Not Wilde about these repeats

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Many years ago, around the time the Fifties were about to put on fancy dress and become the Sixties, there was a cartoon in Punch that would seem totally baffling to anyone not around then. Well, let's try it on you right now. It showed two men on a desert island, waiting to be rescued, and one of them is saying: "I've had a great idea! If I ever get back to civilisation, I'm going to make a film about the life of Oscar Wilde!"

Not funny in itself in any way, the cartoon makes sense only when you realise that just about that time no fewer than two major films on the life of Oscar Wilde had just appeared. One starred Peter Finch as Wilde, and the other featured Robert Morley in the same role, and neither film was half bad, but I don't suppose many people went to see both.

(There must have been a time during the making of the films when both sides became aware that somebody else was also filming the life of Wilde, and no doubt there were frenzied secret meetings between the two in order to get the other side to give up the idea. At the very least, they must have had frenzied secret bargaining meetings to avoid overlapping of epigrams: ``All right, you can have `Work is the curse of the drinking classes' if we can have `I have nothing to declare but my genius'." In fact, the secret meetings between the two might make a very good subject for a play ...)

Filming the life of Oscar Wilde is no bad idea; it needs to be reshot from time to time if only to update our view of him. Sheridan Morley, son of the selfsame Robert, was once approached by Lord Weidenfeld to write a new biography of Oscar Wilde. "But surely there are perfectly good lives of Oscar Wilde already, by Hesketh Pearson and others," said Sheridan. ``Maybe so," said Lord W, "but we need a new life of Oscar Wilde every 10 years to cater for those who have come along meanwhile.''

Interesting thought. What is even more interesting is that even after his father's experience, Sheridan didn't ask Lord Weidenfeld the obvious question, namely: ``Are you sure nobody else is writing a new life of Oscar Wilde at the same time? Are you sure there isn't somebody sitting on a desert island, planning to do it as soon as he comes back?''

Because these things do still happen. People get the same ideas as other people and go ahead and do them. For instance, at this very moment there is a serialisation of a Mary Wesley novel, The Vacillations of Poppy Carew, going out on ITV every week. There is also a serialisation of the same novel going out on BBC Radio 4 every week. Lightning striking twice in the same place.

Ah, a cynic might say, but it may not be an accident. If you look closely at the Radio Times, you will see that the Radio 4 version is a repeat. Is it not possible that the BBC is putting out the radio version to detract from the ITV version ...?

Yes, possibly. But what about this? On Radio 3 on Wednesdays they have been having a series of readings from the journals that the music scholar Charles Burney kept on his European journey of 1770, with Burney played by John Moffat. On Radio 4 on Mondays they have been having a series of readings from the journals the music scholar Charles Burney kept on his European tour of 1770. The only difference is that in this one the part of Burney is played by Tim West.

What would a cynic say? Would he say that Radio 4 is repeating its Burney series in order to embarrass Radio 3? Would he say that there is plenty of room for lots of Burney serialisations and he is only surprised that Radio 1 and Radio 2 haven't followed suit? Or would he say that by the time John Birt has reorganised the BBC, nobody will know what anyone else is doing.

Well, I rather side with the cynics here. The fact is that I have recently completed a film script about the life of Dorothy Parker for Oliver Stone, and I have been devastated to find that somebody else has been working on the same lines, as a new film about her has just opened. Still, it sounds from the reviews as if the new film is a waste of time, as it concentrates on the same old image of Dorothy Parker as a sentimental, drink-sodden wisecracking failure, hanging out at the Algonquin Hotel with other wisecracking deadbeats.

My film is going to be quite different. It uncovers the Algonquin crowd as a gang who pulled off some of the most staggering crimes in the Prohibition era, using the Algonquin gatherings as a witty, world-weary facade for their bloodthirsty crimes. I might bring you a sample on Monday of ``The Killer Called Dorothy Parker" - if I haven't had a lucrative offer from Hollywood before then.