An overview of Charles Wood’s television career
Charles Wood is a dramatist whose work spans the mediums of stage, television and film. The subjects and styles of his television work vary enormously, with comedy rubbing shoulders with harrowing drama, but stories about war, soldiers and militarism in general, all of which hold a particular fascination for him, recur. Although Wood is far from being simply a ‘war’ writer, it is perhaps his stories of soldiers and armed conflict in which his individual voice is most clear.
Wood was born into a theatrical family in 1932. He hated acting, which was a duty expected of him in the family business, and the insecurity of the lifestyle. He was more at home as a scenic designer and painter. He left the family theatre for art school but, according to his wife, lost his grant and recognised that he wasn’t moving towards a shining future as an artist.1 In 1950 he joined the army “to get some sort of order into my life [… and] because I liked the idea of being a soldier”.2 He’d been fascinated by the Second World War as a child and thought it inevitable he would end up in the armed forces (National Service was active at the time, so by joining voluntarily he was only pre-empting his automatic call-up later). Having joined (choosing the 17th/21st Lancer armoured regiment), Wood decided he wanted to become a general, and as such needed to win an officer’s commission. He failed the selection board and instead went on to reach the rank of corporal. He spent much of his army career as a tank radio operator with the British army of the Rhine, but later became an instructor back in Britain. He left the army after his five contracted years. “I got tired”, he later recalled.3 Even so, he remained a reservist for seven years.
Wood’s army experience left him a pacifist for a number of years. By 1975 he had modified his stance slightly, stating: “I admire the amateur soldier, fighting to defend his home: but I can’t admire what I was, someone hired to do the job – a pretty nasty job when it reaches its ultimate conclusion. I just dislike intensely the trade of killing.”4 His experiences in the army, particularly his close association with long-serving professional soldiers, and these ethical concerns, informed much of his later dramatic writing. More recently he has articulated his drive to examine not just the trade of soldiering but also the grounds on which they deployed:
What we must understand is precisely what it means when somebody says we are now going to go to war with another country, because that war may be considered just but as soon as the first shot is fired it becomes unjust. That is the character of war. As soon as you start killing justice goes out the window.5
After leaving the army, Wood worked in a missile manufacturing plant for a year, then spent 18 months as a commercial artist in Canada before returning to Britain. In 1957 he joined Joan Littlewood’s influential Stratford East theatre as a stage manager. He went on to tour repertory theatres at Colwyn Bay, Worthing and Wimbledon. The pay was poor so that he took freelance work as a scenic artist and later went to work for the Evening Post in Bristol. He was inspired to write while sat in front of the television one night, having suddenly recognized that there was a market and “good money” to be made in television.6 From his time at his parents’ repertory theatres, where he would see each play in nine performances in the space of a week, Wood felt he had learned something of what makes a play work.7 He directed into his early work his fears about rearmament and his feeling that “we were not working as hard as we should towards peace”.8
Wood wrote his first play, Prisoner and Escort, in 1959, partly in reaction to the popular ITV sitcom The Army Game (1957-61), which made absurd comedy from the lives of reluctant National Service recruits.9 Wood’s approach to a similar subject was to be more incisive and disturbing, if not necessarily any less farcical. The play was about a young private soldier being escorted by a bullying corporal on a train journey to his courts martial. The soldier was guilty of urinating on the boots of a visiting German officer during parade, motivated by the deaths of family members during the world wars. Into this situation comes a permissive young woman, provoking sexual and racial jealousies amongst the soldiers. Wood aimed to sell the play to television but it was first produced for BBC radio in 1962 and was subsequently staged in the theatre the following year as part of Cockade, a trio of short plays by Wood about militarism. We’ll return to Prisoner and Escort later, as it was beaten to realisation on television by two new plays by Wood.
Wood’s first broadcast television play was 1961’s Traitor in a Steel Helmet, about the clash of two soldiers, one a sensitive private, the other a gruff sergeant, with a recluse named ‘Sailor’, who they find living in the cellar of a derelict farmhouse on a tank training ground.10 Ultimately, Sailor is accidentally killed during a live firing exercise. “The moral is plain -”, wrote The Times, “no one can contract out of society; the helmet itself is a sign that its wearer is under authority, and modern warfare respects no man’s principles.”11 The Guardian called it “turgid symbolism” and neither paper concluded in the play’s favour.12
In his review, the Daily Mirror’s Richard Sear noted Wood’s “authentic Army jargon, sprinkled with thinly disguised four letter words.”13 This type of convincing dialogue characterises Wood’s military dramas. After five years in the army, he was naturally well acquainted with the vocabulary of soldiers, and had insight into their thought processes. “I understand the motives and reasons why soldiers do things”, he reported in 1975, also suggesting that not only did he like soldiers but that “I still regard myself as one in some ways.”14
Wood’s next broadcast play, Not at All (1962), was a very different piece.15 Recorded in the BBC’s new Bristol studios, where Wood was then working as a scenic artist, it was a comedy drama about two inhibited advertising artists who go on holiday to the Isle of Wight in the hope of finding romance. The Observer’s Maurice Richardson found it amusing and admired Wood’s characterisation, but noted a “discrepancy between the dreamlike parts of the script and the realistic ones.” He also observed that the fantasy elements were “of sudden not un-Pinterish menace.”16 This likening of Wood’s style to that of Harold Pinter, or the other proponents of the ‘comedy of menace’ school of drama, is one that recurred in these early stages of his writing career.
