Monday, 1 September 2014


News comes of the death of British composer and playwright, Sandy Wilson, aged 90.

Wilson is best-remembered for his enduringly popular musical, The Boy Friend, written in 1953 as an affectionate, light-as-air spoof on the theatrical musicals popular in the 1920s.

Beginning life at London's Players' Theatre Club, The Boy Friend opened in the West End, in an expanded form, in 1954 and ran for 2,078 performances, making it, briefly, the third-longest running musical in West End or Broadway history after Chu Chin Chow and Oklahoma! until its record was broken by Salad Days.

The Broadway production, opening in 1954, starred Julie Andrews as Polly Browne, the central character who is search of the eponymous boy friend. It was Andrews' American debut and established her true star potential.

I interviewed Sandy Wilson, a few years ago, when I was researching and writing a BBC Radio 2 series on 'The Musical' . To be precise, I interviewed him twice!

The first 'attempt' (that's the only way I can describe it) did not go well: he was ill-at-ease, took offence at some questions, baulked at answering others, was generally reluctant to discuss the musical genre in general and refused point-blank to comment on the contemporary scene. In short, the interview was a complete and utter disaster. The man who'd written the song 'I Could Be Happy With You' was obviously anything but – and nor was I!

At the end of this uncomfortable encounter, Wilson grudgingly signed my copy of his autobiography (ironically, under the circumstances, entitled, I Could Be Happy) adding the inscription: "Well, I tried!"

The following day, I decided I wasn't going to leave it at that... I found a period greetings card in the shape of a fan featuring '20s 'flappers' in a carnival setting, wrote an abject note asking whether he might possibly consider giving me a "second chance", because I couldn't possibly conceive of our making a series of programmes for the BBC on the musical without his involvement.

He instantly replied, graciously saying that the failure of the interview was entirely his fault and, yes, he'd "be happy to try again"! So, we did: he was a pussycat and I knew what pitfalls NOT to fall into! The interview was a success and our second meeting ended with his sitting at the piano playing me some of his numbers...

Those two visits to Sandy Wilson's London flat will, for completely different reasons, long live in my memory...

In 1971, The Boy Friend was filmed by Ken Russell, starring Twiggy and Christopher Gable. The movie proved to be less about spoofing 1920s stage shows as the Busby Berkeley film musicals of the 1930s and, to Wilson's understandable chagrin, included songs written by other composers including 'You Are My Lucky Star' from Singin' in the Rain. But for all that, it had all the usual, unpredictable Russell extravagances, some brilliantly staged numbers and a top-flight cast giving terrific, high-energy performances.

Here, from that film, are the legendary Tommy Tune with Antonia Ellis and the Boys and Girls singing and dancing their way through Sandy Wilson's effervescent 'Won't You Charleston With Me?'

Alexander Galbraith "Sandy" Wilson