BBC Television Play of the Month 1976
Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (published here in 1891), was prefaced by a manifesto of artists’ rights/art for art’s sake in response to Britain’s offended moral sensibilities. About his hero, the author said, “in every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust.” Dorian doesn’t exactly make a deal with the devil, but his expressed desire and the powerful, hedonistic influence of Satan’s stand-in, Lord Henry, represent the second option.
Closer to the book than Hollywood’s still excellent 1945 film, the redoubtable John Osborne’s dramatization gets right to the guts of the story. Unlike the film, it doesn’t shy away from Wilde’s homoeroticism.
Victorian England. Infatuated with the beauty of Dorian Gray (Peter Firth, looking like an adolescent cherub), Basil Hallward (Jeremy Brett) is painting a full length portrait he considers the best thing he’s ever done. The artist tries to get rid of visitor Lord Henry Wotton/Harry (John Gielgud) before Dorian returns to pose, but the decadent dandy refuses to budge without meeting his friend’s inspiration.
An independently wealthy young gentleman, at this point innocent, Dorian doesn’t need much encouragement to dive into the deep end of narcissism. “To realize one’s own nature as perfectly as we can, that’s what we’re for… beauty is the only aspect of life worth pursuing,” Harry declares with inimitable surety. Considering his own likeness, the subject muses aloud, if only the picture would age instead of me, for that I’d give my soul.
Harry immediately takes Dorian under his corrupting wing. Basil is distressed, not the least because he’s jealous. Lord Wotton is a marvelous character, an amoral, fatalistic aesthete. Gielgud makes a meal of him (in the best way). Jeremy Northam is palpably earnest and smitten as Basil. He also offers a relatively grounded character off which the other two reflect. Basil gifts the portrait to Dorian, saying there’s too much of his own soul in it to ever exhibit.
The hero falls in love with pure, 17 year-old actress Sybil Vane (Judy Bowker), from the wrong end of London. The girl believes his attentions. Harry and Basil are convinced to go see her in Shakespeare. Having given up the profession in her mind, she’s dreadful, embarrassing Dorian in front of his friends. He’s cruel to Sybil and stalks out. A serendipitous glimpse at his portrait shows a change in the eyes and a sneer forming.
Next morning, remorseful, the young man halfheartedly tries to rectify the situation, but it’s too late. Harry tells the “dear boy” not to think consequences are his fault. Basil is appalled at Dorian’s uncharacteristic coldness. The painting, now further changed, is relegated to an attic schoolroom under lock and key.
Peter Firth, who came to U.S. attention in Peter Shaffer’s Equus on Broadway, looks just right. He manifests Dorian’s curiosity, exhilaration, confusion, and terror, though not the almost gleeful viciousness Wilde’s book describes.
Time passes. Dorian descends into depravity. Blackmail and killing ensue. The portrait grows horrific. Around him, people age, but not the beautiful boy. Even when Dorian intermittently thinks he’s done something good, it’s shown to irreparably harm. There is comeuppance.
A good, compact telling of an extraordinary tale.
“Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me; Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” Oscar Wilde
Opening Photo-Peter Firth Courtesy of BroadwayHD
The Portrait of Dorian Gray (BBC)Directed by John Gorrie Designed by Tony Abbot
Costumes by Odette Barrow