A satirical look at Cambridge life and the struggle between tradition and reform, Porterhouse Blue tells the story of Skullion, the Head Porter of a fictional Cambridge college, Porterhouse.
For the first time in five hundred years, the master of Porterhouse fails to name his successor before dying. He succumbs to a Porterhouse Blue - a stroke brought about by overindulgence in the college's legendary cuisine. Sir Godber Evans is appointed as his successor. Sir Godber, egged on by his zealous wife, Lady Mary, announces sweeping changes to the centuries of college tradition, much to the concern of Skullion and the Fellows, who plan a counter-attack on the proposed contraceptive machines, women students, and canteen.
Meanwhile, the only research graduate student in the college, Lionel Zipser, visits the hard-of-hearing Chaplain and explains his fixation for Mrs Biggs, his middle-aged, large-breasted bedder, through a megaphone, and is therefore overheard by the whole college. Mrs Biggs is not within earshot, but nevertheless senses that something is up from Zipser's awkward behaviour around her every time she comes to clean his room and especially when she teases him sexually, the climax of which is when she asks him to help her take off her bright red PVC raincoat from behind, which prompts him to reach around her and - at least in the TV mini-series - almost touch her large breasts.
While Sir Godber congratulates himself on having defeated the traditionalists, investigative journalist Cornelius Carrington is brought in on the pretext of helping both parties, while secretly having his own agenda.
Meanwhile, having been advised to pick up a foreign student, so as to avoid his predatory lust for Mrs Biggs that could end badly, Zipser visits an array of public houses in search of a condom and later wakes from his stupor in possession of two gross of condoms. He tries many ways to get rid of them and eventually inflates them with gas from the gas fire in his room and floats them up the chimney, not realising that some get stuck in the chimney and the rest float down into the college quadrangle. Fearing for the good name of college, Skullion spends the night bursting the inflated condoms.
At this point it turns out it is Mrs Biggs who is the predator, as she sneaks up to Zipser's room in the middle of the night and wakes him up. To his amazement she undresses and, despite his protests, promptly enters his bed and lies on top of him. Unfortunately, while undressing, she has lit the gas fire, which takes a short while to ignite the inflated condoms stuck in the chimney, causing an explosion that demolishes the Bull Tower and kills her and Zipser in their moment of passion.
When Skullion refuses to open the main gates of college to let the fire engines in and continues to burst the inflated condoms, he is fired. He takes his revenge by giving a shocking revelatory interview on Carrington's live television show. After the new master refuses Skullion's pleas to let him keep his job, Skullion offers shares that a former master left him. Sir Godber flatly refuses, but then has a fatal accident. Skullion, although not entirely to blame, quickly leaves. Two senior academics find the dying Sir Godber who whispers them one word: Skullion. They agree that, in accordance with college tradition, Skullion has been named the new Master of Porterhouse.
When Skullion is visited by the college officials with the good news, he thinks they have found out his involvement with Sir Godber's death and whilst they are telling him about his great fortune, he has a debilitating Porterhouse Blue himself. Nonetheless, he is installed as the Master and the college find that the shares he'd offered to Sir Godber are worth more than the cost of rebuilding the Bull Tower, so Porterhouse's traditions are firmly re-established.
In 1987, Porterhouse Blue was adapted for television by Malcolm Bradbury for Channel 4 in four episodes. It starred David Jason as Skullion, Ian Richardson as Sir Godber Evans, Charles Gray as Sir Cathcart D'Eath, and John Sessions as Zipser. Also appearing were Griff Rhys Jones as Cornelius Carrington, Paula Jacobs as Mrs. Biggs, Paul Rogers as the Dean, John Woodnutt as the Senior Tutor, Lockwood West as the Chaplain, Willoughby Goddard as Professor Siblington, and Harold Innocent as the Bursar.
The title song 'Dives in Omnia' (cod-Latin for 'Wealth in all things') was sung by a cappella group The Flying Pickets. The series won an International Emmy and two BAFTA Awards (including David Jason's for Best Actor). The television adaptation has been released on DVD and VHS.
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, Sacrist's Gate near Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, Knebworth House and Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire were used as locations in the series.