like film. It’s unnatural, like them contraceptives,” it’s clear which one’s the winning formula. It’s a great big romp, with everyone having the time of their lives, right up to the incredibly bleak (if slightly rushed) end. Dives, as they sang, in omnia.