Obituary: Lord Willis
Thursday 24 December 1992
Willis had tried his hand at a wide variety of jobs connected with amateur theatre (the Unity Theatre Club) and journalism (the old Daily Worker - for which he was drama critic during the 1940s) before the television loomed large and Dixon of Dock Green made him a name almost overnight, in 1953. At Unity his plays in the war years - Buster (1943) among them - and working with such talents as Alfie Bass, Bill Owen and Vida Hope, sharpened his theatrical sense. Much later, such pieces from his pen as No Trees in the Street (St James's, 1948) and Hot Summer Night (New Theatre, 1958) gave him prominence in the theatre as well. He displayed versatility in many fields of activity - as a novelist, as well as an adaptor of other people's work.
In Dixon of Dock Green, Dixon, played by Jack Warner, was a genial flat-footed copper on the beat, to whom everybody brought their troubles to be solved and who himself solved many a domestic working-class crisis in his own inimitable way without being asked. He was a 'cosy' policeman, so soft and gentle, understanding, rugged and wise, that when he was first invented he became a hero for many and a good piece of public relations, excellent recruiting propaganda for the police force.
Each episode was prefaced by the genial PC Dixon - 'as genial as any sucking dove', was how one television critic described him - who was later promoted to Station Sergeant, and in every episode introduced himself with the greeting to millions of viewers of 'Evenin' all'. With Jack Warner's genial appeal as a popular copper, the character was as soft as any feather bed and some sceptics thought him to be - although in a minority it must be said - as more of a booby than a bobby. Could such a chap have filled out a charge sheet? The more sceptical viewer wonders, but viewers en masse were not sceptical in those days.
But Willis had arrived as a popular television writer and was even made the subject of a This is Your Life programme to prove it. Dixon was the first British police series to be screened and it was only later when such writers and producers as Allan Prior and Troy Kennedy Martin came along with their tough policemen in Z Cars and Softly Softly that a balance was achieved in the dramatic portrayal of the police on television.
In creating Dixon, Willis said that before Dixon there had been no saintly police on television, and he had decided to rectify the omission by doing a non-violent series that concentrated on marriage rather than murder and trying to make it documentary as well. He afterwards recalled this fact and for months and even years it became a talking-point - in the pub, over the kitchen table and occasionally in the drawing-room. Between 1954 and May 1976, 367 episodes were shown. It presented nevertheless to the less gullible members of the fast-growing viewing public a rose-tinted view of the police force, for already the television screens were being commandeered by tales of thuggery, police corruption and violence when cops who were crooks changed course.
In the succeeding years the 'sentimental' Willis also changed course and in such plays on the television as Woman in a Dressing Gown, The Young and the Guilty and Look in any Window he showed more than a hint of steel and lost much of that former flabbiness that some detected in his writer's make-up. Now his style was closer to that of the successful American television writer of the same period Paddy Chayevsky, who had made a huge hit on American television with similar documentary-type plays, some of which, like The Bachelor Party and Marty, had been commercial as well as artistic successes.
A number of Willis's television plays, including Woman in a Dressing Gown and The Young and the Guilty, were adapted for the screen. I directed Willis's socially conscious Hot Summer Night, one of the first pieces about relationships between black and white people, in the West End when it was presented at the New Theatre by Emile Littler in 1958. The acting - Joan Miller, John Slater, Andree Melly, Joyce Howard and Harold Scott - in a one-set problem play reaped a fine press in a limited run and Willis was treated with more respect as a stage playwright than he had ever been before. When the play was adapted as a film as Flame in the Streets in 1961, it received a poor reaction.
From that time on Willis reverted to churning work out, much of it said to be based upon his relations and acquaintances. Out of an enormous oeuvre he was known in the theatre for Doctor in the House (1956) and Doctor at Sea (1961), adaptations of the novels by Richard Gordon, and in the cinema for such pieces as Trouble in Store (1953), One Good Turn (1954), Up to his Neck (1954) and Our Miss Fred (1972). His television series included Sergeant Cork (1963), Crimes of Passion (1970-72) and Hunter's Walk (1973) and he adapted three of his novels for radio, including The Left-Handed Sleeper (1982).
Willis produced two volumes of autobiography, Whatever Happened to Tom Mix (1970) and, 20 years later, another autobiographical essay with a title dedicated to his best-known character's most endearing observation, Evenin' All (1991).
Edward Henry Willis, writer, born London 13 January 1918, created 1963 Baron Willis, President International Writers' Guild 1967-69, Director World Wide Pictures 1967-92, Vitalcall Ltd 1983-92, married 1944 Audrey Hale (one son, one daughter), died Chislehurst Kent 22 December 1992.
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