Weekend Film Recommendation: 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 this week’s film recommendation: 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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Porterhouse Blue”

  1. Years ago, a college acquaintance lent me Sharpe’s lethal eviscerations of South African foibles, Outrageous Assembly and Indecent Exposure. I still have these, and recently re-read them with some guilty pleasure. Today’s younger readers, unfamiliar with the bloodymindedness of apartheid-era SA, might be left puzzled by some of the action and references, but the great grotesques (such as an Anglican bishop with a taste for latex clothing and an homicidal sister, or the Dornford Yates-reading Boer ZARP officer whose fondest dream is to have–literally–the heart of an Englishman) and set pieces (black and white mental asylum patients therapeutically re-enacting the battle of Isandhlwana with lethal props in the hands of the Zulus, for one) are priceless.

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