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?”

The Gourmet by Kazuo Ishiguro

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The Gourmet (1986), an original television drama written by Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by Michael Whyte, has long been in the top ten of TV films I was hoping would turn up on YouTube, and here it is at last. With a running time of under 50 minutes this is shorter than one-off dramas tend to be but its plus points are considerable, the first of which is its being an early yet neglected work by the Nobel Prize-winning author. The gourmet of the title is Manley Kingston, played by the inimitable Charles Gray in one of his few leading roles. Gray inhabits the part of the preoccupied and obsessed Kingston so well the character might have been created with him in mind; he’s even more imperious and commanding here than he was as Mycroft Holmes in the Granada TV Sherlock Holmes adaptations being made around the same time.

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Ishiguro’s script presents us with a world of competitive international gourmets whose palettes are so jaded that their search for new tastes propels them to increasingly outré extremes, up to and including the consumption of human flesh. In a lesser drama this might be the shocking end revelation but the long-pig scene is a brief and wordless reminiscence on the way to Kingston’s ultimate gustatory experience, the devouring of a ghost. The film is almost worth watching solely for the moment when Gray enunciates the words “Not of this Earth?!” after being informed of the spectral meal by one of his gourmet associates. Another associate, played by David Rappaport (in an upper-class role for once, albeit with a dubbed voice), provides Kingston with the directions to a church where a suitable phantom may be found. The building isn’t identified but Hawksmoor aficionados will recognise it as St. George in the East, an apt location not only for the sinister quality the Hawksmoor churches acquired in the wake of Peter Ackroyd’s celebrated novel, but also for the building’s smaller towers which are always described as resembling pepper pots. I used to think the Hawksmoor church was a coincidental choice of location but Ackroyd’s novel had been discussed and partly dramatised on The South Bank Show the year before The Gourmet was made; the actor who played the architect’s hapless assistant in the dramatisation was Mick Ford, the same actor who appears in The Gourmet as a homeless man enjoined by Kingston to assist him in his ghost-catching ritual.

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Despite its grotesque elements, The Gourmet isn’t an overt work of horror, which no doubt explains why the film is never mentioned in lists of neglected TV dramas. Watching it again I was less interested in the genre elements than the interplay between Kingston’s abstracted fervour and the human beings he ignores while pursuing his quarry. The latter encompasses the fellow gourmets who regard him as a world authority, his wife (who he doesn’t kiss when he leaves the house), his chauffeur (whose name he never remembers), and the derelicts who are also led to the church by hunger, queuing for a bowl of soup and a bunk in the crypt. Seen today, the gulf of inequality, and the self-indulgence of Kingston’s pursuit for the rarest of foods while people around him are starving, may be taken as a critique of Thatcherism as well as a foretaste of the future. The scenes outside the church show the East End of London as it was before its ongoing and unending redevelopment, when a new breed of rapacious appetites would arrive to sweep the homeless from those desirable riverside properties. The real ghost-eaters, the devourers of London’s history, have been consuming the capital ever since. (Thanks to Amelia for alerting me to this!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Terror and Magnificence

A view over Yuggoth

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I mentioned in the post about the Sherlock Holmes illustrations that the next book from Editorial Alma featuring my work would be another Lovecraft collection. One of the illustrations in the new volume was of the planet Yuggoth, a world known to human beings as Pluto. In Lovecraft’s mythos Yuggoth has long been an outpost of advanced alien civilisations, particularly the fungoid crustaceans of The Whisperer in Darkness and the splendidly-titled sonnet sequence Fungi from Yuggoth. I’d broached this subject a couple of times in the past, first with a panel in my Haunter of the Dark comic strip (the Shining Trapezohedron is described as being brought to Earth from Yuggoth) then with a photocopy collage of Haeckel organisms for the first Starry Wisdom collection.

