Charles Wood was a writer’s writer, in that most others aspired to, but could not match, his torrent of images laced with an inimitable barbed wit. Edward Lear, Dorothy Parker and Fleabag at their finest are overshadowed by Wood’s glittering prose. There’s an exchange in Richard Lester’s film How I Won The War
between Michael Hordern as a preening lieutenant and Michael Crawford as a bewildered private about the ‘Wily Pathans’ which, on Crawford’s own admission, is one of the funniest dialogues ever committed to celluloid: idiotic, scabrous, nonsensical, and utterly revealing of the total folly of war.
Wood was also a director’s writer in that, no matter the subject, he had a knack of providing a text which on the page seemed almost unplayable, but on screen or stage tripped off the tongue as if it had always been there, almost improvised on the spur of the moment. And actors responded to such texts with alacrity, in spite of Wood’s ruthless mocking of their foibles. His play Has Washington Legs?
, for the National Theatre and with Albert Finney in the cast, is a merciless satire on a self-regarding director failing to get his precious project about George Washington off the ground in the face of squabbling and opinionated actors and know-all financiers. Yet actors always wanted more – more words, more text – whether in the grim urgency of Tumbledown
, Wood’s cutting take on the Falklands War, or Richard Eyre’s Iris
, a heartbreaking and unrelenting exploration of the depths of dementia and despair, or in my case his grasp of the evil significance of that monster Wagner,
an 8-hour epic in which Richard Burton, in his last major role, was determined to establish once and for all his pre-eminence as an actor.
But here’s the rub. Wood did not write ‘text’ or ‘dialogue’ in the conventional sense. He wrote poetry, in the tradition of Homer or Virgil. Storytelling, but in a language that had universal significance and meaning. No wonder actors like Gielgud, Olivier, Colin Firth and Judi Dench relished what he wrote.
Wood’s parents were both touring repertory theatre actors who happened to be in Guernsey for the summer season when he was born in 1932. His father, Jack, was the first to ‘employ’ his son in the company which he managed, working as a stagehand and electrician. After the war, having settled in Bristol, he worked as an advertising copy artist at the Bristol Evening Post
alongside Tom Stoppard who was a journalist there. He soon became more interested in the words of the copy than what he was having to draw. In 1950, by now a student at the Birmingham School of Art and about to lose his grant, Wood enlisted in the 17th/21st Lancers
and spent five years in the army, eventually discharged as a corporal, a lowly rank as his friend John Osborne never ceased to remind him. Thereafter, following a stint as a scenic artist with Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford, films – Help!, The Knack
and most importantly Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade
– poured out of him.
gives us a clue as to Wood’s greatness. In retelling one of the most oft reported fiascos in British military history, every line is, of course, invented. And yet you believe that this is what was actually said. Wood’s feel for text, at once historically accurate (his time in the Lancers paid dividends) while at the same time dramatically coherent, has never been bettered.
Charles Wood’s 16 stage plays and over 30 scripts for television may have languished, no longer fashionable. But their day will come, quite simply because there was never a better master of our gloriously sinewy language in all its poetic power and eloquence than him.