Obituary: Cecil Wilson

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The Independent Online
Cecil Wilson's dramatic and film criticism reflected the man: quiet, courteous, pointed but not stinging, sane not vain, reluctant to be taken in by the latest trend from Hollywood, Sweden or France and rarely caught going out on a critical limb; but a critic to trust.

Although he must have had a wider readership on the Daily Mail from 1938 to 1990 than most of his Fleet Street contemporaries, Wilson never went about as if he knew it. He knew that criticism must be personal, yet saw no reason to introduce himself into his writing more than was necessary. Yet this unassertive, bespectacled man, whose only concession to sartorial effect was a bow tie, survived the up and downs of front-line Fleet Street journalism for over half a century on one paper.

His vigil for the Daily Mail - as, successively, Northern theatre critic, entertainments correspondent, theatre correspondent, assistant theatre and film critic, acting dramatic critic, chief dramatic critic, chief film critic and old film tipster for television viewers - began before the Second World War.

Trained, from 17, as a reporter on a South London group of local papers, Wilson landed himself a job in 1935 in the Northern office of the Daily Mail in Manchester, through the influence of a benevolent and journalistically distinguished elder brother, the drama critic A.E. Wilson.

On his first day's employment he was sent to the first night of a try- out of Noel Coward's new triple bill. The eager young Wilson scurried back to the office at the fall of the curtain in the tradition of the London dramatic critics and promptly knocked out on his typewriter a notice of To-night at 7.30.

Within the hour he breathlessly placed his copy in the night news editor's in-tray. A few minutes later, a voice growled: "What the hell's all this?"

"Well, you sent me to cover the Noel Coward opening, sir. There's my review."

"Yes, to cover the first night, not the play. We leave that to London."

"But the first night was the play . . ."

"No, no. We wanted a news story. Interviews. A back-stage angle. Something personal from Coward or Gertie Lawrence . . . Oh well, it's too late now," sighed the night news editor.

Wilson was crestfallen. He had muffed his first job.

Half an hour later the night editor came in: "What are your initials?"

"C.F.W.", answered Wilson. He presumed they would he needed for his letter of dismissal. The next day his notice came out as he wrote it, signed C.F.W.

For the next 55 years, except for war service in the RAF, Wilson trod the path which he had dreamed of following ever since his brother had inspired his ambition to join the same profession. Together the brothers made a bit of post-war Fleet Street history by working side by side as drama critics for London dailies from 1948 to 1954, the one for the Daily Mail, the other for the evening paper the Star.

Long before today's new technology, Wilson would park his car in a street near the theatre, scurry back to it at curtain-fall, scribble his notice at the wheel and then search for a public telephone from which to dictate his review to copy-typists within the hour. Among the more challenging first nights, in an era before previews when overnight reviewers had little time for reflection, were Look Back in Anger (1956) by John Osborne and The Birthday Party (1958) by Harold Pinter.

Of the then unknown John Osborne's play Wilson wrote:

They have not discovered a masterpiece, but they have discovered a dramatist of outstanding promise . . . What a brilliant play this young man will write when he has got this one out of his system and let a little sunshine into his soul.

Of Pinter's famous failure, The Birthday Party, Wilson wrote,

One snag about being an understudy is that with all those hours to kill in the dressing room you are liable to write plays like The Birthday Party. No doubt it was under the Royal Court's intellectual influence that he wrote this baffling mixture.

Wilson never claimed to be an intellectual; and after a few seasons of increasingly obscure new plays in the vogue which came to be called the New Wave, he was not altogether distressed to find himself, from 1960, making way for a provocative young newcomer named Robert Muller, whom the Mail engaged to oppose the brilliant new critic for the Daily Express, Bernard Levin.

Wilson turned to show- business gossip and theatre news for two years, which involved much travel and more congenial working conditions; and then he succeeded the Dail Mail's film critic Fred Majdalany for his last 12 years on the staff.

Adam Benedick

Cecil Frank Petch Wilson, drama and film critic: born Margate, Kent 10 September 1909; married Margaret Kelly (deceased), 1991 Grace Maggs; died Seaford, East Sussex 17 March 1997.