Charles Wood obituary
Several of the playwrights who transformed British theatre in the 1960s in the wake of John Osborne had experience in the armed services and the old days of repertory theatre. Charles Wood, who has died aged 87, was one of them, with this difference: he was a professional soldier for five years whereas others – Peter Nichols, Peter Barnes, Michael Frayn – merely did national service.
Wood served as a corporal in the 17th/21st Lancers between 1950 and 1955 before leaving to work in the theatre as a stagehand and scenic artist, and on the Bristol Evening Post between 1959 and 1962 as a journalist – alongside Tom Stoppard. But if he had achieved promotion he might have stayed in the army.
Much of his work, from his earliest plays through to the TV drama film Tumbledown (1988), directed by Richard Eyre and starring Colin Firth as a wounded, disillusioned veteran of the Falklands war, reveals an acrid ambivalence about the military life. There is a speech delivered by David Hemmings in Wood’s screenplay for Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) which describes a thin line, as Wood saw it, between the job of a soldier and that of a murderer.
For Wood, a tall, gentle and inherently private man, loved soldiering – he was a keen student of military history – but hated war and the politicians who waged it, Winston Churchill included. The language of these scripts is marked by a startling, passionate intensity as much as by a fantastic mix of historical idiom, barrack room slang and barbaric crudity.
You get a sense of this in the three episodes he wrote in the 90s for the television series Sharpe, starring Sean Bean as a soldier in the 95th Rifles during the Napoleonic wars, at the siege of Badajoz in 1812, in the England of 1813 and at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
But the bitter ferocity of his style is best demonstrated in a portrait of two privates at the western front in 1943 in Dingo (1967), a play commissioned by the National Theatre and quietly dropped after being refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain before surfacing as a club performance at the Royal Court. While Dingo, the professional soldier, loses faith in his mission, his mate Mogg, a civilian recruit, goes bayonet-thrusting through the enemy to a position of power.
The army gave Wood, the eldest of four siblings, the stable family life he never had as a child. He was born in St Peter Port, Guernsey, where his parents, Jack Wood and Mae Harris, were on tour. They were both actors, while Jack was also a manager who toured during the war with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Their lost world of fit-up companies in small-town rep was celebrated in his 1967 play Fill the Stage With Happy Hours.
Although Charles settled later in his mother’s home city of Bristol, he was educated first at the grammar school in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, where his family lived for several years, and at King Charles I school, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, before training as a graphic artist at Birmingham College of Art. His trio of short plays, Cockade (1963), at the Arts theatre in the West End, won him the Evening Standard’s most promising playwright award, the first of them, Prisoner and Escort, having been heard on radio in 1961, then televised.
Wood established himself in the 60s, first at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he contributed to Peter Brook’s controversial anti-war play, US, then at the National with “H” or Monologues at Front of Burning Cities (1969), a historical pageant anatomising Sir Henry Havelock’s campaign during the Indian mutiny of 1857.
And he started on his collaborations with the film director Richard Lester. He provided blackly comic and satirical screenplays for Lester’s The Knack … and How to Get It (1965), adapted from Ann Jellicoe’s stage play; Help! (1965), with the Beatles at their zaniest and most frenetic; How I Won the War (1967), with John Lennon and Michael Crawford, an adaptation of a novel by Patrick Ryan; and a script of Spike Milligan and John Antrobus’s The Bed Sitting Room (1969), with a cast including Milligan, Ralph Richardson, Marty Feldman, Arthur Lowe, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
Wood created theatre based on the cinema of war in Veterans (1972) – an Evening Standard best play – at the Royal Court, with Gielgud and Bob Hoskins. The play was set on location for The Charge of the Light Brigade, with Gielgud playing himself, more or less. Jingo (1975) at the RSC, subtitled “a farce of war”. signalled the end of British domination in east Asia at the fall of Singapore while Has ‘Washington’ Legs? (1978) at the National featured a double act by Albert Finney and Robert Stephens in a scabrous contribution to the US bicentennial celebrations.
Working solidly, and often autobiographically, in television through the 70s, he conjured his progress from grammar school to the army in the three-part Death or Glory Boy (1974) and created a wonderful role of a “blocked” and under-appreciated writer, George Maple, for George Cole in the 1977 and 1979 sitcom series Don’t Forget to Write!
A fifth film with Lester, Cuba (1979), a tale of romance and revolution, featured one of Sean Connery’s finest performances, as a British security adviser during the last weeks of the Batista regime.
With the advent of Channel 4, Wood wrote screenplays for Tony Palmer’s Wagner (1983), starring Richard Burton with, uniquely, Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson together at once on screen, and Puccini (1984), with a smouldering Robert Stephens as the composer caught in an adulterous net between the restless compositions of The Girl of the Golden West and a cathartic Turandot.
A third film with Palmer, England, My England (1995), celebrated the Henry Purcell tercentenary and was a debt of honour to John Osborne, who was too ill to complete a screenplay; conceived in two time zones, this quirky, original film starred Simon Callow as King Charles in the 17th century and an Osborne-esque playwright in the 20th.
Wood had formed a great friendship with Lester, as he did with Palmer and then with Eyre – who had directed Fill the Stage during his time at the Nottingham Playhouse – on Tumbledown. He continued to work with Eyre on the 2001 film Iris, with Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch losing her mind, but not her love for Jim Broadbent’s John Bayley and, less successfully, a romantic thriller, The Other Man (2008), starring Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Antonio Banderas.
Despite his standing as a writer in his own profession, Wood was never as publicly “visible” as his peers and some element of confusion surrounded his later work in the theatre. For the National, and at the suggestion of another old Royal Court colleague, the director William Gaskill, he adapted Pirandello’s adultery farce, Man, Beast and Virtue, in 1989 and, even more puzzlingly, the same playwright’s incomplete, intractable last play, Mountain Giants, in 1993.
We were on firmer ground, perhaps, with his 1995 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Tower for the Almeida, London, an entertaining sex and power melodrama directed by Howard Davies with Sinead Cusack as the insatiable queenly villainess Marguerite de Bourgogne. Equally enjoyable was his script, adapted from Beryl Bainbridge’s novel, for Mike Newell’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1995), a return to his parents’ world of theatre, starring Hugh Grant as a vainglorious director and Alan Rickman as a fading matinee idol.
Even as his star seemed to fade, Wood never stopped writing, and his reputation will surely be re-established in future years. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984 and remained a proud member of Osborne’s avenging “British Playwrights’ Mafia” years after it had in fact been disbanded.
He married the actor Valerie Newman in 1954, and they had a son, John, and a daughter, Kate. Charles and Valerie made a home in Bristol before moving to the north Cotswolds in 1974.
John predeceased him. He is survived by Valerie and Kate, and by a sister, Leah, and younger brother, Patrick.
• Charles Gerald Wood, playwright and screenwriter, born 6 August 1932; died 1 February 2020