Oscar (1985)

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I’ve mentioned John Hawkesworth’s three-hour television biography of Oscar Wilde in previous Wilde-related posts, but was never able to point to a viewable copy until now. Oscar was broadcast by the BBC in three parts in 1985, and if it was ever shown again I don’t recall it; I certainly missed capturing it on tape. This was frustrating because I always remembered Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Wilde as being the best I’d seen, but the only reissues for home viewing were long-deleted tapes and discs produced for other countries. Having watched the drama again I’m pleased to find it as good as I remembered, possibly more so since I’ve read a several Wilde biographies in the interim so I’m better able to judge its accuracy.

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Oscar examining Aubrey Beardsley’s Salomé illustrations.

As a writer and TV producer John Hawkesworth specialised in period drama, creating and writing episodes for The Duchess of Duke Street, Danger UXB (about wartime bomb disposal), and the celebrated Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series featuring Jeremy Brett’s definitive portrayal of the detective. Oscar was based on biographical books by H. Montgomery Hyde, an MP who lost his seat for his campaigns in the late 1950s and 1960s against the British laws forbidding homosexual acts. Knowing this it’s significant that Hawkesworth’s opening scene in the first episode is a brief parliamentary discussion about the notorious Labouchere Amendment of 1885 (“The Blackmailer’s Charter”) which the narrator informs us would send Oscar Wilde to prison ten years later. Hawkesworth divides his drama into three distinct phases: Gilded Youth (concerning Wilde’s relationship with Alfred Douglas, his artistic success and the ire of the Marquess of Queensberry); Trials (the personal as well as legal variety); and De Profundis (imprisonment and its aftermath).

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In the dock at the Old Bailey.

The arc of tragedy is a familiar one, of course, but other dramatisations are seldom as well-balanced as here. Feature films about Oscar Wilde generally have shorter running times so devote their larger budgets to a recreation of the glamorous fin-de-siècle rise and the terrible downfall. Oscar is a typical BBC production of the period, mostly recorded on video in studio sets with occasional film work for exteriors. What we see of Victorian London appears sparse compared to the Sherlock Holmes episodes which were being filmed at this time. Hawkesworth may have been restricted by budget but three hours allows him to pay greater attention to the later episodes, especially the trials. Oscar was the first screen biography to give us include the discussion of sexual details in the courtroom, as well as to show Wilde alone with a naked boy. This was a considerable advance at a time when gay sex of any kind was a rare sight on British television, and when even the straight variety could cause problems, as it did for Gambon and co. a year later when Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective inspired the contemptible Mary Whitehouse to complain to the BBC. Hawkesworth also runs through the later years to the very end, a period of decline usually avoided or, as in Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997), disingenuously truncated so as to provide a “happy” resolution. Given this, I would have preferred some of the earlier scenes to be longer, and to offer a sense of Wilde’s status as a serious thinker about art and aesthetics. Wilde’s flamboyant persona made him famous but he was influential not for his dandyish manner but for his ideas and their articulation in essays, lectures and the plays; his aesthetic theories were the foundation of all his writing. The most famous line from his final poem is still a statement of philosophic principle: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves”.

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Oscar and Bosie.

Aesthetics aside, the public perception of Oscar Wilde presents a hurdle for dramatisations which risk the representation being a mere caricature, like the Monty Python sketch about Wilde and his cohorts. Michael Gambon’s performance shows Wilde as a human being, not merely a charming dispenser of witty aphorisms. This has always seemed to me crucial for any actor; it’s not enough to merely look like Wilde—as Robert Morley and Stephen Fry did—but you have to be able to convey the horrors, the indignity (and, with regard to his wife, the culpability) of his later years. Stephen Fry is a good comic actor but he never could have played the Singing Detective. Gambon’s seductively purring voice is another plus, and he even allows a hint Irish brogue to slip through now and then. Of the other actors, Robin Lermitte looks more like Alfred Douglas than does Jude Law in Brian Gilbert’s film, but Law is better at conveying Bosie’s mercurial and tempestuous character; likewise Tom Wilkinson made the Marquess of Queensbury seem a little more human in Gilbert’s version, at least in the beginning, whereas Norman Rodway presents the man from the outset as a perpetually furious goblin. Missing from Hawkesworth’s drama are Wilde’s good friend Ada Leverson, and his mother, Speranza, whose urging him to stand tall and remain in England when the police were coming for him was one of the factors that sealed his fate.

Oscar may be seen here: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

For now, and possibly the foreseeable future, this is the only way to see this drama so I’d suggest downloading it if you can. It’s a rare work that could easily vanish once again.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Importance of Being Oscar

The Bowmen by Arthur Machen

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The Bowmen was a short piece of fiction by Arthur Machen published in a London newspaper, The Evening News, on the 29th September, 1914. By Machen’s standards it’s not one of his best pieces, written at a time when he was working at the paper as a journalist. The First World War was in its early days, and the story was conceived as a Kipling-like morale-boost following the retreat of British forces at Mons a few weeks before. The stories for which Machen is remembered today had never provided the success he hoped for so it must have been a surprise when his invention of angelic bowmen appearing during the battle gained him national attention:

On the last Sunday in August, 1914, Machen read in his morning paper of the retreat from Mons.

“I no longer recollect the details, but I have not forgotten the impression that was then made on my mind. I seemed to see a furnace of torment and death and agony and terror seven times heated, and in the midst of the burning was the British army: in the midst of the flame, consumed by it, scattered like ashes and yet triumphant, martyred and for ever glorious.”

That was the way, indeed, in which the English thought about the army at the beginning of the Great War; since then we have come to take a less romantic view of warfare. With this picture in his mind, Machen conceived and wrote a story called The Bowmen, told, as most stories are, as if it were true—that is, he did not begin by saying: “what you are about to read is all my own invention”—in which St. George with an army of English mediaeval bowmen appeared at the critical moment to cover the British retreat. Not, to be sure, a very probable story nor, as Oswald Barron pointed out, was it likely that the Agincourt bowmen, most of whom came from Wales, would use the French expressions Machen evokes from them: and Machen himself felt he had not done justice to his original conception.

“But if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit.”

The Bowmen appeared in The Evening News on September 29th, 1914, at a moment when people were looking for a miracle, and many promptly embraced it as an account of one. That such journals as The Occult Review and Light should fasten on it, might have been anticipated; but it was taken up by parish magazines all over the country, and people came forward on every side to say that they had friends and relatives who had seen the “Angels of Mons” with their own eyes. As a result, Machen became, for the first time in his life, a man of nation-wide fame. To thousands of people, the idea, whether true or false, gave consolation or hope, but when Machen protested that his story was entirely the child of his own imagination, the fame threatened to turn to notoriety; he was rebuked for his impudence at claiming originality for the tale. Nevertheless a legend had been born and a shoal of publications appeared to satisfy public demand—On the Side of the Angels (Harold Begbie), Guardian Angels (GP Kerry—a sermon reprinted), Angels, Saints and Bowmen of Mons (IE Taylor, Theosophical Publishing Society).

Aidan Reynolds & William Charlton in Arthur Machen: A Short Account of His Life and Work (John Baker, 1963)

Continue reading “The Bowmen by Arthur Machen”

Salome’s Last Dance

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More Wildeana. It’s taken me over two decades to watch this film, and while I can’t really say it was worth the wait it was more entertaining than I expected. Salome’s Last Dance was directed in 1988 by Ken Russell and is his own typically mannered adaptation of the Wilde play. It appeared around the same time as his adaptation of another Victorian work, Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, and it was the latter film which caused me to lose my patience with Russell’s excesses and so ignore this one. In Salome’s Last Dance we have Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas visiting Alfred Taylor’s London brothel one night in 1892 where Taylor and company stage a performance of Wilde’s banned play.

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Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations appear in the title sequence.

If you’re a Wilde enthusiast there are at least two ways you may take this; you can be appalled by Russell’s “translation” of Wilde’s words (Salomé was written in French then translated for English publication in 1894; there’s no reason to re-translate a version the author approved), a translation which is really more of an adaptation, with much of the poetic monologue removed and the tone lowered for a general audience—Wilde’s “Iokannen” is vulgarised to “John the Baptist” throughout. Or you can try and enjoy what is at least a complete performance of the play, even though it more often resembles Carry On Salomé than anything one might have expected Sarah Bernhardt to perform. Injecting a Symbolist drama with slapstick and grotesquery is probably inevitable given the director (Russell is also co-writer and he plays—badly—the role of the Cappadocian). I found it impossible to decide whether Russell was sending up the play because he found it too pompous or whether he felt that an audience wouldn’t sit still for it otherwise. Whatever his intention, the premise is intriguing enough to inspire speculation as to how it might have been treated by other hands.

Continue reading “Salome’s Last Dance”

Wildeana

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The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1907).

I finished reading Neil McKenna’s excellent biography recently, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, a book which makes an ideal companion to Richard Ellmann’s 1987 life of Wilde. Whilst reading about the two trials I remembered that among five pages of digitised Wilde volumes at the Internet Archive there’s a 1906 book, The Trial of Oscar Wilde: From the Shorthand Reports whose contents are what you’d expect from the title. Browsing through the other files there revealed further items of note such as this edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol published a year later and illustrated throughout by J Latimer Wilson. The page layout of text plus a narrow picture is uncommon, and from the date of publication it’s interesting to see that despite Wilde’s shattered reputation there was still money to be made printing his books.

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The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1907).

Among the other volumes are two finely illustrated editions of his short stories. The edition of A House of Pomegranates below comes with drawings by Ben Kutcher, an artist about whom I know nothing other than his style is very similar to that of the great Harry Clarke. The introduction is a surprise, a serious appraisal of Wilde’s life by HL Mencken who admired the way the author stood against the prevailing morality of the day. There’s also an edition of The Happy Prince and Other Tales from 1920 illustrated by Charles Robinson.

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The House of Pomegranates (1918).

These books are mainly of note for their decoration, however. Of more interest to Wilde enthusiasts is a first edition of Robert Hichens’ The Green Carnation from 1894. Hichens was a friend of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas and, according to McKenna’s book, a fellow Uranian (ie: gay) who knew the pair well enough to be able to pen a scandalous roman à clef based on their relationship, helping to confirm for public opinion much that was suspected about Wilde’s outrageous lifestyle. Both Wilde and Douglas disowned Hichens and repudiated the novel but, coming a year before the Queensbury libel trial, it did neither of them any favours. Those curious to read the exploits of “Esmé Amarinth” and “Lord Reginald Hastings” may download a copy here.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive
The book covers archive
The illustrators archive