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

Fantaisies Architecturales by Henri Mayeux

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An entire book of architectural caprices is just the thing I like to see, so it’s a shame that most of the examples in Fantaisies Architecturales (1890) by Henri Mayeux are little more than sketches. Mayeux was an architect and a professor of decorative arts whose previous book had been a guide to the composition of decoration and its historical use. Fantaisies Architecturales applies a similar approach to architectural styles, offering a variety of historical pastiches as well as suggestions suited to stage designs and more contemporary buildings.

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Mayeux’s inventiveness is considerable but he shares with many of the architects of 19th-century expositions a reluctance or inability to imagine anything that breaks with the styles of the past. Étienne-Louis Boullée’s colossal plan for a cenotaph for Isaac Newton (proposed in 1784) remains astonishing because its design is so unprecedented. The construction of the vast internal sphere may have exceeded the engineering limits of the time but the unadorned abstraction of the design is closer to the architecture of the 20th century than anything from the 19th. The Eiffel Tower had been built a couple of years before Mayeux’s book was published but it wasn’t until the Exposition Universelle of 1900 that Paris saw any other buildings that could complement its architectural novelty.

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Weekend links 437

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Rawmarsh Road, Rotherham, 1975 by Peter Watson.

Steel Cathedrals (1985), a composition by David Sylvian (with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Kenny Wheeler, Robert Fripp & others) was originally available only on the cassette release of Sylvian’s Alchemy: An Index Of Possibilities, and a video cassette where the music accompanied views of Japanese industry by Yasuyuki Yamaguchi. The video hasn’t been reissued since but may be viewed here.

• “If, as Arthur C Clarke famously observed, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then can we accept that any sufficiently advanced magic is also indistinguishable from technology?” asks Mark Pilkington.

• “I didn’t like the idea of cartoons as just funny jokes, they had to have some relevant piece of observation in them to do with the society we are living in,” says Ralph Steadman.

I listen to music all the time, and I’ll often seek connections across quite disparate genres of that whatever I’m looking for. Sometimes it’s an aesthetic or a feeling, sometimes a pattern or structure, but it tends to cut across genres. The thing I liked about black metal and doom metal is the slowness and weightiness of it, it’s like deep time but in music. Sunn O))), Xasthur, and other bands captured this black gravity of sound. And they also tend to eschew the traditional vocal-lead guitar set-up, and everything is in the slow-moving wash and texture of sound.

I found that in other genres like noise music (especially Keiji Haino), the European avant-garde with composers like Ligeti, Scelsi, and Dumitrescu, dark ambient artists such as Lustmord or vidnaObmana, and contemporary works like Chihei Hatakeyama’s Too Much Sadness, Rafael Anton Irisarri’s A Fragile Geography, or Christina Vantzou’s No.4. There’s a lot to talk about in terms of music and forms of sorrow or grief, certainly every musical tradition has that—the funeral dirge, requiem, lamentation, or whatever.

Eugene Thacker listing a few favourite musicians and composers during a discussion with Michael Brooks about Thacker’s new book, Infinite Resignation

• The fourth edition of Wyrd Daze—”The multimedia zine of speculative fiction + extra-ordinary music, art & writing”—is out now.

• The Library of Congress has opened its National Screening Room, an online service for viewing films in the library’s collection.

The London Library discovered some of the books that Bram Stoker used for research when he was writing Dracula.

• “Oscar Wilde’s stock has never been higher,” says John Mullan, reviewing Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis.

• Mixes of the week: RA Podcast 648 by Sarah Davachi, and Secret Thirteen Mix 269 by Sstrom.

• David Lynch directs a video for A Real Indication by Thought Gang.

• “Edward Gorey lived at the ballet,” says his biographer, Mark Dery.

• A new version of Blue Velvet Blues by Acid Mothers Temple.

• Photos of cooling-tower interiors by Reginald Van de Velde.

Aaron Worth on Arthur Machen: “the HG Wells of horror”.

• The Strange World of…Barry Adamson.

Glass And Steel No. 1 (1983) by Marc Barreca | Death Is The Beginning (1996) by Steel | Painless Steel (2000) by Bohren & Der Club Of Gore

A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford

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Cover art by Tom Chantrell.

