Hugh Grant, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Chamberlain, Dennis Price, Jason Patric - what do they have in common? Answer: they've all impersonated Byron. If you're a scriptwriter with a flaccid plotline in need of a little narrative Viagra, he's the poet of choice, whether it be in The Bride of Frankenstein or an episode of Star Trek: Voyager (in which he turns up with Gandhi). And now the BBC has produced a new two-part dramatisation of his life and times, starring Jonny Lee Miller as the sex-crazed lord.
He was, as Lady Caroline Lamb said, "mad, bad, and dangerous to know"; he slept with his sister, swam the Hellespont and kept a bear in his rooms at Cambridge. All the stories are true - and that's why we love him. He has only himself to blame. Literary success came in 1812 (when he was 23) with Childe Harold's Pilgrimage - about himself. It sold in huge quantities because his readers fell in love with the lonesome, melancholy, world-weary rake he claimed to be. Realising early on that his personality was his biggest asset, he kept writing about it. As his friend Samuel Rogers observed, the world and his dog went "stark mad about Childe Harold and Byron", as they have been ever since.
Will we be stark mad about the BBC's Byron? Compared with that of Ken Russell's Gothic and Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound, this portrait is soberly respectful of the facts - which may be just as well, given how sexed up Byron's life was. The first episode begins with him appearing in the midst of a bunch of Turkish brigands, like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen on horseback, to save the life of a woman condemned to death for sexual impropriety. We see him snogging his Greek manservant, boxing with his valet, gossiping with Lady Melbourne (an adroit performance by Vanessa Redgrave), having his hair curled, and seducing his half-sister Augusta Leigh (Natasha Little). Despite the occasional anachronism, most of this has a basis in reality, some of the best lines being adapted from letters and journals. Byron is a gift to the screenwriter because (like Wilde) he brings his own bons mots, as when he asks: "When one subtracts from life sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning, how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse."
Only the first episode is available for preview, but if it's anything to go by it is clear that Byron is executed with the high production values characteristic of BBC drama. So that we don't lose interest, no scene is allowed to last longer than a couple of minutes, and images of people at desks with quill pens are kept to a minimum. The worst thing you could say is that it's soft on its subject, choosing to affirm rather than question our love affair with the scribbler-toff of legend. For all his repeated claims to be "perverted" and "miserable", with a "black soul", this Byron is in essence the same lovable rogue familiar from other, less accurate accounts.
The figure who emerges from the evidence is more intriguing. For one thing, he was more actively homosexual than most portrayals care to admit, his most enduring and passionate relationships, both physical and emotional, having been with men rather than women. Despite the occasional gesture towards that, this dramatisation never deals seriously with that side of his personality, making him for most of the time rampantly hetero.
More importantly, Byron had a genuinely dark side to his character that is simply edited out here: he was a severe depressive, drank heavily, and attended public executions for fun. And he had an unhealthy predilection for sex with children. Abused by his nurse at the age of 10, he went on to have affairs with (among others) a choirboy at Cambridge and his adolescent page. He nearly bought a 12-year-old girl in Greece. When he exiled himself from England in 1816, his reputation was in tatters and would remain that way - not because he left behind him debts of more than £30,000, but because these things were public knowledge.
Such episodes wouldn't go down as well with a mass audience at peak time on a Saturday evening as the more predictable bedtime romps with Lady Caroline Lamb (Camilla Power) and Augusta Leigh, but they might have done more to problematise Byron's character than the scene in which he snips a tuft of hair from the pubes of a female conquest (bad man!).
Does any of this matter? If so, it's not because departures from fact are inherently bad - Shakespeare plays fast and loose with historical events for good reason: the timescale and exact order in which they occurred are undramatic and of little use to the storyteller. But it counts because of the awkward question that it raises about our loyalty to the mythical Byron that we have created. The popularity of that cantankerous, wine-drinking, not very sad, and not very mad Regency dandy owes more to our desire to consider ourselves more liberated and less hypocritical than those who chased him out of London than to the reality.