Yuggoth is one of several alien outposts in Lovecraft’s fiction, allied in its remoteness from humans with the underwater city of R’lyeh and the Antarctic city in At the Mountains of Madness. All these locations suggest exotic architecture so they’ve long been some of my favourite features in Lovecraft’s work, hence this new piece which I couldn’t resist doing after completing work on the Alma book. Since I acquired a Wacom tablet four years ago I’ve become so used to using it for line drawing that working with it now feels as natural as working with pens and inks. But digital painting was something I still didn’t feel happy with. This is mainly because the brush options in Photoshop are limitless, and one thing I’ve never liked with art materials is too much choice. When I was working with physical media I used to use a minimum of pens and brushes so what I really wanted from Photoshop was a single brush that would do what I wanted without having to swap tools all the time when working. This view of Yuggoth is the result of having finally settled (by chance, as it happened) on a brush that does everything I want without getting in the way. The drawing was completely improvised so as a composition it has some flaws; it could also have been developed a lot more to bring out highlights and details. But as an experimental piece it worked out well and also didn’t take too very long to do. When I have the time I’ll be doing more with this new brush.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Thing on the Doorstep
Leather Cthulhu unleashed
Leather Cthulhu
The Gods of HP Lovecraft
Lovecraftiana calendar
Providential
NecronomiCon Providence 2015
Yuggoth details
A Mountain Walked
Lovecraft’s Monsters unleashed
Lovecraft’s Monsters
JK Potter and HP Lovecraft
Cthulhu Labyrinth
Tentacles #4: Cthulhu in Poland
Cthulhu Calendar
S. Latitude 47°9, W. Longitude 126°43
Resurgam variations
De Profundis
H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction
Heavy Metal, October 1979: the Lovecraft special
Cthulhoid and Artflakes
Cthulhu for sale
Cthulhu God
Cthulhu under glass
CthulhuPress
The monstrous tome
Cubist Cthulhu

Illustrating Sherlock Holmes

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Beeton’s Christmas Annual, 1887.

The latest in the series of illustrated editions I’ve been working on for Spanish publisher Editorial Alma is a single-volume collection of two short Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Work on this book began immediately after I’d finished Dracula so maintaining the Victorian theme was easy enough, although the commission as a whole was an awkward one. The main problem was having barely enough time to create 20 new illustrations while I was finishing work on the huge Jim Cawthorn book. But even with enough time this would have been a difficult brief. I regard Sidney Paget‘s original Holmes illustrations as the definitive ones so trying to offer people a fresh take on the world’s greatest detective is difficult. (And, as with Dracula, there’s further competition from the innumerable screen adaptations.) Then there are the stories themselves which are often more cerebral than visual, offering little for an illustrator beyond successive views of rooms, streets, houses and so on. Even Paget has trouble with this aspect of the stories, with many of his illustrations showing the various characters standing or sitting in rooms. If I’d had more time I might have tried a lateral take on the content—two of the illustrations in Dracula avoided the people-in-rooms problem by showing collections of objects on tables—but I didn’t have the time…

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Watson and Holmes by Sidney Paget. From The Adventure of Silver Blaze, The Strand Magazine, December 1892.

As things turned out, the least satisfying of the novels from a story perspective, A Study in Scarlet, was easier to illustrate because much of the second half takes place in the United States. This was the first Holmes novel, and it doesn’t work as well as the others for precisely this reason, the narrative attention is removed from Holmes, Watson and London, but the change of scene is a benefit for an artist. The second novel, The Sign of Four, is a better story but was compromised in this edition because the publisher only wanted every other chapter illustrated. For this reason Holmes and Watson are elusive presences in their own books although given the problems outlined above this may be for the best.

There’s still one more volume to emerge from my recent round of work for Alma, a collection of four Lovecraft stories, three of which I hadn’t illustrated before. More about this in a month or so. In the meantime, the full run of Holmes pictures follows below, while all may be seen at a larger size here.

A Study in Scarlet

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