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Porterhouse Blue (1987)

Courtesy of Channel 4 Television

Main image of Porterhouse Blue (1987)
Channel 4, tx. 3 - 24/6/1987, 4 x 60 min episodes, colour
DirectorRobert Knights
Production CompaniesPicture Partnership Productions, Channel Four
ProducerBrian Eastman
ScriptMalcolm Bradbury
Original novelTom Sharpe
PhotographyDick Pope
MusicRick Lloyd

Cast: David Jason (Skullion); Ian Richardson (Sir Godber Evans); Paul Rogers (Dean); John Woodnutt (Senior Tutor); Barbara Jefford (Lady Mary); John Sessions (Zipser); Griff Rhys Jones (Carrington)

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The ultra-traditional staff of Porterhouse, an ancient college at Cambridge University, comes into conflict with the new government-appointed Master who wants to modernise the institution and get rid of all their beloved traditions.

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Porterhouse Blue is a scurrilous satire on the upper-class elitism of Oxbridge universities and their perceived complacency, wrapped up in a story replete with the author Tom Sharpe's trademark mixture of farce and outrageous sexual situations. The book was faithfully adapted by Malcolm Bradbury, who had recently scripted Blott on the Landscape (BBC, 1985) from Sharpe's novel of the same name and which bears a strong similarity to Porterhouse, not least for its theme of the collision between tradition and modernisation and the use of a faithful servant as the central character.

The title refers to a stroke brought on by over-indulgence in rich food and drink, the defining characteristic of Porterhouse, a college otherwise only known for its strong rowing team and low level of academic attainment. The few decent grades its rich students achieve are the result of cheating arranged by Skullion, the Head Porter. David Jason dominates the serial as Skullion, a faithful bulldog and staunch defender of Porterhouse's unchanging way of life, eventually proving to be the real power behind the scenes in the conflicts with the new Master, a henpecked reformer and former pupil who hated his student days there.

Between these two strident opposing figures comes Lionel Zipser, a sexually frustrated postgraduate student who lusts after Mrs Biggs, his cleaning lady. He unwittingly triggers Porterhouse Blue's main set-piece, a brilliantly extended sequence in which he desperately tries to get rid of several hundred condoms, eventually deciding to fill them with gas and shove them up his chimney. The climax comes when Skullion desperately tries to burst and destroy the offending items that have embarrassingly blanketed the university quad while Zipser is seduced by massive Mrs Biggs. Their night together is fatally curtailed when she turns the gas fire on, killing herself and Zipser and destroying part of the college in a massive explosion.

Poking fun at both lower and upper class snobbery, the story really bites in the grotesque finale when Skullion, himself now suffering from a 'Porterhouse Blue', drools joyfully as the old traditions are restored to college. The serial provided a useful corrective to such 1980s dramas as Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981) and To Serve Them All My Days (BBC, 1980), which nostalgically eulogised the academic life of the past and indirectly endorsed the Thatcherite view of Britain as a place rightfully dominated by privilege and wealth.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Chinless wonders (1:54)
2. Fighting condoms (5:38)
3. Table talk (4:10)
Complete third episode - Part 1 (15:48)
Part 2 (9:29)
Part 3 (24:46)
History Man, The (1981)
Gray, Charles (1928-2000)
Jason, Sir David (1940-)
Rhys Jones, Griff (1953-)
Channel 4 Drama
Channel 4 at 25