If you know Lennon, you’re going to know McCartney, and if you don’t know Morecambe, it’s pretty much a given you won’t know Wise. There are precious few joint operations where, despite equal status on the playbill, one partner is a household name and the other an obscurity, especially when the work itself remains vital.
Willans falls into that category. The name alone draws a blank even from people who know and love his work. Understandable, if tragic.
Willans was born in 1911 and schooled at Blundell where he later acted as a master. Good background for his later work. During the Second World War, he served as a sub-lieutenant on the HMS Peony (Flower Class corvettes, a category of war ship only the ever garden conscious British could come up with). A second tour of duty was an aircraft carrier that spent a good period of time in the US getting repairs.
He had already published two novels by 1939 and was writing regularly for Punch and other magazines. He had a few early novels as well, slight stuff compared to early Evelyn Waugh. Milder in tone, less caustic. He was bemused and entertained by his fellow man but seemed to find their existence punishment enough without having to draw any serious knives. Crisis Cottage, a British version of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a study of Anglo-American naval relations during the cold war, Admiral on Horseback.
He might have disappeared with the likes of John Wain had he not met Ronald Searle in 1953. Searle was coming off the success of St Trinians. As early as 1939, Willans had tossed off a few bits and pieces about a precocious and suspicious schoolboy named the Terror of St Custards. The combination was fertile, and the cast grew to include dubious masters and contemptible schoolmates such as the Fotherington-Thomas (“Hello Clouds, Hello Sky!”) Sales of the first book were admirable. Three others followed, and also sold well.
Willans created an entire vocabulary of atrociously spelled catch phrases (“as any fule kno”) to delight his followers and baffle everyone else. He it was who coined the word Hogwarts as the title of a Latin play performed by the students for the enjoyment of the masters. This fairly inspired throw-away was, of course, later filched by She Who Must Not Be Named for the benefit of some boy wizard who would have been labeled an oik, if not a bit of a Fothering-Thomas, and not have lasted five minutes at St. Custards.
All this, mind, before Monty Python, before Peter Cook, before even the Goon Show.
Willans and Searle knew enough to stop when the joke had run its course. Another collaboration, The Dog’s Ears Book, was less successful. Still, after some commercial work (The Wit of Winston Churchill and an admiring biography of a still young Peter Ustinov (Willans admired his sense of wordplay) Willans had done well enough to turn to writing full time.
Willans, unlike, say, Waugh, was absent of malice. He accepted human nature for what it was, probably immutable and certainly entertaining. Audiences have no problem with this, even if critics are foiled in their desire for blood. Some of the jokes are topical, but for the most part they are of a piece, that piece being a wholly invented world instantly recognizable, eminently revistable, more Wodehouse than Waugh. Who is Fotherington-Tomas if not the offspring of Gussy Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett? What is his take on St Custards if not a sightly more manic version of Sir Harry Flashman’s take on Harrow of Tom Brown’s School Days?
Sneer if you like, and plenty are happy to do so, but he and Searle together spread more good cheer across the planet than any number of Booker Prize winning authors you’d care to name.
Willans enjoyed one year only as a full time writer. He died of a heart attack at age 47, criminally young, and so was eclipsed by his collaborator who lived on to 91.