Invisible Ink: No 118 - Charles Wood

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The Independent Culture

Plays are the most ephemeral of the creative arts, and it always strikes me as odd that most revivals fall into two camps: musicals or Shakespeare. Lately we've had a few reinventions, such as One Man, Two Guvnors, but many plays don't get revived because they are topical, only partially well-received by the public, or too expensive to restage. Charles Wood has fallen foul of all three of these factors at once.

In the 1960s, an explosion of experimental writing challenged censorship and brought unpalatable subjects to public attention for the first time. Wood has frequently written about the corrupting allure of war, a subject that can infuriate and polarise audiences. More alarmingly, his stories were placed within a surreal, densely poetic style that demanded much of audiences. About him, the director Richard Eyre says: "There is no contemporary writer who has chronicled the experience of modern war with so much authority, knowledge, compassion, wit and despair, and there is no contemporary writer who has received so little of his deserved public acclaim."

Wood was born to acting parents in 1932. His Wikipedia entry suggests his own hand, pointing out that the theatre his father managed was "demolished to make way for a traffic island". He must have enjoyed the Army as he served for five years, with a further seven in the reserve, and his first play, written for television in 1959, was Prisoner and Escort.

In the 1960s he wrote the film scripts for The Knack ... and How to Get It and the Beatles' Help! (both 1965), How I Won the War with John Lennon and Michael Crawford (1967), and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), a darker take on the military blunder that remains its finest screen incarnation. He has continued writing television dramas, and 1988 saw the production of his Falklands play Tumbledown with Colin Firth, which once again proved how much the subject of war remains controversial.

Wood's plays, such as Jingo, Dingo and Veterans, are nothing short of extraordinary, and like Shakespeare, they are tricky on the page but spring to life in the theatre. Dialogue is distilled into non-naturalistic poetry that must be hard to perform, and even the elegant stage directions help to shape his epic prose poems about the demise of the British Empire. Oberon has now published three volumes of his dazzling wordplay, and I can't recommend them highly enough to anyone interested in the power of language.