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Porterhouse Blue

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 It all seems a bit outdated, even for a socially retarded Oxbridge college in 1986, but it does at least give Jason the chance to do some old school slapstick quasi-military bursting of a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.



  1. Mr Grimsdale

    August 19, 2010 at 8:15 am

    I’d completely forgotten about this, but after reading about it I’m remembering just how good it was. You’d never get a series today with such a star-filled cast list and have it actually turn out to be good. It was funny and clever – doesn’t happen very often.

    Within 18 months of it you would’ve also seen ‘Singing Detective’. An amazing time to be watching TV

  2. Matt P

    August 24, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    Great book, and great series, but bad timing in that a major subplot involves John Sessions having trouble getting hold of some condoms through embarassment and their scarcity. IIRC, 1987 was the start of being able to get condoms everywhere. These days they’re next to the chocolate at the checkout, and you’re frowned at if you don’t buy them.

  3. Rubyreddevon

    September 10, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I loved it, moreover, I loved the Flying Picket’s “Dives In Omnia” incidental music – quite inspired. On that topic, does anyone reading this have sheet music or know where the sheet music can be obtained? Even a midi file would do. I’ve searched everywhere and have drawn a blank.

    Thanks in anticipation

  4. Mr Grimsdale

    February 19, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Even better……

    As I write this now (19th Feb 2011) Freeview Channel “Yesterday” are actually showing several episodes of this series

  5. Richardpd

    January 7, 2024 at 3:48 pm

    One of those shows my Parents would avidly watch but I was too young to check out myself.

    I think it got a repeat run in the early 1990s.

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