Porterhouse Blue

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English author of sadistic farces, Tom Sharpe is one of my favorite writers. The last time I discovered he had a new book out in the UK I ordered it instantly.

Sharpe is the master of what might be called the sarcastic or sadistic farce.

Discovering that his novel, Porterhouse Blue, had been released on DVD in the US both excited and worried me. I could help but wonder what the British television adaptation was like but had little faith that it could be faithful. Let me modify that: that it might be worth watching. I don’t expect literary fidelity in movies made from books. But I’m equally skeptical of individual quality when the work is put in the hands of others.

(I never made it past the first episode of Brideshead Revisited. Admittedly it is perhaps Waugh’s worst novel but without the serene arch prose, television left nothing of merit.)

The four-chapter TV version was startlingly faithful. Probably because another favorite author did it: Malcolm Bradbury. Bradbury was a literary critic but also my own favorite writer of the English university novel. For me his early novels, The History Man and Eating People is Wrong beat even David Lodge.

Porterhouse Blue “the movie” is fun in itself. I don’t know anything about Ian Richardson but as the aloof, arrogant left-wing politician turned headmaster his performance alone was worth the time of watching the DVDs. I don’t think any physical human being could fully capture Scullion, the head porter whose joy in the British caste system probably exceeds that of even those at the top of it. But the actor cast is as good as one could ask for.

I noticed on Netflix that many of the reviews were negative. The reviewers are probably people whose idea of culture is watching Masterpiece Theatre or Mystery. They were probably expecting the same old mild, heavily mannered or cheery bit of British TV those two programs supply.

Aside from Henry Wilt of the four Wilt novels Sharpe doesn’t offer characters for the reader to indulge the base passion of identifying with. His rare, admirable protagonists aren’t like you or me or - I suspect (hope?) - anyone.

Mostly they are hilarious stories of humankind’s inhumanity to humankind. They make me laugh out loud and are rereadable. My own acid tests.

If you can enjoy appalling people, lurid situations - a chimney loaded with gas-filled condoms anyone - then you might enjoy Porterhouse Blue.

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