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 “PG 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.
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