1964 saw Prisoner and Escort finally make it to television courtesy of ABC’s popular Armchair Theatre drama anthology.17 The play was given a startlingly unusual production by director Philip Saville, who eschewed conventional sets for a series of scaffolding boxes and moving screens within the otherwise bare studio and used sound and lighting effects to suggest locations. Calling it “grotesque” and “horrific”, the British army’s public relations director complained that Prisoner and Escort, and other plays like it, were costing the army new recruits.18 Years later, Wood acknowledged that his work tended to do the army a disservice: “every time I write a play the army takes a caning. It isn’t terribly fair. But at the same time it’s honest: and they’re tough enough to take it.”19
Wood’s next play, Drill Pig (1964), was another study of the military mentality.20 The Observer suggested it would cause a greater stir than Prisoner and Escort, reporting that the Independent Television Authority had “inspected” it in advance of transmission and “found it fit for viewer consumption – just.”21 Drill Pig was a black comedy about a young man, Bates, who joins the army desperate to escape his sugar-coated civilian life with his stupid wife and her mollycoddling parents. He comes to believe he is a born soldier and that anything is preferable to having to live outside of the army. The Times wrote that “The little parable was developed in a teasing, elliptical way by Mr. Wood: the contrasted languages of the two different worlds Bates lives in were evoked with particular skill and vividness, and the complicated structure, with a visible narrator drifting in and out of the action … was remarkably effective”.22 Other critics were less impressed.
Wood ended 1964 rather less controversially, writing and narrating a documentary for the BBC called Last Summer by the Seaside, about the more unusual seaside events of the previous summer, including the Mods vs Rockers riots.23 For much of the rest of the 1960s Wood’s efforts were in stage and film work. He had particular success in the theatre with his blistering myth-busting Second World War play Dingo, which debuted in 1967, having been planned for a number of years, and H, in 1967, about General Havelock’s suppression of the Indian mutiny in 1857. Wood also provided scripts for a series of feature films released during the decade, including the Beatles vehicle Help! (1965) and war subjects How I Won the War (1967), The Long Day’s Dying (1968) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).
Although concentrating his efforts outside of television during the late 1960s, Wood did contribute Drums Along the Avon to the BBC’s Wednesday Play in 1967.24 Directed by James MacTaggart, it was a perplexing montage of characters, situations and documentary elements drawn from Bristol’s immigrant communities, with little in the way of structure or narrative. Most famously, amongst its comedic sequences it featured Leonard Rossiter ‘blacking up’ and trying to live like a Sikh. Writing in The Guardian, Stanley Reynolds called it “a bright, ingenious, entertaining, and sophisticated piece of art.”25 Wood also wrote A Bit of a Holiday, for The Root of all Evil? (1968-69) anthology in 1969, which we’ll return to later.26
While Wood remained active in the theatre, a string of television dramas followed in the 1970s. The first of these was also perhaps the strangest. The Emergence of Anthony Purdy Esq, Farmer’s Labourer was an experimental piece starring Freddie Jones, about which little else is known, bar that it was made by Harlech, the ITV company for the South Wales and Western England region, and was ITV’s drama entry at the Monte Carlo TV festival.27 It was not widely networked, which is perhaps unsurprising in light of the comment by The Guardian’s critic Nancy Banks-Smith that it was “completely incomprehensible to anyone east of Somerset”.28 In 1971 Wood was reported to be the “originator and editor” of HTV children’s serial The Pretenders (1972), about the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, which he wrote with various writers from the west of England.29 However, his name doesn’t appear on the programme’s credits so his true level of involvement remains unclear.
