Saturday, April 19, 2014
By MATT SCHUDEL, The Washington Post
Charles Chilton, a longtime radio writer and producer for the BBC who developed the concept for the satirical antiwar musical of the 1960s "Oh, What a Lovely War!," died Jan. 2 in England. He was 95.
Chilton was a versatile writer who contributed to many BBC broadcasts, including music programs and serial dramas about space travel. He had a particular affinity for American subjects, producing children's books about the Old West, several anthologies of American folk music, and a radio drama and comic book called "Riders of the Range."
He is best known in the United States for "Oh, What a Lovely War!," based on his personal quest to learn more about his father, who was killed in World War I when Chilton was an infant.
"I didn't have any feeling for him, all he was was a photograph hanging on the wall," Chilton said in a 2007 interview. "I'd never seen him, never touched him, even my mother never told me much about him."
He had dim recollections from the 1920s of a member of his father's regiment visiting his family's home.
"He said he saw my father just a few yards away, standing up," Chilton said. "This shell came over and exploded, and he saw him no more. Nothing of him was found."
In the late 1950s, Chilton went to France in search of his father's grave. The only evidence he could find was his father's name on a memorial listing thousands of casualties killed at the Second Battle of Arras in 1918.
Chilton then produced a radio program, "A Long, Long Trail," first broadcast in 1961, that contrasted jaunty dance-hall songs with scenes from the bloody battles on the Western Front.
"A lot of the numbers I used were based on popular songs of the period, but with the words changed to give a satirical edge," Chilton told the BBC News Magazine in 2011.
A theatrical version of his radio program was staged in 1963 by the British director Joan Littlewood as "Oh, What a Lovely War!" The title was derived from a popular song and was intended to drip with irony.
Theater critic Kenneth Tynan called the production "revolutionary alike in content and form."
The show had a long run on the British stage and reached Broadway in 1964. In 1969, "Oh, What a Lovely War!" became the first feature film by Richard Attenborough, who later directed "Gandhi," "A Bridge Too Far" and other blockbusters.
The film had a star-studded cast that included Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Redgrave and Maggie Smith. Released at the height of the Vietnam War, the movie was seen as a deliberate anti-war statement, but it received a mixed reception.
"The theme is the misery, waste and futility of war itself," Washington Post critic Gary Arnold wrote, "but the style is triumphantly polished, complacent, 'classy.' ... One's overwhelming impression is oh, what a splendid, gorgeous, tasteful piece of academy filmmaking."
Charles Frederick William Chilton was born June 15, 1917, in London. He was orphaned at age 5 and grew up with his paternal grandmother in a household with 13 other children.
At 15, he began delivering messages for the BBC and soon began compiling musical playlists for broadcast. He was an early disc jockey for the BBC, played guitar in a jazz band and worked for a time with Alistair Cooke.
After serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he returned to the BBC, where he produced anthologies of blues and folk music.
He traveled throughout the American West, developing ideas for "Riders of the Range," which attracted millions of listeners in the early 1950s. He also produced programs on the Civil War, American Indians and the Salvation Army, as well as several science-fiction dramas.
Many of Chilton's productions were known for their inventive use of music. In 1976, he wrote the script for "A World of Music," which drew heavily from what is known as the Great American Songbook.
Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Penelope Colbeck Chilton, and three children.