Obituary: Bill Wallis
Bill Wallis, the John Thelwall Society’s first honorary life member died at home in Bath on September 6th, aged 76. The owner of one of the richest, warmest and most instantly recognisable voices in British theatre and broadcasting, Bill was, like Thelwall, a consummate performer whose powerful lungs belied his diminutive stature. His range was prodigious – from Lear to Mr Ploppy; from Harold Wilson to Captain Jeltz the appalling Vogon poet, Bill’s dark brown tones energised every character they entered. Little wonder perhaps that he was drawn to Thelwall.
Quite rightly, he will be best remembered for these myriad acting roles, but we should not overlook his thoroughgoing and rumbustious English radicalism. I first met him in the mid 1980s when he and I were the only two blokes lurking about outside the primary school into which our respective offspring had been committed for education. Sometimes we went back to Bill and Karen’s basement flat in Bath’s famous Royal Crescent and talked politics and history. Bill did his best to distance himself from his well heeled neighbours by coming and going in bohemian clobber (including a ridiculous Dr Who scarf) and sticking Vote Labour posters on the windows at each sniff of an election. He was invariably brilliant company – acerbic, irritable, irreverent and funny. But above all, he had a passion and genuine feeling for history, drama and literature, buoyed by a steady conviction that we were not being told the whole truth about either the present or the past.
Thelwall first entered Bill’s life in 1998 when he was commissioned to make a programme for an HTV series, West Foot Forward. Bill’s contribution was ‘The Backside of Bath’, a tragi-comic alternative tour of the Georgian City’s suppressed radical history in the company of an historian (me) which gave him an opportunity (seized with gusto) of waving his stick and shouting at Hannah More’s house in Great Pulteney Street, stopping for a pint in a Chartist pub, and, finally, visiting Thelwall’s grave – the programme’s dramatic endpoint. Some highly memorable days were spent in preparation, whether checking the historic authenticity of the Chartist pub’s fine ales, or sitting at a small table in Bill and Karen’s sunny garden with a bottle of Burgundy and a notepad. ‘But that’s extraordinary’, Bill would say, scribbling away on his pad, ‘I need to know more about these parallel parliaments and national conventions….’
As the programme took shape, Bill became captivated by Bath’s great Chartist organiser, Henry Vincent. Like Thelwall before him, Vincent was a masterful orator, one minute a talented mimic of spineless parliamentarians, the next a thundering volcano of radical outrage. How best to get Vincent into the programme? Of course, Bill would embody him. ‘Give me one of his speeches’, he said, ‘let me learn it and see what happens’. So Bill took an old soapbox to the Orange Grove, climbed onto it and held forth for the benefit of hidden cameras: ‘People of Bath…’ he expostulated, ‘I come to confound the aristocratic oppressors of the poor….’ And the effect was electric. Vincent’s words, slumbering for a century and a half in bland and lifeless newsprint, suddenly took wing again. Startled shoppers dropped their bags and gaped. We were witnessing a timeslip.
So when Thelwall’s crumbling memorial stone was conserved by UWE’s Regional History Centre in 2005 and a celebratory conference planned to mark the occasion – the first international Thelwall conference, as it turned out to be, and the impetus for the founding of this society – Bill’s interest was quickly rekindled. With Sheila Hannon’s ‘Show of Strength Theatre Company’, Bill starred in the conference’s evening entertainment, a rollicking performance of Thelwall’s Incle and Yarico.
Bill joined the Thelwall Society as soon as it was established and pulled off some inspired performances at Society dinners, lending his wonderful voice to readings from Thelwall’s lectures and sparking them back into life just as he had done with Vincent’s. It was never simple entertainment however. Bill reminded us that great oratory has to be rescued from the written page and returned to the air to hurtle, spin and smoulder. After all, Thelwall didn’t aspire to be studied but to be heard.
Of course, Bill studied Thelwall too. One of the last conversations I had with him earlier this summer was once again about Incle and Yarico, which Bill had been re-reading and thoroughly exploring. ‘It’s actually brilliant’, he told me, ‘nothing sleight about it; the comedy has real bite; it’s incredibly clever….’ He then dissected it for me in more detail than I really required, pointing to key passages, hazarding guesses at concealed meanings. Bill never did anything by halves. If it was interesting it wasn’t to be merely dipped into or mentioned in passing; it was to be nailed, sliced open and picked apart.
We shall all miss him terribly. But what a lift he gave us.
Steve Poole, September 2013