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Michael Coveney: Sandy Wilson bows out in style, still clinging to the past

The composer of The Boy Friend displayed 'taste, charm and style in every lyric and bar of music that he wrote'

No judgement would have wounded Sandy Wilson more than Noël Coward's on his sequel to The Boy Friend, Divorce Me, Darling!: "Some good tunes, but pretty dismal on the whole."

It so happens I disagree with Coward to such an extent that I have often thought that the sequel was superior to the 1953 original, especially so when Lilianne Montevecchi knocked us dead with her coruscating version of "Blondes for Danger" in a Chichester revival. But it's certainly true that Wilson had a great problem in repeating his first popular success.

There was a time when The Boy Friend was performed somewhere in the world every two minutes. For all I know, it still is. It was an absolute smash, running for five years in the West End, a record at the time, and although there have been some galumphing London revivals - and the Ken Russell film, which Sandy loathed, is enjoyable for all the wrong reasons, though Twiggy is delightful - I've never failed to be beguiled by it.

The last revival in Regent's Park was particularly good. Sandy, impeccably dressed as always, in a cream summer suit and Panama hat, sat behind me with his life partner, Chak Yui. As I extracted my notebook and pen from my jacket pocket, he leant forward and hissed: "Put that f—-ing notebook away you little ----." I ignored him. The review duly appeared in the Observer the following Sunday and he rang me before lunch to thank me fulsomely for it.

Not everyone is as keen on The Boy Friend as I am. I think it's as perfect as Fabergé egg, an exemplary concoction in style and scale, and as good a score as those of the 1920s musicals it so affectionately parodies. Simon Callow, on the other hand, once described me as "a friend of the fringe with a surprising weakness for Sandy Wilson" (although this was long before Simon himself came out as a fan of Ivor Novello, about whom Sandy wrote a beautiful book of homage) and Richard Eyre hated The Boy Friend so much - he recounts in his memoir, Utopia and Other Places - that he gave up acting altogether while appearing in a 1965 revival at the Leicester Phoenix: "...I found its winsome melodies, its camp, smug, self-regarding milieu, as alien to me as an Aztek sacrifice, and at least as repulsive." So he directed Mary Poppins instead.

Sandy, like Coward, Cole Porter and Lionel Bart, wrote book, lyrics and music, and like Andrew Lloyd Webber today, found the "book" part of any musical the biggest problem. Although he scored an artistic bulls-eye - though never a great success - with his exquisite version of Ronald Firbank's Valmouth, brilliantly revived at Chichester in 1982 by John Dexter - he simply couldn't find anything else to write a musical about.

"He was a prickly and 'difficult' man.. but immensely gifted and clever"

Divorce Me, Darling! in 1964 was followed by a tame compilation show, As Dorothy Parker Once Said, in 1969, an oddball collector's item, His Monkey Wife, in 1971, and finally— such a long time ago! - Aladdin in 1979, the inaugural pantomime of the newly re-built and re-furbished Lyric, Hammersmith, with a great cast including Aubrey Woods and Elizabeth Welch. Welch was an idol for Sandy, one of his personal galère of musical comedy stars who included Julie Andrews (who made her name in The Boy Friend on Broadway), Hermione Gingold, Beatrice Lillie, Sally Ann Howes, Mary Ellis and Olive Gilbert.

He lived with Chak in a beautiful South Kensington apartment and a country house near Taunton in Somerset called "Valmouth". He was a prickly and "difficult" man - more like Richard Rodgers in that regard than, say, Lionel Bart, both of whom he admired - but immensely gifted and clever. He was fairly reactionary in his show business preferences, but he'd often surprise you with a paean of praise for a new play at the Royal Court, loved classical ballet and American modern dance, and subscribed to the left-wing magazine the New Statesman for many years.

His autobiography, I Could Be Happy, which ends, significantly, with The Boy Friend opening on Broadway, is a masterpiece of background and build-up to the destiny of his "little" musical, which began life so tentatively in the bowels of the Players' Theatre in Charing Cross. And his Christmas cards, hand-crafted each year with harlequins and pierrots - and "poor little rich girls" posed exquisitely in moonscapes with balloons and streamers - will be a permanent reminder to his friends and colleagues of the taste, charm and style in every lyric and bar of music that he wrote.