Tom Sharpe developed two mask-like personas. One was a blustering ex-colonial type, the other a genial old buffer. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images
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.
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 FR 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. 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, 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.
• Thomas Ridley Sharpe, writer, born 30 March 1928; died 6 June 2013
Tom Sharpe, British comic novelist, dies age 85
Author of Porterhouse Blue and Wilt novels dies at home in Catalonia from complications related to diabetes
'Witty, often outrageous, always acutely funny' ... the writer Tom Sharpe in 1997. Photograph: Raphael Gaillarde / Getty
Tom Sharpe, whose savage pen and biting turns of phrase helped to earn him the title of the master of British farce, has died aged 85.
Sharpe, author of Porterhouse Blue and the Wilt series of novels, passed away at his home in Catalonia following complications related to diabetes, according to Spanish reports.
Sharpe's editor at Random House, Susan Sandon, paid tribute to a man who was "warm, supportive and wholly engaging".
"Tom Sharpe was one of our greatest satirists and a brilliant writer," she said. "Witty, often outrageous, always acutely funny about the absurdities of life."
Sharpe, author of 16 novels, made his debut in 1971 with the brutally comic Riotous Assembly. Set in South Africa, the novel describes the chaos that ensues after an innocent black man is blown apart by an elephant gun. Sharpe had lived in South Africa following national service in the Royal Marines, doing social work before teaching in Natal.
Born in 1928 and educated at Lancing College and Pembroke College, Cambridge, Sharpe later worked as a lecturer in history at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology.
His third novel, Porterhouse Blue, was published in 1974. A satirical take on life in a fictional Cambridge college, it went on to find further success in the 80s with a television adaptation starring David Jason.
Sharpe went on to write the Wilt series of novels, about the long-suffering lecturer Henry Wilt, seen as his alter ego, "an insignificant little man to whom things happened and for whom life was a chapter of indignities".
Reviewing the fourth Wilt novel, Wilt in Nowhere, Will Hammond in the Observer said Sharpe gave "voice to a deep-rooted part of English culture", and "confirms once again that his position at the heart of British comedy is as assured as that of the seaside postcard".
"Over the course of his prolific career, Sharpe has been hailed as the king of slapstick, a satirist in the line of Wodehouse, and a major craftsman in the art of farce (a spoonerism he would no doubt enjoy). In Wilt in Nowhere, he shows himself to be all these and more: vengeful, chaotic, Swiftian in his tastes, cartoonish in his extremes, and above all wild and amusing," wrote Hammond.
Sharpe's most recent novel, The Wilt Inheritance, was published in 2010.