Directed by Robert Knights, 1987, U.K., 200 minutes.
Tom Sharpe is one of the funniest and finest writers around, but while keenly appreciated by other novelists and critics, he's criminally unknown to the wider public, at least in America. The British satirist writes finely structured stories about outrageous but recognizable character types caught up in snowballing disasters. Puncturing British (or, in his early work, South African) pomposity is a favorite theme, be it among Members of Parliament in "Blott on the Landscape," the publishing world ("The Great Pursuit"), the military ("Riotous Assembly") or the landed gentry ("The Throwback"). In "Porterhouse Blue," his third novel, published in 1974, Sharpe takes on academe, and if you've read the book, or see this 1987 miniseries adaptation, new to DVD, you'll never again look at university ceremonies with all those old dons in their black robes and mortarboards without laughing.
Produced by Britain's Channel Four two years after a successful BBC production of "Blott on the Landscape," the four-part "Porterhouse Blue" sticks closely to Sharpe's novel. The hidebound staff of (fictional) Porterhouse College, the least prestigious of the schools at Cambridge University, grow nervous when the college's Master, or supreme ruler, dies without naming a successor. When the senior teachers and the dean fail to elect a new Master from their own ranks, it falls to the Prime Minister to appoint one. The job goes to Sir Godber Evans (the late Ian Richardson), a liberal government functionary. The son of a butcher, Sir Godber went to Porterhouse as an undergraduate but could never stomach the cloistered, ultraconservative air that permeated everything within the ancient buildings.
Sir Godber, spurred on by his brittle activist wife, Lady Mary (Barbara Jefford), has noble changes in mind, such as making the all-boy college coed, eliminating the secret practice of selling degrees, making the school a meritocracy rather than a haven for the idiot sons of the wealthy, and canceling the expensive annual Feast, in which huge swans and an entire ox are consumed by staff and students. (A "Porterhouse blue" is the school's word for a stroke -- an event nearly elevated to a fine achievement when it occurs as the result of gorging.) Sir Godber's chief antagonists -- who go by their titles rather than their names -- include the Dean (Paul Rogers), the Senior Tutor (John Woodnutt), the Bursar (Harold Innocent) and the Chef (John Rogan), all of whom would like things to always operate just as they have since at least the time of Henry VIII.
But Sir Godber's most vexing problem may be Skullion, the head porter of Porterhouse for 45 years who knows where all the bodies are buried and who has helped more than a few future stalwart citizens make high grades by pimping out smart students to take exams in their place. Skullion is a brilliantly conceived British type, a stout working-class man of no intellect who places tradition and appreciation of what makes a man a "gentleman" above all else. He's a gruffer, louder and more blustery version of the clueless butler played by Anthony Hopkins in "The Remains of the Day," and as portrayed by David Jason (of future fame in the "Touch of Frost" mysteries) is an indelible creation.
Sharpe's novel skillfully works in several subplots, and adapter Malcolm Bradbury manages to touch on them all, though some bits feel a little rushed in the attempt to bring the show in under four hours. There's the plight of Zipser (John Sessions), a friendless graduate student (his thesis is on pumpernickel) who develops an inexplicable lust for the fat, middle-aged woman who cleans his room. His adventures with four gross of condoms provides the miniseries' comic high point. There's the brilliantly named Sir Cathcart D'Eath (Charles Gray), a rich old nobleman, blowhard and Porterhouse alumnus whom the Dean and the Senior Tutor enlist in their war against the Master. (Sir Cathcart holds an "Eyes Wide Shut"-style orgy in his castle, a sexually frank sequence in the novel but rendered here sans nudity and sex and seeming simply strange.) And then there's Cornelius Carrington (Griff Rhys Jones), a David Frost-like TV interviewer and yet another Porterhouse graduate. When Carrington learns that the Master intends to fire old Skullion, his sense of injustice -- or rather his sense of good TV -- leads him to revisit his alma mater to film what will be an earth-shaking report about the new Master and the beloved yet corrupt old school.
Everything comes together neatly in Sharpe's hands, a little less neatly on TV. While much of Sharpe's dialogue and characters are intact, his narrative wit is largely lost in the transition from page to screen. One added character, a beautiful woman who works with Carrington, seems to exist only so that Carrington can fill her -- and the viewer -- in on the plot. The direction, by Brit TV veteran Robert Knights, is sound, not showy.
The four-part miniseries is on two single-sided discs, each in its own Amaray case and slipped into a slick, colorful outer sleeve. The covers of each disc provide episode plot summaries; the only other paperwork is a single sheet listing each episodes' six chapters. The main menu on Disc One offers episode selection, scene index, cast filmographies and a Tom Sharpe biography. The episode index features live-action scenes; the other screens have still shots. The filmographies amount to a few far-from-text-heavy screens devoted to David Jason, Ian Richardson (including mention of his death in February), John Sessions and Charles Gray; the Sharpe bio is brief and his list of novels incomplete. Disc Two offers simply episode selection and the 12-scene index.
The show is presented in its original 4:3 full-screen TV aspect ratio and the sound is enhanced by Dolby Digital. The program, shot on film, retains its colors and vividness fairly well, though the picture is less than eye-popping.
Novelist Tom Sharpe is a shrewd stylist as well as master storyteller; if it's mainly the story and not the style that comes across in this adaptation of his "Porterhouse Blue," that's still enough to make this an enjoyable sit 20 years after it was produced. The straightforward "quality" filmmaking style is of its day -- no "MI-5" cool or "House of Cards" breaking of the fourth wall here, just great British actors making the most of this story of the shenanigans at a tradition-obsessed college in Cambridge. (The series was largely shot at Cambridge University, which adds considerable tourism value.) Had Acorn's DVD offered a little more, a "highly recommended" rating would have been in order.