Obituary: Roger Woddis
And spurning the multitudes, she went into
private session with her leading prelates:
And she opened her mouth, and taught them,
Blessed are the rich in pocket: for theirs is the
freedom of choice.
Blessed are they that screw the poor: for they
shall be rewarded.
DURING the last years of Thatcher, some of the funniest comments on world affairs appeared in print in the form of this and other hilariously acid verses by Roger Woddis. But before that Woddis had produced a number of books down the years including Sex Guyed, The Woddis Collection, God's Worried and most recently Funny Old World (1991, with Steve Bell, the cartoonist).
Roger Woddis was long regarded as one of finest versifiers in Britain from 1970 when he succeeded 'Sagittarius' (Olga Katzin), whose political clerihews and poetry had been one of the main reasons for many people of all shades of opinion purchasing the old New Statesman and Nation in its heyday under the editorship of Kingsley Martin. Woddis continued to contribute to the Statesman when it changed its name and, to a large extent, its character. Whether he was writing in the same vein as his two illustrious predecessors - Sagittarius and Reginald Reynolds (acutely political, both of them, for most of their lives) - or dabbling in an even more philosophical vein, Woddis was supreme and carried the liberal-minded reader along with him.
A London born and bred Cockney of Polish-Jewish decscent, of slightly comical appearance, Woddis, during all the years I knew him, was great fun on and off the printed page and was a humane, generous-minded man highly professional in 'scanning' and delivering material to his newspapers on the dot. These included Punch, where comical contributions were intense and lively from such as Basil Boothroyd and Ronald Searle, and the New Statesman in both its guises as well as the Radio Times.
Although he was a perfectionist, Woddis found it far from easy always to get the tone and balance exactly correct; his verse, sweeping and damning indictments when wearing his political hat, as well as his more gently poetical output lamenting the loss of honoured comrades, carried his readers along. His stanzas often possessed the weight of the well- judged essay in the form of substantial letters and well-honed essays, allied to a natural sense of humour and ready wit in private life which never discouraged him from writing the type of damning indictments that made reactionaries squirm.
Woddis had an abiding love of 'theatre' in his heart that stemmed from the time when he worked as an amateur actor at the little Unity Theatre in King's Cross in the Thirties and Forties. There he appeared in productions that would not have disgraced the professional stage, where Bill Rowbotham (nowadays Bill Owen, the highly accomplished television comedian) produced Matchgirls and Alfie Bass was Buster, and where the great Paul Robeson was seen in Plant in the Sun, the first 'living newspaper' documentary production, which Woddis helped write. Waiting for Lefty, by Clifford Odets, also produced at Unity, helped nurture Woddis's love of drama with a point, one that he later transferred as a political satirist to the printed page.
He was in fact an actor manque who, in his twenties, instead of transferring his budding thespian talents to the professional theatre, finally used his gift for words as a flowered wit. He made verse a sharp polemical weapon, although away from the sometimes savage printed word he was the kindest and gentlest of men; the withering annihilation of the phoney, the pretentious, the snob and the despot was reserved for the printed page.
Like his column for so long featured in the Radio Times called 'Woddis On . . . ', Woddis made the fun of living his oyster, something he occasionally demonstrated when he was heard on the BBC in the Eighties, mainly in The Colour Supplement programme on Radio Four.
Roger Woddis was philosophical to the end, and before going into his last hospital wrote what must have been one of his last letters, urging me to 'rest assured that although it is most likely to be months instead of years, I can be wrong] Meanwhile I'm getting on with my life and cherishing every second.'
'After the mountebanks have been forgotten, the fakers buried and the world made sane, when all that's rich replaces all that's rotten, the word, the voice, the honour will remain.' The words were Roger Woddis's on the late, great journalist James Cameron. They could as well have been written about himself.
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