Obituary: John Wells

John Campbell Wells, writer, actor and director: born Ashford, Kent 17 November 1936; married 1982 Teresa Gatacre (nee Chancellor; one daughter); died London 11 January 1998.

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 Cornwell

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?