TV Review: Michael Bracewell's profile of Oscar Wilde

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"All art is quite useless". This is a bold epigraph for an arts programme and it was slapped down like a gauntlet at the beginning of Michael Bracewell's profile of Oscar Wilde for Omnibus - a carefully unrespectable work of commemoration.

Like most of Wilde's aphorisms the remark is nowhere near as simple as it appears - he doesn't mean that art is pointless, naturally, although the phrase is carefully constructed to trap those who, along with most of Wilde's Victorian contemporaries, make the mistake of confusing utility with worth. And given the studious elusiveness of many of Wilde's positions you might equally have heard him say, on a different occasion, that everything but art was useless.

Bracewell saw in such flamboyant provocations the origins of much later posers - by this account Wilde was the first prince of glam-rock, a thesis pressed home with quite a few David Bowie tracks (quite effective in their louche affectation) as well as a number of explicit comparisons, some considerably more strained than others. It's true that when you are shown Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull camping it up as Wilde and Bosie, complete with the trademark green carnations, you can see that he stands as a role model for subsequent outsiders (in whose number Bracewell quite explicitly counted himself).

But the problem with it as the armature for an appraisal is that it tends to congratulate Wilde for being us before we got round to it - rather than alerting us to how belated most of our novelties are (not to mention the self-congratulation of equating a minor drug bust with Wilde's calvary).

What's more Bracewell's loyalty to the idea occasionally pulled him into trouble - as when an attempt to link The Portrait of Dorian Gray to the extended adolescence of rock stars began with the image of Cliff Richard and went on to Elvis Presley. This didn't make the sense Bracewell wanted it too - Cliff Richard looks like that precisely because he doesn't dine with panthers and Elvis scarcely concealed the image of his degradation - he put it on stage in Vegas (Wilde, incidentally, hid his own revealing portrait behind his hand - his teeth were blackened by mercury treatment for syphilis, so that the mouth which made his reputation also advertised its darker side).

Similarly the presentation of Wilde's first trip to the States as a Victorian equivalent of a pop group's attempt to break the American market simply wouldn't wash - as Stephen Fry almost instantly pointed out (the programme could have done with rather more of him and of Tom Stoppard too. They were the only contributors to appear in book-lined rooms - the traditional backdrop for a literary documentary - and they brought to their remarks the reassuringly old-fashioned virtue of thoughtful erudition).

This film would have been a little disappointing on paper - in particular the slightly underpowered nature of Bracewell's own conclusions ("In short", he summed up at one point, "Oscar was an aesthete with attitude". He could hardly have been one without it.) But on screen it was often effective - nicely opportunistic in the way it represented our own continuities with Wilde's preoccupations. Bracewell walked through the preposterously minimal lobby of an Anouska Hempel hotel while he talked of Wilde's revolutionary orientalism and down an infernal spiral staircase as he sketched in the underbelly of his social comedy. Most affecting of all was his visit to a cell in Reading Gaol - a gleaming white side-chapel to the St Sebastian of self-expression, lit by a single barred window.

Viewers whose appetites have been whetted but not sated by this film should turn to Richard Ellman's wonderful biography - a true banquet for Wilde disciples.

I wish I knew what Oscar might have made of Bright Hair, a two-part thriller postponed by the mood of terrified tastefulness that followed Princess Diana's death (and what would he have made of that paroxysm of sensibility?). He would surely have been impressed by Emilia Fox's eyes, though - far and away the spookiest element in this implausible tale of amnesiac schoolgirls and malign teachers. Not really worth seeing for her gaze alone, but very close.