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Skullion is a central character in Porterhouse Blue (1974) and Grantchester Grind (1995), two satirical novels about life in the fictitious Porterhouse College at Cambridge by British novelist Tom Sharpe. For centuries, Porterhouse College has been renowned for its cuisine, the prowess of its rowers and the low level of its academic achievements. Since the College was founded there have been Skullions at Porterhouse. Skullion is the Head Porter at the College, a responsibility he has held for many years and which he takes very seriously indeed.
The Porter of PorterhouseJames Skullion's first contact with Porterhouse College came when, as a young boy, he carried the students' cases for sixpence when they arrived at the railway station at Cambridge, running beside their cabs to help unload them at the College. He became a Porter at Porterhouse in 1937 and served in the Royal Marines during the Second World War. He became the Head Porter in 1949. In the books, Skullion has worked at the College for 45 years, has served seven Masters, and sees himself as a link with the College's great, glorious, and magnificent past; as such he regards it as his duty to maintain the standards of bygone years. Porterhouse is not an academic college; rather, it is a club for gentlemen, where admission depends on rank and wealth and where degrees can be bought. This often involves a brighter substitute from another college being paid to take the place of the Porterhouse student in the examination. Based on their fraudulent degrees, many of these students have gone on to obtain positions of great power in government and industry. These men are known as 'Skullion's Scholars' . He keeps their names on a list, knowing it will be useful one day.
For the first time in 500 years, the Master of Porterhouse fails to name his successor on his deathbed before dying. He succumbs to a “Porterhouse Blue” - a stroke brought about by overindulgence in the college's legendary cuisine. Sir Godber Evans (a former Porterhouse student himself, whom Skullion remembers contemptuously as not being a gentleman as he had been educated at a grammar school) is appointed as his successor by the Prime Minister. 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, 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 a drunken 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 the 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, and treats him with pity and contempt, angering the porter’s sense of pride and causing him to advance threateningly on the Master. Backing away, Sir Godber trips and suffers a fatal head injury. Skullion, although not entirely to blame, flees in shock and fear. The Dean and the Senior Tutor 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 “Porterhouse Blue” himself, but survives, although paralysed and unable to speak. 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.
The Master of Porterhouse=
In Grantchester Grind, the wheel-chair bound Skullion is still Master, and has recovered his power of speech and some movement, but is still showing signs of physical frailty. The mystery surrounding the death of the previous Master, Sir Godber Evans, prompts his widow, the millionairess Lady Mary, to instigate a plan to investigate the death through a planted Fellow, Dr Purefoy Osbert, backed by a large, anonymous donation to Porterhouse. At the same time, the Dean decides to look for a new Master for the College, preferably a wealthy one, to replace Skullion; he drives around the country visiting Old Porterthusians (previous students at Porterhouse), including Lord Jeremy Pimpole, (who is now a chronic alcoholic with a sexual predilection for sheep and dogs), in the hope that he will find one is willing to become Master. None is suitable. Meanwhile, the College Bursar is contacted by the American media and drug-running billionaire Edgar Hartang, who seems to be interested in supporting the College without clarifying what it is he wants in return. Knowing that Dr Osbert is eavesdropping, Skullion admits that he murdered Sir Godber Evans. He is immediately and secretly sent to Porterhouse Park, an unpleasant retirement home for the College's mad or troublesome Fellows. He escapes from here with the assistance of Dr Osbert, and returns to Porterhouse and confronts the Fellows. As is his right as Master, Skullion nominates the new Master of the College, the alcoholic Lord Pimpole.
In 1987, Porterhouse Blue was adapted for television by Malcolm Bradbury for Channel 4, with the famous British actor David Jason playing the role of Skullion, and winning a BAFTA for Best Actor for the role.