THEATRE / Underrated, The case for Charles Wood: The call of the wild

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The Independent Culture
Modern English playwrights get their due, don't they? I mean, Pinter and Potter and Orton and Bond are hardly denied greatness (everyone agrees that Bond is a prophet unhonoured in his own country, which is as good as recognition).

Consider the legions of the neglected and forgotten, under-produced and misunderstood, the fine originals who've slid in recent years or await proper recognition or decisive (even posthumous) revival: Arden, Rudkin, Brenton, Mercer, Halliwell, Barnes, Cregan, Pinner, Nichols, Terson, Griffiths, Edgar, Bicat, Snoo Wilson, C P Taylor, Les Smith, Heathcote Williams, Stephen Davies . . . and that's only the men.

Of the underrated playwrights, I've this soft spot for Charles Wood. Perhaps it's that the Sixties he so acutely stylised are so unfavoured, or that he makes me laugh.

He wrote for film and television as well as theatre. Help] was in a different league from conventional pop-star vehicles. The Knack (the film; he didn't write the play) was the trendy of trendies, but the fun it had with rape would look incorrect now. How I Won the War, an utterly forgotten picture, was as savage as anti-war tracts get and gut- achingly funny besides. These and the somewhat chaotic but wildly enjoyable Cuba were all directed by Richard Lester, now as neglected as Wood.

Tony Richardson shot one of Wood's subtlest scripts, full of delicate observation and rueful comedy. But The Charge of the Light Brigade never recovered from the schadenfreude- flavoured press, drawn by a notorious shoot and overspend. For a supposed turkey, it's a marvel.

From his first short plays Spare and Prisoner and Escort, Wood was our premier dramatist of soldiery. His great pageant of the Indian Mutiny, H, cries out for big- stage reassessment after a muffled National Theatre production 25 years ago. Like his other war plays Dingo and Jingo, it was dismissed as archaic in its war- is-hellisms. The Falklands gave Wood his riposte with the huge television success, Tumbledown.

His other subject is show business, from the pawky back-stage comedy of Fill the Stage with Happy Hours to a heartfelt snarl at Hollywood, Across from the Garden of Allah. Along the way was a major delight, Veterans, which added a wry footnote to shooting The Charge and, when first produced, allowed Gielgud gamely, graciously and with rare insight (in the writing, too) to impersonate Gielgud.

Wood's dialogue is written for speaking and it plays lickety-split. On the page it's dense, inconsequential, argoty and frequently mystifying. Are directors deterred? Once, working at the BBC, I summoned the script of his racily revelrous teleplay Drums Along the Avon, wherein Leonard Rossiter went native in Bristol. The text proved impossible to fathom.

Maybe he's his own worst enemy. Serving a term as script editor on Minder, mindful of his old alliance with George Cole on the delightful series (repeat, please) Don't Forget to Write, I asked him to do an episode. He declined to be commissioned, said he'd write on spec instead and eventually reported that he couldn't hack it.

Later, I asked him for a notion for a studio play. He was charming and grateful but said he'd retired. Retired? A writer? Some enterprising theatre director should drag him back where he belongs: on a big stage.