Between 1969 and 1974, Wood wrote four TV plays which form a loose quartet, each dealing with the comedy of writers, their work and family. The previously mentioned A Bit of a Holiday was about playwright Gordon Maple, played by George Cole, who is in Rome with his wife Mabel (Gwen Watford), to work on a screenplay for an historical epic, and his struggle to deal with the ever move tasteless suggestions of his producer. Banks-Smith admired Wood’s “extremely rich and funny script”.30 The Maples returned in A Bit of an Adventure (1974), again played by Cole and Watford, to deal with a visiting French film director insistent that Gordon will work with him.31 “It was not a brilliant play”, wrote Hazel Holt in The Stage and Television Today, “but there was brilliance in it.”32 Holt admired the comedic performances and Wood’s “involuted and oblique” dialogue.33
Between these two plays, another pair was produced using similar characters and scenarios. None of the same characters recurred, although George Cole did appear as another writer in the first. A Bit of Family Feeling (1971) was a comedy about playwright Peter, his wife, and a visit from his parents.34 Writing in The Times, Stanley Reynolds reported that the play featured “some of the funniest, clearest, and crispest dialogue we have heard on television for a long time.”35 In A Bit of Vision (1972), mid-life crises and marital discord erupt when writer Stuart and his wife visit and old friend and his family in the country.36 The Guardian’s Peter Fiddick found it “a splendidly inconsequential bag of chat, jokes behaviour, farce and theatrical tricks”.37
Clearly Wood had an affinity for stories featuring writers as characters and felt there was more comedy mileage in Gordon and Mable Maple, as played by Cole and Watford. They gained their own comedy series, Don’t Forget to Write! (1977-79), this time on the BBC, which ran for two series. It had a large autobiographical element, with Gordon’s struggles being Wood’s reaction to the frustration, rage and boredom of being a prolific writer who saw little of his work produced.38
Death or Glory Boy (1974) was a trilogy of semi-autobiographical television plays about an enthusiastic young army recruit in the writer’s old regiment in 1950.39 Wood’s protagonist joins up and finds himself the only enthusiastic recruit amongst a squad of National Servicemen. He strives for an officer’s commission, despite his lack of a public school education and the reaction of his fellow recruits. The Stage and Television Today’s Patrick Campbell was decidedly unimpressed with the first in the trilogy, finding it “predictable” and “infinitely boring.”40 The same year saw his teleplay Mützen Ab!, which tackled the unusual subject of a Nazi-hunters’ party.41 The Nazi-hunters are celebrating the discovery of a particular war criminal in South America, only to learn of a rival candidate in Munich.
Wood moved away from his military preoccupation for a period during the late-1970s and early-1980s, scripting a diverse selection of television and theatre plays. Do As I Say (1977), a BBC Play for Today (1970-84), was an extremely black comedy about the callousness and self-interest of people’s reactions to the rape of a suburban housewife.42 When Daphne (Angela Down) is raped in her home, she finds her neighbours are only interested in their own families and the effect of the crime on property prices if it becomes known. They tell her how to feel and dissuade her from reporting the crime, one suggesting it was the “nicest” rape ever. The Daily Express found “wit and sympathy” in Wood’s handling of this difficult subject while Alan Coren in The Times called it “a meticulously constructed, delicately balanced, finely wrought piece of repellent ugliness.43
Named after a flower, Love-Lies-Bleeding (1977) was a play was about the dinner party hosted by a trendy architect and his wife as part of a dining club.44 For their star guest they invite a right-wing political leader, resulting in a bloodbath.
1983’s Red Monarch, a film for Channel 4 directed by Jack Gold, was written by Wood from the satirical short stories of Russian writer and ex-KGB agent Yuri Krotkov.45 It was a farcical black comedy about the later years of Stalin’s life. Both Colin Blakely and David Suchet played their respective roles of Stalin and his chief henchman Beria in thick Irish accents. No political parallels were intended, however. Wood reported that “Stalin and Beria were both Georgians and we decided we needed a different accent to put that across. Colin is Irish so we stuck with that.”46 Philip French wrote in The Observer that “Sadly, this ambitious film doesn’t come off – the jokes are not sufficiently pointed, the political insights lack precision.”47
Wood was no stranger to contentious subjects but his 1988 BBC drama Tumbledown proved to be explosive.48 It was a feature-length filmed drama (indeed, it had started out life some years earlier as a feature film) dramatising the experience of Guards officer Robert Lawrence’s experiences in the Falklands war and afterwards, having been left partially disabled by a sniper’s shot to the head during the assault on Mount Tumbledown.49 It was Lawrence’s contention that the enemy sniper had been doing his job but that the British establishment had failed to do the same, giving him inadequate care following his injury.
Tumbledown was certainly provocative and powerful drama, with Wood’s insightful script –benefiting from his empathy with Lawrence and with professional soldiers more generally – sympathetically directed by Richard Eyre. There was no romanticising of combat, with all its brutality apparent. At one point, Lawrence is seen repeatedly stabbing a pleading Argentinean soldier in the face with a broken bayonet. It’s only when Lawrence stops acting like a ruthless professional soldier – shouting “isn’t this fun?” while waving a rifle in each hand – that he is shot through the head, a moment left for nearly the final moment of the drama. Earlier sequences showed the aftermath, with Lawrence a low priority casualty given his negligible survival chances, the patronising attitude of army medical staff and later the woeful support provided for his rehabilitation.
While in production in 1987, the drama ran into its first controversy when the BBC’s postponement of Ian Curteis’s The Falklands Play was publicly attributed by the author to alleged BBC bias.50 Whereas Curteis’s play broadly supported the Conservative government’s handling of the war, Wood’s did not, and the production of Tumbledown alone was alleged in some quarters to confirm the BBC’s suspected bias. The Ministry of Defence had already refused any co-operation after the substantial rewrites they had requested were not undertaken.51 Wood told The Times that, in writing Tumbledown, he’d “avoided any political stance”.52 However, he reported to the Daily Mail that “It has a deep political message that war is futile. The subversive message is think twice before you elect to serve in an army … Is it right to ask people to die, particularly for something like the Falklands? It didn’t seem right to me … I want people to start questioning what it is we did …”53
A greater storm of protest erupted upon transmission, with much of the comment dividing down political lines. One Conservative MP suggested it was “another example of the BBC stabbing the nation in the back”.54 Another found it “confused, ugly and foul-mouthed”, though that was surely the point, these being the realities of war that Wood wanted to depict.55 Unsurprisingly, the Opposition were more supportive of the drama’s inherent criticism of the government. Meanwhile, the press went to town. The Daily Mail found Tumbledown a “failure” and “ghoulish”, lacking “focus and direction”.56 The Evening Standard gave two opinions, one that it was “technically superb, harrowing, unsentimental”, the other that it was “very long and often tedious”.57 The Times thought Tumbledown “fiercely compelling”.58 The Scotsman considered it “masterly” and “subversive” in the manner of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry.59 It went on to win the Best Single Drama BAFTA award and the Royal Television Society’s Best Single Play award, amongst others.
The 1980s and ‘90s saw Wood move into series and serialised drama. He dramatised Gerald Durrell’s novel My Family and Other Animals (1987) as a ten-part serial and wrote an episode of Inspector Morse (1987-2000) based on a Colin Dexter story.60 Wood reported that he’d been so impressed with Inspector Morse that he’d asked to write an episode but got into “a terrible mess”, with “clues left over”, and only reached a final draft with the encouragement of producer Kenny McBain.61 One of the few one-off plays he wrote in this period was the mystery drama Dust to Dust (1985), about a widow who, obsessed with ritualistic murder, advertises for a gentleman friend.62 Another was England, My England (1995), a biographical drama about the largely unknown life of composer Henry Purcell, which had been started by his friend John Osborne before his death.63
Wood returned to his fascination with war subjects and soldier characters in several projects towards the end of his television career. His BBC television film A Breed of Heroes (1994), adapted from the novel by ex-soldier Alan Judd, was the story of a young British Army officer in Belfast during the ‘troubles’.64 In his Kavanagh QC (1995-99) episode Mute of Malice a British Army chaplain accused of killing his brother refuses to speak, or is unable to do so, perhaps traumatised by his experiences in the Bosnian war.65 Wood also wrote three episodes of Sharpe (1993-2007), from the novels by Bernard Cornwall about the adventures of the eponymous British Army officer and his rifles company in the Napoleonic wars. He also wrote an episode of the Second World War serial Monsignor Renard (2000) set in occupied France in 1940.66 Wood has not worked in television since, but has co-written the films Iris (2001) and The Other Man (2008) with director Richard Eyre.
With such a varied body of work, it’s hard to draw any solid conclusions about Wood’s television canon. However, it’s notable how humour runs through all his scripts, sometimes openly but sometimes hidden beneath a bleaker surface, and often very dark in tone. In such grim subjects as racism, rape and war, Wood pinpoints an absurdity that makes for sometimes uncomfortable comedy. An element of autobiography can also be seen in much of his best work. This is obvious in his many dramas about soldiers, but his time as a commercial artists and Bristol resident inform other works, while his many years of frustration as a writer are dramatised in Don’t Forget to Write! and a handful of television plays featuring writers. Perhaps Wood’s greatest talent as a writer is his gift for earthy, real-sounding yet witty and expressive dialogue, seemingly learned from the unusual combination of an exposure to theatre life at an early age and then immersion in the world of soldiers, with their particular slang, jargon and rhythms of speech.
Whilst Wood will likely be remembered best as a stage dramatist, it is arguably in television that he has had the greatest success. With its masses of domestic viewers, television has provided Wood his largest audience, and it is the medium in which his work has been most frequently produced. Indeed, with productions as diverse as single plays, literary adaptations and episodes of popular series, Wood has proved himself capable of straddling a variety of television drama genres in a way few dramatists have managed. It is sad that his television work is now largely inaccessible to the modern viewer and, with a few notable exceptions, seemingly forgotten.
© Oliver Wake, 2014
With thanks to Nick Cooper for research assistance.
Originally posted: 31 May 2014.