You had to be John Wells's age to remember just how drab, constipated and deferential a place England was at the end of the 1950s. Country-house Toryism reigned and, though winds of change were starting to blow through Africa, the sun was motionless at the zenith of the heavens for the British establishment. But then came Satire and nothing was quite the same again. And, among the jewels thrown up by this eternally undergraduate Oxbridge movement, few matched John Wells for brilliance or multitude of facets.
Of Satire's superstars - Peter Cook, Richard Ingrams, Paul Foot, Willie Rushton, Christopher Booker and all the others who taught the country to make fun of itself - Wells however perhaps was the least "satirical". His activities were legion: humorist, journalist, linguist, translator, novelist, historian and playwright. But the theatre arguably was where he was happiest.
A love of the stage was a trait shared by most of Satire's trailblazers. While the Cambridge contingent, of Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, achieved their initial fame in the revue Beyond the Fringe, their Oxford counterparts, Ingrams, Foot and Booker, merely aspired to be actors. Essentially however all of them - including even the unmatchable Cook - were no more than performers. Not Wells however. Though his enduring fame will be as creator and chief author of "Mrs Wilson's Diary" and "Dear Bill" in Private Eye which he would co-edit with Ingrams, he was an actor.
What would become the Satire movement embraced him when he arrived at Oxford in 1957 after two years' National Service in Korea (where he first met Ingrams). Thanks to a brilliance at improvising and an astonishing gift of mimicry, Wells quickly earned the reputation of the "funniest chap at Oxford", and along with Ingrams, Rushton and Foot was enlisted on the staff of Mesopotamia, a new undergraduate paper.
But in at least equal measure he was an academic. Having taken a good degree in languages he went to teach French and German to an especially spoilt generation of aspiring linguists at Eton. Wells succeeded David Cornwell, better known as John le Carre. "Don't be like Cornwell," he was warned when he arrived in 1961. "He had too many friends in London."
The strictures went unheeded. Soon Wells was moonlighting at the Establishment, London's first satirical club, in Greek Street. There he met Cook, the movement's unchallenged and unruly presiding genius. "Fairly soon, we all realised we owed Peter everything," was Wells's tribute upon Cook's death in January 1995. "Without him it is unlikely there would have been any Beyond the Fringe, and without Beyond the Fringe, no Establishment Club, no That Was The Week and no Private Eye" (of which Cook would buy ownership in early 1962).
For Wells, the Eye would be his true launching pad. Its first issue appeared on 25 October 1961, featuring a spoof interview by him with John Gielgud (or "Feelgood"). But his major early contribution was his Downing Street bulletin "Mrs Wilson's Diary", written - as "Dear Bill" (supposedly letters from Denis Thatcher) would be later - in combination with Ingrams, the magazine's editor. The method never changed. Wells would sit at the typewriter and speak the words aloud. Either together or alone they would continue until the piece was finished. Either could object to an idea, writes Patrick Marnham in his 1982 history The Private Eye Story, "and normally one objection was decisive".
But undergraduates are constantly falling out with one another, and thus it was at Private Eye. At one stage Wells was virtual co-editor; but Ingrams gradually stripped him of the job, on the grounds he was spending too much time on extra-curricular activities, like acting and mainstream journalism. But his services could never be dispensed with. He continued "Mrs Wilson's Diary" until Harold Wilson resigned in March 1976. "And whenever Private Eye needed to present itself physically," Barry Fantoni, his old comrade- in-arms at the magazine and later in the theatre, remembers, "John was top of the list. When we put out those floppy records with the Christmas issue, for instance, he did most of the funny voices." But relations were fraught, and mockery mounted. Princess Margaret had become a friend and took to calling her "Jawn" at the Eye offices. The nickname would stick. By that time, however, the acting was absorbing ever more of his time.
True, his roles were mainly character parts, drawing heavily on his gift of mimicry - the most spectacular of them as Denis Thatcher in Anyone for Denis? (1981-82), the smash spin-off from the "Dear Bill" letters which he wrote and starred in. But the talent was evident to all. Equally memorable was his portrayal of Bartholomew Cokes, the aristocratic twit of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, at the Round House in 1978.
Nor was the academic in him to be suppressed. Wells himself wrote many of the programme notes for Bartholomew Fair, and his enthusiasm for Jonson, and his eye and ear for London life, bordered on scholarship. Another Jonson fan, Joan Littlewood, with whom Wells worked in Theatre Workshop at Stratford, was largely responsible. "I've learnt acting from Joan," he liked to say, "and she learnt it from Brecht."
But thespian flamboyance may have marked a deeper insecurity. Whereas Ingrams and the rest were well-born, Wells's own background was of impecunious genteelness. His father was a southern England clergyman whose last parish was Bognor Regis. His public school (Eastbourne College) was minor, and his Oxford college (St Edmund Hall) not quite of the top bracket. Hence perhaps a lack of inner confidence. That may explain the over-extravagant writing, and the zeal with which he surrounded himself with the famous. Some called it social climbing, others an antidote to self-doubt. But about his gift for friendship, his verve in conversation, there was no argument.
But his talents stretched further still. Anyone for Denis? was only one of half a dozen plays he wrote. He produced a novel as well as Rude Words (1991), a much-praised history of the London Library, and last autumn an anecdotal history of the House of Lords. Amazingly, he also found time for theatrical and operatic translations from French and German, including The Merry Widow for the Scottish Opera in 1989 and Cyrano de Bergerac for the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1992. Spanish was not in his repertoire - but that did not prevent him from perfecting a Spanish accent that would reduce the large family he later acquired to weep with laughter.
Denis the prisoner of Margaret however provided the best lines of all for John Wells. The butt of the jokes said he could never see what the fuss was about. But take the opening mo-ments of Anyone for Denis?. The scene is Chequers and our harassed hero answers the phone:
Hello, Bill? It's me, old bean. He who trails along in the perfumed wake,
hands behind the back, the Embar-rassing Appendage. No, you BF, not the Duke of Edinburgh. It's Denis. Denis T. I'm not allowed to say Thatcher over the phone; Margaret has just tightened up the security arrangements here.
That sort of humour is immortal.
The last 15 years of his life he spent in private happiness with his wife Teresa, whom he had known since the late 1960s. When they finally married in 1982, she brought with her a dowry of six children - including the youngest of them, Dolly, later openly acknowledged as Wells's own daughter. But he was scarcely less fond a stepfather to the rest.
In his riper years, he was the contented owner of a rambling farmhouse in Sussex, near Plumpton racecourse. Wells never drove a car, but the farm was conveniently near a station. And nothing delighted him more than to stride its acres in the country gentleman's tweeds. Once again, a gadfly of the Establishment had returned to its bosom. But not before he left an indelible mark on those who knew him best. As Barry Fantoni put it: "John taught me more than anything I thought possible."
- Rupert CornwellReuse content