British Comedy

Porterhouse Blue

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, think how much harm a lot of it could do. That’s the animating spirit of the academically-challenged but gastronomically-unmatched Cambridge college of Porterhouse, as portrayed in 1987’s Porterhouse Blue.

Based on Tom Sharpe’s satirical novel of the same name, this television mini-series centers on the longest-serving employee of the college, Skullion (the beloved British actor Sir David Jason). He and the senior fellows must cope with an ambitious nincompoop, Sir Godber Evans (Ian Richardson), who has been cast off from politics and made the new master of the school. Godber’s motto is “Alteration without change”, but he is an uxorious man very much under the heel of his titled harridan of a wife (Barbara Jefford). She insists that — gasp — women be admitted to Porterhouse! In this and in a hundred other ways, the new arrivals war with the traditionalists, with both sides being played perfectly by the cast for self-puncturing guffaws.

Richardson and Jason sparkle as the leads, as does Charles Gray as a rich, perverted old boy and John Sessions as the one person at Porterhouse who seems keen to get an education. His character, Zipser (allegedly the author’s self-parody), is one of British film’s great comic schmucks. His thesis is on “Pumpernickel as a factor in the politics of 16th century Westphalia”. He is awkward, sexually frustrated and obsessed with the flirtatious older woman who serves as his bedder (Paula Jacobs). His misadventures trying first to obtain — and then to dispose of — several gross of johnnies is uproariously funny.

Fair warning about this movie. If you don’t know anything about Oxbridge life, British society more generally, and can’t make out dog Latin, I would bet that at first Porterhouse Blue could be slow going. But stick with it, because it gets funnier and more accessible as it moves along.

p.s. I have been looking for years for a full translation of the Flying Pickets’ spirited rendition of the ridiculous and delightful Porterhouse college theme song. I have found translations of the first verse, but never the full song. If anyone can point me to a full translation, I would be extraordinarily grateful.