Tom Sharpe: Comic novelist and satirist who created the Wilt series and Porterhouse Blue
Thursday 06 June 2013
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."
Thomas Ridley Sharpe (Tom Sharpe), writer: born London 30 March 1928; married 1969 Nancy Anne Looper (three daughters); died Llafranc, Spain 6 June 2013.
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