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Wood, Duncan (1925-1997)

Producer, Director, Executive

Main image of Wood, Duncan (1925-1997)

Along with his contemporary, Dennis Main Wilson, Duncan Wood is a contender for the title of the most important and influential comedy producer/director to have worked in British television. Like Wilson, Wood was a firm believer in the importance of the writer. Once a script had been approved, it was not to be deviated from, a policy that earned him, according to Barry Took, "God-like status with scriptwriters."

Joining BBC Radio Bristol as a trainee sound engineer in 1941, Wood returned to the station as an engineer in 1948 following war service. Having run dance bands before and during the war, his talents came to the attention of Frank Gillard, head of the BBC's Western Region, who appointed him as a radio variety producer in the early 1950s.

In 1953 he made the transition to television. One of his first (if not the first) productions was Janet Brown (BBC, tx. 10/7/1953), a fifteen-minute showcase of the comedian/impressionist's talents. Wood worked on a range of programming in this early period, not just comedy. Variety and music shows included Say it with Music (BBC, 1957), starring Jack Payne, and, for a short period in early 1958, Six-Five Special (BBC, 1957-58), working alongside Dennis Main Wilson.

But it was in comedy that Wood was to specialise. Early comedy productions included Great Scott - It's Maynard (BBC, 1955-56), a sketch series featuring Terry Scott and Bill Maynard; the Terry-Thomas series Strictly T-T (BBC, 1956); and the Peter Sellers special, The April 8th Show (BBC, tx. 1/4/1958), co-scripted by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, two writers with whom Wood was to become closely associated. As Wilson steered the careers of Galton and Simpson through radio, so Wood did likewise in television. The result was some of Britain's finest situation comedy.

Wilson had produced the first four series of the hugely popular Hancock's Half-Hour on BBC radio from 1954 to 1957; Wood's television adaptation of Hancock's Half-Hour (BBC, 1956-60), followed by Hancock (BBC, 1961), repeated that success. Both series were the finest examples of television comedy that had yet been produced in Britain, elevating the reputations of all concerned and raising Wood to the forefront of comedy producers.

Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74), which Wood developed and produced up to 1970, was another landmark in the development of British situation comedy. Galton and Simpson were here working with two straight actors, Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell, as opposed to comedians or comedy actors. The result was a milestone in its writing and its performances, a sitcom that was often as heart-rendingly poignant as it was funny.

Steptoe and Son had derived from 'The Offer' (BBC, tx. 5/1/1962), a Wood-produced episode for Comedy Playhouse (1961-74) . Galton and Simpson were the sole writers of the first two series of Comedy Playhouse, between 1961 and 1963, with Wood producing seven of their sixteen episodes.

He also produced the first and most of the second series of Citizen James (BBC, 1960-62), created by Galton and Simpson for Sidney James following his departure from Hancock's Half-Hour, and Frankie Howerd (BBC, 1964-66), in which Galton and Simpson helped to re-establish Howerd as one of the country's finest comedians in a splendid mix of stand-up and comic sketch.

With The Bargee (1964), Wood directed, from a Galton and Simpson script, his Steptoe and Son star Harry H. Corbett in that actor's bid for film stardom. Unfortunately, just as Tony Hancock failed to cross over from small to big screen at this time, so did Corbett. If Wood himself had held any aspirations to a film career, they too would remain unfulfilled. The disappointment of The Bargee was to be followed by only two further directorial efforts: the pop musical Cuckoo Patrol (1965), with Freddie and the Dreamers, and a lame comedy with Ronnie Corbett, Some Will - Some Won't (1969).

Back in television, his other 1960s productions included Benny Hill (BBC, 1962-63), the comedian's largely successful venture into sitcom territory (Wood had also produced one series of Hill's long-running (1955-68) BBC sketch series, The Benny Hill Show, in 1957); the television recording of the famous stage revue Beyond the Fringe (BBC, tx. 12/12/1964); The Further Adventures of Lucky Jim (BBC, 1967), Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' sequel to the Kingsley Amis novel starring Keith Barron; two series of Harry Worth (BBC, 1966-70) starring the comedian of the title; and The World of Beachcomber (BBC, 1968-69), starring Spike Milligan. He was also responsible for the first two BBC television presentations of the Royal Variety Performance, on 4 November 1962 and 8 November 1964 (ITV had first televised this annual stage show in 1960).

In 1970, Wood became Head of Comedy at the BBC. Comedy series beginning during his period of office included The Two Ronnies (1971-86), Last of the Summer Wine (1971-) and Some Mothers do 'Ave 'Em (1973-78).

In 1973 he left the BBC after 25 years to accept a position at Yorkshire Television as Controller of Light Entertainment. Although Wood was, with hindsight, credited for establishing Yorkshire as a force in television comedy, the output of these later years remains overshadowed by his earlier BBC productions. However, one series from these years stands out: Rising Damp (ITV, 1974-78). Eric Chappell's superb scripts and Leonard Rossiter's cherishable performance as the odious Rigsby ensure that Rising Damp remains the only ITV comedy series that can safely be described as classic. Further Chappell-written comedy series from Yorkshire included the hospital-set Only When I Laugh (ITV, 1979-82), The Bounder (ITV, 1982-83) and Duty Free (ITV, 1984-86). While all enjoyed a degree of success, none reached the comedic heights of Rising Damp.

Other productions of this period with which Wood was involved included several written by his old BBC associates, Galton and Simpson, notably the one-off special, Holiday with Strings (ITV, tx. 26/8/1974), starring Les Dawson, which led to the series Dawson's Weekly (ITV, 1975), again written by Galton and Simpson. The duo also had their own series, The Galton & Simpson Playhouse (ITV, 1977), in the mould of Comedy Playhouse.

In variety, Wood was responsible for the inane, but very popular, game show 3-2-1 (ITV, 1978-88); the betting-themed game show, Winner Takes All (ITV, 1975-88); the string of Harry Secombe variety shows, Secombe with Music (ITV, 1980-82), and the songwriter tribute series Song by Song (ITV, 1978-80).

Wood retired in 1984, although he remained a consultant at Yorkshire for a further two years. He died on 11 January 1997, only nine days before the death of his old contemporary, Dennis Main Wilson.

John Oliver

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60)Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60)

The original British sitcom - and still one of the best

Thumbnail image of Steptoe and Son (1962-74)Steptoe and Son (1962-74)

Galton & Simpson classic about father-and-son rag-and-bone men

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Galton, Ray (1930-) and Simpson, Alan (1929-)Galton, Ray (1930-) and Simpson, Alan (1929-)


Thumbnail image of Hancock, Tony (1924-1968)Hancock, Tony (1924-1968)

Comedian, Actor