The test of our moral superiority ought to be whether, were such a man to commit the same vices today, we would treat him with similar indulgence. It seems unlikely. Not that Byron should be considered the Fred West of Eng lit, but we should be aware that an agreeable but wholly fictional alter ego has displaced the tortured soul to be found in the wreckage of his life - a egomaniacal monster who made some catastrophically bad decisions that caused appalling suffering, especially to those closest to him. Typically, he imprisoned his four-year-old daughter Allegra in an Italian convent, refusing her access to her mother, despite her repeated pleadings. Allegra died just over a year later. I have yet to see that portrayed on screen - not, presumably, because it is undramatic, but because it doesn't pander to the more anodyne Byron we prefer.
It would be churlish to hold that against a decent biopic such as the BBC's - which, as it happens, takes care over certain aspects of the truth - particularly one accompanied by a lavishly produced programme of readings from Byron's poetry introduced by Daisy Goodwin.
All the same, at a time when Woolf is a racist and Larkin a womaniser, it is frankly amazing that Byron of all people continues to elude politically correct reassessment, especially given that his vices exceed those of any other writer I can think of, with the possible exception of the Marquis de Sade. (Larkin's sexual misdemeanours are minuscule by comparison.) Which in turn makes the BBC's reluctance to subject him to judgement all the more unnerving; instead, the readings and the drama are presented as a form of upmarket entertainment. Introducing the poetry, Goodwin exploits the arts of the seducer, rolling around in bed and luxuriating in her bath (when did you last see a presenter in the bath?); while, in the drama, the few women wearing clothes have plunging necklines and outsized bosoms, as its protagonist delivers such lines as: "I like a woman to talk or am left with the suspicion she is thinking." Byron's afterlife has been unusually charmed: I wonder how much longer it can last.
Duncan Wu is a professor of English language and literature and a fellow of St Catherine's College, Oxford. 'Byron' starts on 27 September on BBC2
STAR-STRUCK: JONNY LEE MILLER ON PLAYING BYRON
When the famously hedonistic Byron and Shelley were staying at Lake Geneva in the early 19th century, the proprietor of an inn across the water hatched a canny money-making scheme. He rented out pairs of binoculars, so that voyeuristic guests could spy on the poets' racy activities on the other side of the lake. Some things never change.
Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Byron in a new BBC2 biopic scripted by Nick Dear, reckons that the pleasure-seeking poet had a lot in common with today's paparazzi-magnetising superstars. We are in the grounds of Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire, the sort of exquisitely photogenic English stately home that is always scene-stealing in impossibly tasteful period dramas. Relaxing in his caravan between scenes, Lee Miller is wearing his hair in elegant curls in preparation for the dreaded floppy wig without which no BBC costume drama would be complete. So to which contemporary figures would the actor liken Byron, a man who provoked hysteria merely by walking into a room?
Lee Miller, who used to be married to Hollywood star Angelina Jolie and has had the odd brush with fame himself, breaks into a slow smile before saying, "I'd hate to draw comparisons with Posh and Becks, but that kind of frenzy was going on with Byron. It spread across Europe like wild-fire. People everywhere would say, 'Oooh, that Byron, he's a bit of a one.' People's interest in fame has been the same since year dot. It's interesting that the term 'Byron-mania' was coined back then. That shows that there's always been this mania for celebs. We're arrogant if we think that we invented that obsession. Celebrities have always been adored and vilified. Byron's story - incest, sodomy, divorce - would have been bingo for the tabloids in any age."
There was certainly a "you couldn't make it up" quality about Byron's life. Forever searching for fresh stimuli, he lived by the code, "Sensation is our only proof that we exist - that is why we crave it."
"People don't see costume drama as being sexy or funny - and this is both," Lee Miller asserts. "That's down to the character of Byron. He's sometimes portrayed as this dark, Gothic madman, but there was much more to Byron than that. Just look at the breadth of his writing. He had this tremendous energy and passion, as well as being incredibly broad-minded. He possessed this immense lust for life. He's the perfect subject for drama because of his colourful life. When he died at the age of 36, the doctors autopsied his body and said that he had the internal organs of a 75-year-old. Respect to the man," Lee Miller says, an amused grin playing across his face. "He really knew how to live life to the full!"
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