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.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
News
peopleCampaign 'to help protect young people across the world'
Life and Style
tech

News
people'When I see people who look totally different, it brings me back to that time in my life'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Additional Learning Support Tutor: Employability

£17662 - £21100 per annum: Randstad Education Sheffield: Additional Learning S...

Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.Net, ASP.Net - Kingston, Sur

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.N...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: The Job:SECONDARY teachers need...

Behaviour Support Work

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Behaviour Support WorkerThe JobTo...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker