Once He Was Hip. Why Did We Forget Him?

The Arts


After the collapse of the Independent on Sunday I had always planned to do a book based on my ‘Invisible Ink’ columns that appeared there every week for ten years. The problem was finding the right format for it.

Now the material is being reshaped and rewritten to expand beyond its original 400-word-per-column remit into a larger, easier-to-read format, and will appear from a major publisher next year as ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’.

It won’t just feature single authors either, but will have sections on specialist areas and themes. I want go look at the whole process of how books get selected for publication. Why do some become worldwide phenomena while others, often published at the same time, languish on shelves or become merely ‘cult’?

To do this I’m going to be more selective about the authors I choose, so a great many from my vast list will be cut, and I’ll continue to publish those here.

So here’s one you may not have come across much. And as the world seems happy to line up at midnight to buy a playscript of Harry Potter, I thought we should have a playwright, Charles Wood.

Plays belong among the most ephemeral of the creative arts, and it always strikes me as odd that most revivals fall into two camps; musicals or Shakespeare. We’ve had a few reinventions like ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’, but many plays don’t get revived because they are topical, only partially well-received by the public, or too expensive to restage. When it comes to revival, Charles Wood has fallen foul of all three factors at once.

In the 1960s, an explosion of experimental writing challenged censorship and brought unpalatable subjects to public attention for the first time. Wood has frequently written about the corrupting allure of war, a subject that can infuriate and polarize audiences.

More alarmingly, his stories were placed within a surreal, densely poetic style that demanded much of audiences. About him, director Richard Eyre says ‘There is no contemporary writer who has chronicled the experience of modern war with so much authority, knowledge, compassion, wit and despair, and there is no contemporary writer who has received so little of his deserved public acclaim.’

Wood was born to acting parents in 1932. His Wikipedia entry suggests his own hand, pointing out that the theatre his father managed was ‘demolished to make way for a traffic island’. He must have enjoyed the army as he served five years with a further seven on reserve, and his first play, written for television in 1959, was ‘Prisoner and Escort’.

In the 1960s he was hip. He wrote the film scripts for the Beatles’ ‘Help’ and ‘The Knack’ (both 1965), ‘How I Won the War’ with John Lennon and Michael Crawford (1967), and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1968), a darker take on the military blunder that remains its finest screen incarnation.

He has continued writing television dramas, and 1988 saw the production of his Falklands play ‘Tumbledown’ with Colin Firth, which once again proved how much the subject of war remains controversial.

Wood’s plays like ‘Jingo’, ‘Dingo’ and ‘Veterans’ are nothing short of extraordinary, and like Shakespeare, they are tricky on the page but spring to life in the theatre. Dialogue is distilled into non-naturalistic poetry that must be hard to perform, and even the elegant stage directions help to shape his epic prose poems about the demise of the British Empire.

Oberon has now published three volumes of his dazzling wordplay and I can’t recommend them highly enough to anyone interested in the sizzling power of language. He remains a true writer’s writer.

6 comments on “Once He Was Hip. Why Did We Forget Him?”

  1. Vivienne says:

    Another book for my Christmas list, although I still think Invisible Ink is a perfect title.

    Having never heard of Charles Wood, will have to look him up too. But ‘The Knack’ was the most wonderful film and seemed really to capture the 60s. Not sure of the exact date, but maybe Bryant & May could drop into the cinema to catch it when they go back in time.

  2. Roger says:

    “H – monologues before burning cities” is another extra-ordinary play. As you say the problem with plays in general more performances and the size of Wood’s casts and need for special effects makes him completely inappropriate for these parsimonious times.

    Another site dedicated to well, neglected books: http://neglectedbooks.com/ It also has a long list of sources for neglected books, including you.
    http://littleprofessor.typepad.com/ specialises in justly neglected books.

  3. Craig says:

    How much difference will there be between this new edition and the one you had published through Strange Attractor? I imagine there will be a variety of different authors featured in this new one?

  4. Vincent C says:

    The news about the Book of Forgotten Authors is excellent. Thank you for the update – I look forward to the book itself. But as for those authors who do not make the cut, perhaps you would consider a separate book?

  5. Vincent C says:

    Apologies. I should have said congratulations originally but failed to do so and would like to remedy my failure. Congratulations on your new book.

  6. Helen Jones says:

    I’d forgotten about Tumbledown, an excellent film, very moving.
    Colin before all that Mr Darcy nonsense.

Comments are closed.