A fitting testament to Oscar Wilde: a monumental row over gay politics
Tuesday 01 December 1998
It was a day that saw - all in the cause of Oscar - Peter Mandelson's name raised in a discussion of homosexuality, this time by Yes, Minister actor Nigel Hawthorne; an embarrassed BBC interviewer attempting to shut Hawthorne up, and the openly gay Culture Secretary Chris Smith thanking Wilde for what he had done "for our community".
Last night Nigel Hawthorne told The Independent he was furious to have been silenced on air: "I'm so angry. The BBC should be ashamed of itself. I was vetoed. That is hypocrisy of the worst sort. I am already receiving support. Alan Bennett has left a fax on my machine saying, `Well said'."
The day had started innocently enough with the unveiling of a statue to Wilde in central London in which Hawthorne gave a reading with Dame Judi Dench. The statue, by artist Maggi Hambling, entitled A Conversation with Oscar Wilde, depicts Wilde in bronze rising from his granite sarcophagus. The sarcophagus forms a seat on which passers-by may sit and engage in suitable conversation with him. It invoked the scary prospect of every inebriated wit and would-be wit in London mouthing aphorisms at midnight. But there was a hint that this was a little more than just a piece of public art when Mr Smith thanked Wilde for enlivening both his own life "and the life of our community".
But it was Hawthorne, in what the BBC saw as a display of indiscretion, who said that Mr Mandelson was in danger of being turned into a gay "martyr" like the Irish playwright.
Mr Hawthorne was appearing live on BBC TV's One O'Clock News to discuss the statue. The presenter, Ed Stourton, asked Mr Hawthorne: "Is there a wider significance to this or is it just a rather entertaining sculpture?"
Mr Hawthorne replied: "I think there is a wider significance. Listening to the news, as I've been doing for the last five or 10 minutes, and hearing about Peter Mandelson ..."
In a clear attempt to follow a recent BBC memo forbidding unnecessary reference to politicians' private lives, Mr Stourton then cut in to ask the actor not to talk about "specific individuals".
But Mr Hawthorne persisted: "If you don't talk about individuals, then you miss the whole point of this. I think that it's purely that society picks on these individuals and turns them into martyrs very often, which is exactly what happened to Oscar Wilde."
The BBC bulletin had earlier featured a report in which Martin Dowle, a representative of the British Council in Rio de Janeiro, had vehemently denied that he had accompanied Mr Mandelson to gay nightclubs in the city. Mr Dowle said that the attacks on himself and Mr Mandelson were "like something out of Kafka".
He claimed that a comment in the House by William Hague referring to "Lord Mandelson of Rio" was a smear.
Both men had decided not to respond to the allegations for fear of giving them greater publicity, but Mr Dowle said that Mr Hague's comments had forced his hand. "I think it is disgraceful for William Hague to take innuendo, lies and smears as part of a process of destruction of the lives of professional people," he said.
Mr Hague's office in turn denied the charge and said that he had been objecting instead to the cost of the trip rather than Mr Mandelson's private life.
But on such a politically fraught day, it was also worth remembering that Wilde should be celebrated for wit as much as for sexual politics and fighting prejudice. Fortunately, his great-grandson Lucian Holland, a student at Oxford, showed he had inherited some of it.
At the unveiling of the statue he told the assembled crowd: "Going to Ireland and seeing the beautiful houses that once belonged to the family, it struck me that if Oscar hadn't blown it all, they might still be ours."
Tatchell in court, page 3
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