Sandy Wilson: Lyricist and composer best known for the musical 'The Boyfriend', which had great success on stage and screen

 

Wedded to his musical The Boyfriend, whose script he wrote – for £25 down and £25 on completion of its short run – in a matter of mere days, practically without alterations, followed by the lyrics and music "with almost as equal ease", Sandy Wilson was far more than purveyor of the frothy "postwar valentine" which the show appears to represent. In reality he was a reluctant rebel affecting to be insouciant.

He was, like his friend Noël Coward, "born with a talent to amuse", but he was passionate and angry, too. The disguise suited Wilson fine. He was a hugely sensitive man, tolerant and kind, unless you annoyed him, whereupon he'd go cold. Private and secretive, he lived most of his life behind a thick plate glass of deflection which said, "don't enquire."

His autobiography (1975) entitled I Could Be Happy after one of the catchiest tunes from The Boyfriend, is a scintillating but strictly surface account of the growing pains of the show which has been nascent to an international industry. The show made Wilson rich, which did little to appease his intensely galling feeling of never having much success with his other work. Divorce Me, Darling! (1964) continued the story where The Boyfriend left off, but had no success. Nor did any other of Wilson's shows, including a brilliantly crafted adaptation of Ronald Firbank's erotic novel Valmouth (1958; revival, Chichester, 1982), the legacy of which was Wilson's fine country house in Somerset that bears its name.

Wilson's life was conflicted between the need to be free, to move, travel and think, and feeling trapped by the inordinate success of The Boyfriend, which he guarded jealously like it was a real boyfriend – which in a way it was, although for him it probably constituted a representation of his mother, for whom he held a close and virtually textbook attachment.

He was born in 1924 in Sale, as "a result of a moonlight picnic" following parental separation and a highly charged reconciliation when his mother was 43. He had three elder sisters and his birth was foretold by an Indian fortune teller to their mother – "she was fascinated by the occult" – for whom he was her "dreamchild". She was a Londoner, "gay, imaginative and wilful", whereas his father, a remote figure who died relatively young in 1938 from pleurisy, was "a sober countryman possessed of a strong Presbyterian sense of duty."

The family's Raj background, bolstered by a fortune made in the woollen mills of Bannockburn, gave way to reduced and ever-diminishing circumstances. Wilson was virtually compelled to gain the top scholarship to Harrow and then to Oxford, where he engaged with every theatrical activity he could (including befriending Hermione Gingold, who he maintained had "more talent than anyone I ever knew").

This was after three years in the army, narrowly failing to get a transfer into Ensa. At Oxford he had nobody to please but himself, studying English literature over Latin and Greek. "'BA Oxon'," he said, "has made not the slightest difference to my career; but everything else about it had a profound influence on the rest of my life". He took a course in production at the Old Vic School.

By degrees of chance and sheer tenacity, Wilson's break came when asked to write The Boyfriend, first as a one-hour one-acter for the New Watergate Theatre. Its transfer, expanded, to The Players Theatre and its subsequent success – all tickets were sold out, and on transferring again to Wyndhams in 1954 it ran for 2,084 performances – was not easily attained.

By the time Broadway beckoned Wilson was in the groove of expecting productions to run precisely according to the affectionate spirit wherein the show had been created, under no circumstances to be tampered with. Broadway changed that. His long-time producer and surrogate mother, Vida Hope, was fired and he was barred from rehearsals. By the time he was allowed to see the first show (with Julie Andrews on her way to becoming a star) he was "numb with anger, distress, fear and frustration."

In Ken Russell's film version (1972), the changes were more severe and Wilson's distress was commensurate. Years later Trevor Nunn wanted to bring the show to the National, and in a interview with the author plied him with taking it into the West End and Broadway, but he also explained what seemingly endless changes he would make. It was fatal. After a pause, Wilson spoke with a half-smile: "I've done all that already, and no, you're not [making changes]." Nunn exploded: "Why have I been sitting here for three hours, then?"

Wilson always wanted The Boyfriend to be seen by the world in the right way, which meant keeping strictly to his words, directions and certain encoded devices, without which productions of it seem to fail. What The Boyfriend really represented and why it succeeded may not have been clear even to him: the tender human yearning for union beneath a surface of 1920s delicacy that makes it something timeless, not just a period piece of confection.

At the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, two recent productions met critical acclaim, not least from the author. The second, in 2007, was sad for Wilson, who realised he was seeing it in London for the last time. He was most pleased, however, because of the audience's diversity, particularly the young. "I loved sitting there in the auditorium," he said, "I basked in it."

During rehearsals with the director Ian Talbot he made it plain who held the reins: "Look!" he said, "Gershwin is dead, Cole Porter is dead, but I am still alive!" and he furiously proclaimed: "How dare you!" when Talbot came to play Lord Brockhurst. Talbot was one of the best Lord Brockhursts ever, and Wilson later sent him the biggest fan letter imaginable.

Wilson's ritual, like Coward's, following a run-through, was, first, lunch on a white tablecloth with dry white wine: "And now the notes…" he would intone, at which point the stalwart Chuck, whom he married in a civil ceremony, would discreetly withdraw. When this occurred in 2007 at Regents Park a bubble machine operating for a children's matinee of The Adventures of Mister Fox went into action. Gradually the bubbles frothed up around the octogenarian. Wilson seemed to be oblivious as bubbles and children floated waist-high around him. Fascinated, Talbot interrupted the note-giving: "Wilson, do you see what's happening?" Came the reply, "Yes. It's rather charming." That was the man.

JULIAN MACHIN

Alexander Galbraith Wilson, composer and lyricist: born Sale 19 May 1924; died 27 August 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms