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

Salomé and Wilde Salomé

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Three years on and Al Pacino’s recent pet projects—Salomé and Wilde Salomé—have yet to be given a general release. Salomé is the one I’m most eager to see, a filmed performance of the Oscar Wilde play with Jessica Chastain in the title role. There is at least a trailer now, which gives an intriguing taste of the production. Like Steven Berkoff, Pacino has opted for modern dress while making some of the details—the moon, Jokanaan’s well—more material. If Wilde’s Symbolist melodrama seems rather effete for a man known for playing gangsters it should be noted that the play features a suicide and two executions, as well as a strong theme of paternal incest and even necrophilia. Herod, of course, is notorious for being a child-murdering king.

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Pacino and Jessica Chastain are in London on Sunday at BFI Southbank talking with Stephen Fry about Salomé and the feature-length production documentary, Wilde Salomé. Both films will also receive screenings. Here’s hoping the rest of us won’t have much longer to wait before we can see them.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive
The Salomé archive

Weekend links 31

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One of a series of illustrations by Vera Bock for A Ring and a Riddle (1944) by M.Ilin and E. Segal. Via A Journey Round My Skull.

The Creator of Devotion: Photos from a Vogue Hommes Japan feature by Matthew Stone. And also here.

Dressing For Pleasure: Jonny Trunk gets out the rubber gear. Related: King of Kinky.

Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) is having a show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

Hackney Dissenting Academy #1: Throbbing Gristle, Iain Sinclair & Alan Moore.

Out Of The Flesh (1984) by Chakk. A great single never reissued on CD.

• Photographer Charles Gatewood remembers William Burroughs.

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The Endless Mural. Follow links here to have a play around.

Vinyl record sales are at the top of a four-year sales trend.

Can explosions move faster than the speed of light?

• Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car is reborn.

• Maximus Clarke talks with William Gibson.

Why Stephen Fry loves Wagner.

Kafka’s Last Trial.

• Alice Coltrane in concert, Warsaw, 1987: Harp solo | Impressions | Lonnie’s Lament | A Love Supreme.

An apology for Alan Turing

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Sometimes petitions work. A few weeks ago one such was launched by computer scientist John Graham-Cumming on the UK government website requesting a public apology for the terrible treatment accorded mathematician and wartime codebreaker Alan Turing in 1952. Turing was prosecuted after admitting a gay affair to police investigating another matter and given the choice of imprisonment or parole with chemical castration; in order to carry on working he took the latter choice but subsequent depression led to his suicide. The law used was the same which sent Oscar Wilde to prison in 1895, and Turing’s case was probably the worst treatment of a notable figure on the basis of sexuality since Wilde. During the Second World War Turing had saved countless lives by helping crack the Enigma code, and his early computer research led to the development of machines like the one on which you’re reading these words. In 1999 TIME Magazine put him in a list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.

Turing has always felt like a local hero to me even though he only lived in Manchester for a few years. The house where he died isn’t far from where I live, and he has a memorial statue (above) in Sackville Park in the city centre, midway between the gay village and the Institute of Science and Technology where he worked. The petition gained a lot of support—30,805 signatures—including endorsement from high-profile figures such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry. I signed it although I was sceptical it would lead to anything; this government doesn’t have much of a record for paying attention to the wishes of its citizens. So colour me surprised now that PM Gordon Brown has issued an apology:

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue. (More.)

I take a consistently dim view of the present administration when it comes to its diminishing of our civil liberties and its involvement in other people’s wars. But when it comes to gay issues, Blair and Brown have been the best Prime Ministers since 1967, when another Labour government overturned the law which killed Wilde and Turing. The best, bar none. This announcement is another plus in that direction.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Stonewall forty years on
Over the rainbow
Forty years of freedom after centuries of injustice