Tom Sharpe: Comic novelist and satirist who created the Wilt series and Porterhouse Blue


Tom Sharpe was the satirical author of 16 books, including the much-loved Porterhouse Blue, Blott on the Landscape and the Wilt series, whose wry reflections on life were informed by his own experiences at university and as a teacher.

Sharpe was born in Holloway, London, in 1928. His father was a unitarian minister who had become a fascist-sympathiser during the 1930s and whose ideas initially influenced the young Sharpe. However, as Sharpe said in a later interview: "My father died in 1944 and I saw the Belsen films and I discovered that Hitler was not the man that I'd been led to believe he was… My mind was blown by the horror of what had been happening."

He was educated at Lancing College, which during wartime had been evacuated to Shropshire. A schoolmaster there suggested that he might read Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, a social satire of British society, which had a great influence on Sharpe's writing. Following national service overseas with the Royal Marines he went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge to read social anthropology.

In 1951 he emigrated to South Africa, initially as a social worker for the non-European Affairs Department and later as a teacher in Natal and a photographer in Pietermaritzburg, where he established a studio in 1957.

Sharpe had already written poetry and plays at college and had continued as a playwright during his time abroad. When his The South Africans, critical of the apartheid regime, was staged in London in 1960, he received visits from the South African special branch. He spent a short time in jail before being deported back to Britain the following year. On his return he worked at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, where he taught history.

His first novel, Riotous Assembly, published in 1971, was written when Sharpe was 43, over the course of just three weeks but it had been in gestation for the previous decade. The book carries the ironic inscription to "The South African police force whose lives are dedicated to the preservation of Western civilisation in southern Africa."

This satire had been inspired by his hearing the true story of a woman who lived near a police station and who had been disturbed by the noise of interrogations and torture at the station. In the novel the British spinster Miss Hazlestone kills her cook with an elephant gun and reports herself to the police. The farce that ensues is an indictment of the South African policing system at the time and its inherent racism and inequalities of treatment. A follow-up, Indecent Exposure (1973), continued the theme, with its dark-humoured mockery of the country under apartheid.

Porterhouse Blue is a social satire on life in the imaginary Porterhouse College, Cambridge, based in part on his own experiences at the university. David Jason starred as the head porter Skullion in the 1987 TV adaptation of the book, which is memorable for the hilarious scene in which the student Lionel Zipser (played by John Sessions) has tried to burn hundreds of condoms and then decides to send them up the chimney, thus littering the college quadrangle with prophylactics.

His Blott on the Landscape (1975) is based on the proposed construction of a motorway through the fictional Cleene Gorge in Worfordshire. It was made into a six-part series for BBC television, adapted by Malcolm Bradbury and starring David Suchet. During a 1984 interview with Roy Plomley for Radio 4's Desert Island Discs he said of the adaptation "It's very difficult to turn a book into a film. Books and films are totally different things. Throw the book out of the window…" He went on to tell Plomley that his preferred luxury on the island would be "a ton of snuff" and that he would take the Oxford Book of English Verse as his choice of reading.

Throughout all his books, the reader is struck by the acute observations on life and on his ability to turn everyday situations into riotous humour. His scenarios also translated well to the small screen – Leonard RN Ashley in the Encyclopedia of British Humorists underlines this skill, pointing out the way that "Sharpe's humorous techniques naturally derive from his fundamental approach, which is that of the furious farceur who compounds anger and amusement."

From the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties Sharpe had a hiatus in his writing, which he variously blamed on "adolescent daughters block" or "conglomerate publishers allergy" or on giving up smoking following a heart attack.

He had latterly lived in Cambridge, where he wrote from a shed in his garden, and at Palafrugell on the Costa Brava, from where he spoke of his frustration with contemporary Britain "It is so depressing. I can't bear it. There is no such thing as the English gentleman any more. Money rules everything."

His final novel, The Wilt Inheritance, was published in 2010 and continued the franchise of the fictional figure who emerged from Sharpe's own time as a college teacher. He said: "I found that Wilt was such a good character, and the book itself was sufficiently funny, even I laughed at parts of it, and then I wrote another one, and another, and in each case he is an innocent." Wilt had also been the subject of the film The Misadventures of Mr Wilt (1989), starring Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith.

Susan Sandon, managing director of Cornerstone, which has published Sharpe's books since 2002, said: "Tom Sharpe was one of our greatest satirists and a brilliant writer: witty, often outrageous, always acutely funny about the absurdities of life. The private Tom was warm, supportive and wholly engaging. I feel enormously privileged to have been his publisher."

Marcus Williamson

Thomas Ridley Sharpe (Tom Sharpe), writer: born London 30 March 1928; married 1969 Nancy Anne Looper (three daughters); died Llafranc, Spain 6 June 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions