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

Shades of Darkness

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The end of the year in Britain is as much a time for ghost stories as the end of October, and this is one Christmas tradition (one of the few…) that I’ve always been happy to support. In recent years all of the best of the British TV ghost stories have appeared on DVD, along with some of the minor ones, but exceptions remain. Shades of Darkness was a series of hour-long supernatural dramas made by Granada TV in the 1980s, and so far seems to have only appeared on disc as a now-deleted Region 1 set.

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The series comprised two short seasons in 1983 and 1986, and dates from the period when Granada was in serious competition with the BBC for well-crafted period drama. Granada’s flagship production was the long-running Sherlock Holmes series, an attempt to film all the Holmes stories with Jeremy Brett in the lead, a mostly successful endeavour that was only compromised at the end by Brett’s failing health. Shades of Darkness shares with the Holmes adaptations some of the same production team (producer June Wyndham Davies and director Peter Hammond) together with well-chosen rural locations in damp and autumnal Lancashire and Cheshire.

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I’d only seen one of these films before, the adaptation by Ken Taylor of Walter de la Mare’s most anthologised story, Seaton’s Aunt. The story is a good choice for a series where the human drama is given as much space as the supernatural although the film doesn’t capture the subtleties or the insidious horror of de la Mare’s best writing. (The copy at YouTube is also blighted with Norwegian subtitles throughout.) I doubt that any adaptation of Seaton’s Aunt could satisfy me but it’s good to see Mary Morris in one of her last roles as poor Seaton’s malign and domineering guardian.

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More successful are Afterward by Edith Wharton, another popular entry in ghost-story collections, and The Maze by CHB Kitchin in which Francesca Annis’s post-war housewife is tormented by memories of a dead lover. Kitchin’s story is an odd inclusion among the familiar tales, and I wonder how it came to be chosen when it doesn’t seem to be subject to the same republication as the others. MR James biographer Michael Cox is credited as an executive producer on some of the films in the series, which suggests he may have advised on the story selections, but not on The Maze. Kitchin was a writer best known for his detective novels but he’s received more attention in recent years for a number of novels with gay themes. The Maze includes a character coded as gay who isn’t treated as an outright villain, an unusual detail in a story first published in 1954.

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Elsewhere, Hugh Grant has an early role in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover, and there are three adaptations by Alan Plater, one of which, LP Hartley’s Feet Foremost, is another frequently collected story which Plater surprisingly mishandles. Plater’s adaptation of The Intercessor by May Sinclair is better, with John Duttine in the role of a writer trying to work in a haunted farmhouse. I saw Duttine on stage a few years after this when he played a similar role as The Actor in the first theatrical run of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. It’s possible that The Intercessor secured him the part.

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All these films are currently on YouTube with the exception of the final episode in season two, The Last Seance by Agatha Christie. Watch them here.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Return: a ghost story
Nigel Kneale’s Woman in Black
“Who is this who is coming?”

Weekend links 440

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The title of that film was originally different [Illusions]… I woke up one day and thought of Bad Timing which sounds exactly like the right title—for my career. Now there was a film I really thought was one to which there would be a different response. Whilst filming I felt sure that this was one for the streets, one that people would really want to see. — Nicolas Roeg

So long to the great Nicolas Roeg, always one of my favourite film-makers. Roeg’s works were naturally attractive when I was a teenager because he’d made a horror film and a science-fiction film; when these eventually turned up on TV it was evident that this was a director working on a level that had more in common with Continental Europe than Hollywood. Beyond the generic content it was his approach to directing that made his films essential: a fragmented editing style derived from Alain Resnais via Richard Lester (see below), a cosmic perspective almost entirely absent from the parochial concerns of British cinema, and a seemingly effortless ability to find visual rhymes in anything. Despite the “bad timing” comment above Roeg was fortunate to be working throughout the 1970s when having an approach that ran counter to the prevailing trends wasn’t an obstacle to maintaining a career; as with Ken Russell, you watch some of the films today and are amazed and grateful that they were made at all. When reading the forthcoming plaudits it would be worth remembering that even the films regarded now as Roeg’s best struggled for acceptance: Pauline Kael dismissed Don’t Look Now as “trash”, US screenings of The Man Who Fell To Earth provided explanatory notes for the hard-of-thinking, Bad Timing was described by its own distributors as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people”, while the distributors of Eureka hated the film so much that for a time it could only be screened in the UK if the director was also present.

• Related: Where to begin with Nicolas Roeg, and Nicolas Roeg: It’s About Time (2015), a 59-minute documentary for the BBC directed by David Thompson. Previous Roeg-related postings on this site include: The Nicolas Roeg Guardian Lecture, 1983 (Roeg discusses Eureka and other films with Philip Strick); Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (charting the recurrence of a book title from Don’t Look Now); Canal view (using Google Street View to find the church in Don’t Look Now); and Petulia film posters (designs for a Richard Lester film from 1968 that was photographed by Roeg, and whose fragmentary editing style prefigures the familiar Roeg technique).

• Edward Woodward’s greatest screen role wasn’t a prudish policeman or a mysterious vigilante but was David Callan, a conflicted assassin working for a division of the British Secret Service. Joseph Oldham explains.

• Mixes of the week: A mix for The Wire by Jing, FACT Mix 681 by Kelly Moran, and Crépuscules d’Automne, a seasonal mix by Stephen O’Malley.

• More Gorey: in 1978 Jeremy Brett was playing Dracula in the touring version of the Edward Gorey-designed play.

• Liberated from the LRB paywall for a brief time: George Melly writing in 1992 about René Magritte.

• Welcome to the witch capital of Norway: Chelsea G. Summers investigates.

Space colony artwork from the 1970s.

• At I Love Typography: Magic printed.

Memo From Turner (1970) by Mick Jagger | Wild Hearts (1985) by Roy Orbison | Be Kind To My Mistakes (1987) by Kate Bush

Haunted: The Ferryman

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Another television ghost story from the 1970s, The Ferryman (1974) is no relation to the 2007 horror film of the same name. This 50-minute drama isn’t in the same league as Schalcken the Painter, or the other BBC ghost films, but it’s one I remembered and was surprised to find on YouTube. Haunted was a Granada production for ITV, and although it sounds like a series it seems there was only one other film in the run, Poor Girl (not on YouTube), a Turn of the Screw-like piece based on a story by Elizabeth Taylor (author not actress). The Ferryman is based on a story by Kingsley Amis, adapted by Julian Bond and directed by John Irvin, later to direct the BBC’s exceptional multi-part adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Interesting to see from Irvin’s credits that he also directed the now-forgotten Ghost Story (1981), a poor attempt to cram Peter Straub’s huge novel into a two-hour film.

The best thing about The Ferryman is seeing a very handsome Jeremy Brett playing novelist Sheridan Owen whose recent horror novel seems to have predicted events that he and his wife find themselves experiencing. (Ten years later Brett was back at Granada as my favourite Sherlock Holmes.) Despite some initial promise The Ferryman is less successful than you’d hope, possibly because of the weak and confused source material. With its middle class characters encountering the uncanny this could so easily have been a Robert Aickman story, and would have been far better for it. But it does serve a purpose in throwing into relief tomorrow’s post. Stay tuned.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Schalcken the Painter
“The game is afoot!”

Under the weather

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“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson.” Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem (1984).

As well as chasing a deadline this week I’m now suffering badly from a cold, always a dismal combination if you can’t take time off. So this picture of the wonderful Jeremy Brett is all you get today. I started re-watching the 1980s Holmes TV adaptations a week or so ago and for the moment they provide an excellent means of taking the mind off clogged sinuses and sneezing fits. My earlier appraisal of the series is here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
John Osborne’s Dorian Gray
The World’s Greatest Detective
“The game is afoot!”