The British novelist, in the mould of Wodehouse and Waugh, was best known for Wilt and Porterhouse Blue
Tom Sharpe, who has died aged 85, was in the great tradition of English comic novelists and his bawdy style and vulgar approach were said to have made bad taste into an art form — like “P.G. Wodehouse on acid”, in the words of one critic. Sharpe did not start writing comic novels until 1971, when he was 43, but once he got going he gained a large readership. He was a huge bestseller whose hardback editions sold like most authors only sell in paperback. Wilt (1976) introduced perhaps his most popular character: Henry Wilt, a mild-mannered teacher of literature at the fictional Fenland College of Arts and Technology, who gets involved in a murder investigation. Sharpe claimed that the account of teaching day-release apprentice butchers and tradesmen in classes timetabled as “Meat One” and “Plasterers Two” was based on his own experiences as a lecturer at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology.
Henry Wilt has a plain common sense that gives a touch of ordinary, everyday reality to the novel and its sequels — The Wilt Alternative (1979), Wilt on High (1984), Wilt in Nowhere (2004) and The Wilt Inheritance (2010) — which is often lacking in Sharpe’s wilder farcical flights such as The Throwback (1978) and Ancestral Vices (1980). A film of Wilt, starring Griff Rhys Jones in 1989, brought Sharpe an even wider audience, as did the TV adaptations of his novels Blott on the Landscape (starring David Suchet in 1985) and Porterhouse Blue (starring Ian Richardson and David Jason in 1987).
Surprisingly for a comic writer and such a jovial character, Sharpe came to attention first as a hero in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in 1960. After leaving Cambridge with a degree in history and social anthropology, he had gone, in 1951, to South Africa, where he did social work for the Non-European Affairs Department, witnessing many of the horrors inflicted on the black population. He taught in Natal for a time and then set up a photographic studio in Pietermaritzburg in 1957.
He wrote a political play, The South Africans, which criticised the country’s racial policy. Although it was not produced in South Africa, and had only a small production in London, it was enough to bring down on him the wrath of the Bureau of State Security. He was hounded by the secret police, spent the Christmas of 1960 in jail, and was deported back to Britain in 1961. The ship he was put on sailed along the South African coast stopping at every port, at each of which the police would come on board to question and attempt to intimidate Sharpe.
He had written many symbolic, and unproduced, plays in South Africa and he was, he said, as surprised as anyone when in just three weeks he wrote the novel Riotous Assembly (1971), a dazzling comic send-up of the South African police. The inspiration for the book came from hearing about the old-fashioned English colonial aunt of a friend of his who lived near the police station and complained that the screams of tortured prisoners disturbed her afternoon naps. The aunt came to life in the book as the eccentric Miss Hazelstone, who amazes a police chief, Kommandant Van Heerden, when she says she wants to be arrested for murder because she has shot and killed her Zulu cook. In a marvellous piece of irony, Sharpe dedicated the book to “the South African police force whose lives are dedicated to the preservation of western civilisation in southern Africa.”
He was teaching then at the Arts and Technology college, but was able to give up his job because his publisher, Secker and Warburg (now Harvill Secker), agreed to pay him £3,000 a year for three years to be a full-time writer. Tom Rosenthal at Secker had faith that Sharpe would become a bestseller.
Sharpe continued his noble crusade against racism in South Africa with Indecent Exposure (1973), in which Kommandant van Heerden returns under the mistaken impression that he had been given “the heart of an English gentleman” in a transplant operation, a new persona which manifests itself when he starts reading the British novelist Dornford Yates.
Readers thought Sharpe perhaps a one-subject writer, but with Porterhouse Blue (1974), set in a Cambridge college, he proved that he was a true comic novelist in the great English tradition. “If Wodehouse wrote a plot and [Evelyn] Waugh wrote a book around it, the result could hardly be more hilarious,” wrote a critic for Time magazine.
Sharpe continued his dissection of English life with Blott on the Landscape (1975), a farce on urban development and the spoiling of the English countryside. After the first Wilt novel he produced The Great Pursuit (1977) which, in spite of the romping nature of the tale, was a serious attempt at satirising F.R. Leavis and the 20th century’s replacement of religion with literature. Sharpe was keen on the idea of both writing and reading as fun. In spite of abusing Yates in Indecent Exposure, his favourable comments on the author were plastered all over Dent’s Classic Thrillers reprints of Yates’s books. Sharpe’s 1982 novel Vintage Stuff was an excellent send-up of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond and John Buchan’s Richard Hannay.
Born in Croydon, south London, Sharpe had a most unusual and troubled boyhood. His father, the Unitarian minister Reverend George Coverdale Sharpe, was a fascist, a follower of Oswald Mosley and a great believer in Adolf Hitler.
From the start of the Second World War, the family was continuously on the move to avoid the father being interned with other British Nazis.
Tom’s mother, Grace, was South African and a rich South African aunt paid for him to go to Lancing college, West Sussex, south-east England. During that time, he wore a German army belt with Gott Mit Uns on the buckle. He said that when he went to the seaside he used to daydream of scrambling over the barbed wire and swimming across the Channel to occupied France to “join the good guys.”
Sharpe’s father did not live to see the liberation of the Nazi death camps, but Tom, of course, saw the newsreels and came close to having a nervous breakdown. Looking back on his schooldays, he said that the most significant thing that happened was a friendly master giving him Waugh’s Decline and Fall to read. It had, he said, a tremendous influence when he came to write his own comedies. His other influence was Wodehouse; he was very pleased later to learn that Wodehouse was a reader of his.
He did his national service from 1946 to 1948 in the Royal Marines, and went to Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was married for a short time in South Africa and then in 1969 married Nancy Anne Looper from North Carolina. They had three daughters.
When he started producing bestsellers he moved to a large house in Dorset, south-west England, a former school building, and became a keen gardener. He said he liked digging. He moved back to Cambridge but in the 1980s he had an experience like something out of one of his own novels when he had a heart attack live on TV in Spain.
Ill health was undoubtedly responsible for the long silence, from Wilt on High in 1984 to Grantchester Grind in 1995, in which Sharpe — who was used to producing a book a year — published nothing at all. He commented that it wasn’t that at all, it was being forced to give up smoking. He later said that the sort of ballpoint pens he wrote with were no longer manufactured and asked readers to send him their own pens. He then said that he kept writing every day of those 11 years but did not think the work good enough. Grantchester Grind was a sequel to Porterhouse Blue, and it was followed by The Midden in 1996. In the following decade, two further Wilt novels appeared.
Much in demand for interviews and often besieged by fans, he developed two mask-like personas. One was a blustering ex-colonial type, the other a genial old buffer. One interviewer, arriving on one of the ex-colonial days, said he had never seen anyone fuming before in real life. Sharpe said he admired the old military men, but thought of himself as the buffer.
He is survived by Nancy and his daughters. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013