Wicked wit John Wells dies, aged 61

Click to follow
John Wells, the satirist and comic actor who co-authored the "Dear Bill" letters in Private Eye, died from cancer yesterday, at the age of 61. Kathy Marks looks at the life and times of a man who made a career out of lampooning the British establishment.

John Wells, best known for his wicked caricatures of Denis Thatcher, long-suffering consort to the former prime minister, finally succumbed yesterday to lymphoma. His brother-in-law, the journalist Alexander Chancellor, said that he had been in remission for a long period after being diagnosed more than a decade ago. Then the disease had returned "with a vengeance" last year.

Wells died at his home in Kensington, west London, leaving a wife, Teresa, 62, and a daughter, Dolly, 25.

Richard Ingrams, with whom Wells wrote Private Eye's weekly "Dear Bill" column, yesterday paid tribute to him as "a brilliant cabaret artist" and "a very sharp writer".

Lady Thatcher said she was saddened by news of his death. "He brightened up our lives so much," she said.

"Dear Bill", a series of spoof letters from Denis Thatcher to the veteran journalist Bill Deedes, his golfing companion, provided a running satirical commentary on his wife's 11 years in office.

Wells and Ingrams created the legend of Denis as a genial, gin-swilling reactionary, henpecked by his formidable wife, The Boss, convinced that the country was going to the dogs thanks to foreigners, "pinko bishops" and the "reptiles" of the press.

The letters were the inspiration for a 1980s West End play, Anyone for Denis?, in which Wells played the starring role. He said at the time that Lady Thatcher, after seeing the play, "managed to hiss `a marvellous farce' through gritted teeth". Yesterday she said: "We enjoyed it very much."

Born in Bognor Regis, in Sussex, Wells first achieved fame while still at Oxford, appearing in Late Night Final at the Edinburgh Festival.

He became a foreign language teacher at Eton, but the lure of the stage proved too strong to resist and he moved away from teaching in the early 1960s after appearing in a cabaret with Barbara Windsor.

One of the original Private Eye team in 1961, he co-wrote with Ingrams "Mrs Wilson's Diary", a fictional account of life with the then prime minister.

Wells - who listed his recreations in Who's Who simply as "walking, talking", once said: "I still have a puritanical belief that if I've been enjoying myself too much, then it's time to go off and translate an obscure German play somewhere."