Aubrey Woods obituary: Much-loved character actor whose work ranged from Dickens to Dahl
His London stage debut was at the cutting edge, in Brooks' 'Men Without Shadows'
Saturday 15 June 2013
A true all-rounder, the adorable Aubrey Woods delivered the goods in everything from revue to science fiction in his 50-year career. Instantly recognisable for his turn as Bill, the sweetshop owner in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), announcing the arrival of the Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar and achieving celluloid immortality with his rendition of "The Candy Man", Woods was equally at home playing humourless jobsworths, unctuous creeps or sinister blimps. He was forever popping up to bring eccentricity and depth to supporting roles, but despite being a master of stillness, he could be dazzlingly flamboyant when required.
Born in London in 1928, he was a bookish child, encouraged by his father, who worked for Macmillan, the publishing house. He attended the Latymer School in Palmers Green and enrolled at the Hornsea School of Art with the intention of becoming an architect, but left when he won the Leverhulme scholarship to Rada when he was 17. While he was still a student, Calvalcanti cast him as a nervy Smike in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1946). From Rada he repped in Leatherhead, Worthing and Richmond while courting Gaynor, whom he married in 1952 and remained with all his life.
While there was always something pleasantly old-fashioned about Woods, his London debut was at the sharp end of theatrical innovation, in Peter Brook's production of Sartre's existential Men Without Shadows at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1947. The study of Gestapo torture was early evidence of Brook's fascination with theatrical violence but aroused fury from some critics, including Harold Hobson, who said it achieved "as much aesthetic effect as a street accident". Hobson was delighted, however, by Woods's scene-stealing turn as a messenger to Ralph Richardson's Macbeth in Gielgud's production in 1952, by which time he was well established with the RSC and the same year had been Le Beau in As You Like It and Peregrine in Volpone.
In 1957 he was at the cutting-edge of theatre again starring alongside Elizabeth Sellars and Keith Baxter in Robert Anderson's beautiful Tea and Sympathy at the Comedy Theatre. The Lord Chamberlain, however, refused public performance of the play, meaning the theatre had to reinvent itself for the occasion as a club (a trick that 11 years later the Royal Court would employ to stage Edward Bond's Early Morning, the play that finished off the Lord Chamberlain once and for all).
Fittingly he starred alongside Millicent Martin and Ronnie Stevens in the cheeky revue The Lord Chamberlain Regrets at the Saville Theatre in 1961, not one of Ronald Cass's best works but still enjoyably audacious in the wake of the Tea and Sympathy affair. By now he was becoming busy in musical theatre, even if he didn't always prosper. He began as the effete Lieutenant Whorwood in Sandy Wilson's Valmouth at the Lyric in 1958, then took over from Ron Moody in Oliver! and spent three years with the show at the New Theatre.
There were a fair few flops, including The Four Musketeers with Harry Secombe at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1967, which despite running for over a year lost a bomb, and Mardi Gras in 1975 at the Prince of Wales, penned by Melvyn Bragg and popsters Howard and Blaikley. It was all simply bad luck, as Woods had the presence and voice to have become much more celebrated with better material.
Later stage performances included Sir Edward Carson to Tom Baker's unusual but pleasing Oscar Wilde in Feasting with Panthers at Chichester in 1981, and playing Jacob and Potiphar at the Palladium in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in 1991.
Although his meticulousness and his subtle grandeur made him a striking stage performer, they also made him a memorable supporting player in television and film. He appeared in two Dickens serialisations for the BBC, as Tony Jobling in Bleak House (1958) and Mr Chuckster in The Old Curiosity Shop (1963). He had regular roles in a handful of sitcoms including the curious Nice Work for the BBC in 1980, with Edward Woodward as a labour relations officer trying to keep the peace between a shop steward and Woods's right-wing manager. He was enjoyably reptilian as the chief villain in the 1971 Dr Who serial "The Day of the Daleks", with a strong storyline that essentially told the same tale as The Terminator a decade later, written by former Oxford historian Louis Marks, and was one of the many delights in Gerry O'Hara's note-perfect All the Right Noises (1969) playing an actor in the stage musical which provides the backdrop to a tender romance between Tom Bell and Olivia Hussey.
In 1972 he co-wrote a musical of Trelawny of the Wells which transferred from Bristol Old Vic to Sadler's Wells, and in 1979 returned to Bristol to direct his dramatisation of his beloved EF Benson's Mapp and Lucia stories, Make Way for Lucia. For many years he was Vice-President of the EF Benson Society and adapted and performed many of the stories for radio. A musical version of Benson's works he had developed with Richard Rodney Bennett never came to fruition.
Both idiosyncratic and versatile, Woods brought a sense of the past and a sweet air of English eccentricity to a lengthy scroll of performances, and if history insists he will be remembered for singing "The Candy Man" in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory above all else, that alone is a lovely image to remember him by.
Aubrey Woods, actor, writer and director: born London 9 April 1928; married 1952 Gaynor; died Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, 7 May 2013
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