Halloween approaches so here’s a book that suits the season. Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies was published in Great Britain by Hamlyn in 1973. A large-format hardback of just over 200 pages, this was a cheap production for wide distribution, and evidently sold well: my edition from 1980 is the 12th reprint, and the book was still in print in 1983, in a slightly longer edition with a new cover.

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For a generation of British kids Gifford’s book made an indelible impression, not least because of its ubiquity. It was always easy to find—for years I didn’t have a copy of my own because I invariably seemed to know someone who did—and its mostly black-and-white pictures featured a great deal of imagery that was generally forbidden to those of us under the age of 18. This may seem surprising to Americans, or those in more liberated European countries, but Britain has always had an uneasy relationship with the horror genre despite the legacy of Gothic novels and ghost stories, never mind Dracula, Frankenstein and the rest. Literary manifestations command a grudging acceptance if enough years have passed since first publication but Britain’s moralists and censors have fretted over pictorial horror for decades, especially the film and comic-book variety.

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La Belle et la Bête (1946).

Almost all horror films screened in Britain over the past century were for audiences of 18 or over, while horror films on TV were never shown before 10pm. That scene in Halloween (1978) where the kids are watching The Thing From Another World on television in the early evening would have been impossible here. In 1982 we had the start of the “video nasties” panic, a particularly disgraceful episode for those eager to interfere in other people’s entertainment, and an issue that rumbled on for the rest of the decade. As for print media, I still have a leaflet from the late 1980s given to all applicants of UK passports which lists “horror comics” along with weapons, drugs, poisons, etc, among the items forbidden from import into Britain. This climate gave Gifford’s guide an illicit charge it might not have had if published elsewhere: the book delivered a concentrated dose of the forbidden.

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Vincent Price as Doctor Phibes.

Denis Gifford (1927–2000) was, among other things, a comics artist, a comics and film historian, and a collector of comic books and horror ephemera. Most of the material in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies is from his own collection, and an excellent collection it was. More than 300 stills run through the entire history of horror cinema from the earliest Méliès shorts to German Expressionism, Universal horror, Hammer horror, AIP monster movies, Toho monster movies, and on to the garish efforts of the late 1960s; he even manages to get in a still from Carry On Screaming. The accompanying text is concise but authoritative, although I doubt anyone ever used the book as a serious study. Yet for a 12-year-old this was a perfect introduction to the genre, as well as a dizzying intimation of hundreds of films yet to be seen. In place of the films you had pictures implying entire worlds of mystery and terror, many of which are so good they give very unrealistic expectations of the films from which they originate. Some of the most memorable examples for me have been those which are more atmospheric or eerie than horrific, like the sinister child at the window in Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) aka Curse of the Dead. (See this post for more about the extended life of Gifford’s still.) But there were also plenty of monsters, grotesque makeup effects and even some gore; a female friend of mine was obsessed with the picture of a blonde and bloodied young woman with an axe buried in her head (see below). Looking at the book today I suspect Gifford’s punning captions may have been a nod to Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine with a devoted readership but not a title I ever read myself.

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Peter Cushing (The Skull; 1965).

All the pictures here are from an upload of the entire book at the Internet Archive. Gifford isn’t around to complain about this but the book may not remain there for long so enjoy it while you can. A few more pages follow. For an earlier appraisal of the book’s impact on impressionable minds, there’s this piece by Dave Tompkins.

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Illustrating Lovecraft again

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The Dunwich Horror (1972). Art by Victor Valla.

El horror de Dunwich y otros relatos is the last of the books I was working on earlier this year for Spanish publisher Editorial Alma. This was a more stimulating Lovecraft collection to work on than the previous two-story volume since three of the stories were ones I hadn’t dealt with before. The fourth story, The Dunwich Horror, I partly illustrated back in 1988/89, and I took the liberty of reusing the best of that set of pages showing Wilbur Whateley’s messy demise. This picture has been reprinted a few times elsewhere so I was reluctant to recycle it again, but the collision of deadlines earlier this year meant that once again I was pressed for time on this book, and having an illustration already done was a great help. It’s taken me 30 years to finally get round to depicting Wilbur’s monstrous brother.

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The Dunwich Horror 1.

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The Dunwich Horror 2.

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The Dunwich Horror 3.

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The Dunwich Horror 4.

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