It’s odd how many collaborative teams wrote sparkling comedy together but not drama; John Wells teamed with John Bird for a series of inspired political duologues called “The Long Johns”, which managed to predict the seriousness of the banking crisis, while John Fortune and John Wells found common ground to produce a now-forgotten surreal comic masterpiece.
Born not long before the Second World War, all three Johns became satirists, writers, and actors. During the satire boom of the 1960s, Fortune contributed material for Peter Cook’s legendary Soho Club, The Establishment, working with Eleanor Bron and John Bird. Wells wrote for That Was The Week That Was, the satirical show that launched David Frost’s career, and its sequel, Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life. Teamed with Fortune, the pair wrote an outrageous comic novel for Penguin called A Melon For Ecstasy. Its title is derived from a fictional Turkish proverb: “A woman for duty, a boy for pleasure, but a melon for ecstasy.” Its protagonist, Humphrey, is sexually attracted to trees, and falls in love with a particularly fetching laburnum. As he scurries around the neighbourhood fulfilling his lust by drilling holes in the local flora, a nature society becomes exercised by fears of a woodpecker invasion, and the corrupt council outsources protective measures for backhanders. The book is constructed in the form of newspaper articles and letters, and forms a vivid snapshot of British life in the early 1970s, yet it reminds one of Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle in its depiction of petty-minded small-town bureaucracy.
John Wells was one of the original contributors to Private Eye, and wrote a great many of the “Mrs Wilson’s Diary” and “Dear Bill” spoofs that ran fortnightly, and were eventually published in collections. He adapted the latter into the hit stage play Anyone For Denis? and became celebrated for his own performance as Denis Thatcher, a role he continued on film and television. Wells wrote many screenplays including the charming Princess Caraboo (1984), and replaced the crime novelist Hugh Wheeler on the rewrite of Leonard Bernstein’s endlessly revised (and overrated) Candide. His final book House of Lords took a humorous look at the British peerage system. Meanwhile, Fortune appeared in Yes, Minister and continued working with Bird. It seems unimaginable now that writers of the 1960s were able to range so freely across all media. The delicious A Melon For Ecstasy is, sadly, out of print.