Friday, September 1, 2017

Plays for Yesterday


Peter Firth and Judi Bowker toil within the Victorian façade of

THE only novel written by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray explores the Aesthetic Art movement as drama; that is, art over intellectualism. While observing Basil Hallward (Jeremy Brett) painting a portrait of Dorian Gray (Peter Firth), Lord Henry Wotton (John Gielgud) preaches his world view of beauty being the only aspect of life worth pursuing. This prompts Dorian to wish that his canvas would age instead of himself, and he consequently explores his sensuality, starting with a courtship of actress Sibyl Vane (Judi Bowker). But after a poor performance Dorian rejects Sibyl as the acting profession was her beauty; and on returning home, Gray notices that his painting has started to deteriorate. After receiving news that Sibyl has committed suicide, Dorian begins to exploit his looks for a debauched life. In anger, Dorian blames his fate on Basil, and stabs him to death. Deciding that only full confession will absolve him, Dorian destroys the last vestige of his conscience; stabbing the picture, Gray recoils bloodied on the floor, aging rapidly while the painting regains its original form.

A critical success and labelled the "most Wildean," this feature-length BBC DRAMA OF THE MONTH - written by playwright John Osborne - also includes definitive portrayals of the hedonistic Gray, aristocratic dandy Wotton, and infatuated artist Hallward. Lord Henry seduces Dorian through a poisonous wit that aims to shock; though naïve, Wotton's radical theories send Dorian in a tailspin, Gray's early insecurities making him the perfect clay for the Lord's willing hands. This version also accentuates the gay subtext more than most, especially in the relationship between Dorian and Alan (Nicholas Clay), when the latter is asked to draw on his chemical experience to dispose of Basil's body. Such homoerotica plays a large role structurally: Basil’s painting depends upon his adoration of Dorian; similarly, Lord Henry is overcome with the desire to seduce Gray and mould him in his own image. As a homosexual living in an intolerant society, Wilde asserted this philosophy partially in an attempt to justify his own lifestyle. For although beauty and youth remain of utmost importance at the end, the price one must pay for them is exceedingly high.

John Stride plays a beleaguered husband in the sinisterly subdued

The BBC's successor to THE WEDNESDAY PLAY, PLAY FOR TODAY would be transmitted between 1970 and 1984 and become the flagship for respected anthology drama, specialising in social realism but also dabbling in everything from biopics to science fiction. John Bowen's A PHOTOGRAPH touches on the dark underbelly of rural intervention, were The Otways - upper crust Radio 3 presenter Michael (John Stride) and working class schoolteacher Gillian (Stephanie Turner) - are a dysfunctional couple living in the city where their festering resentments cover work, Gillian's mental state and an under-performing sex life. When Michael receives a strange photograph in the post depicting two girls in front of a caravan, it is only the beginning of a journey that will see Gillian and her family - including mother Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) - control Michael's guilt ("That's country wine, that is.") Very much a companion to Bowen's other rural terror for the strand ROBIN REDBREAST - where Bamford appears as the same matriarchal manipulator - A PHOTOGRAPH pitches Gillian's spiralling depression against Michael's increasing determination to solve the puzzle.

Alan Garner's adaptation of his own semi-mystical 1973 novel for RED SHIFT in essence deals with similar themes to A PHOTOGRAPH - that of the indispensable quality of locations and relationships - but is a fragmented and ambitious exploration on a cosmic scale. At the core of RED SHIFT's narrative is the neuropsychological notion of engrams, or how the brain stores memory. This elemental and subconscious notion is theorised to affect behaviour over time and repetition, and here we see the lives of three men living in the same part of Cheshire – one in the present, one in the seventeenth century, and one during the Roman occupation – with their existences linked by common circumstance and the appearance of a talismanic stone axe head.

PLAY FOR TODAY - RED SHIFT's billing in the Radio Times asks "what links the destinies of three couples separated by time, but living in the same place? Is there a force drawing them together - or is it driving them apart?"

The present day relationship between Tom (Stephen Petcher) and Jan (Lesley Dunlop) is solidly written and played, taking in the difficulties of a long-distance relationship and the generational, blinkered sexual views of Tom's parents (Bernard Gallagher and Stella Tanner); in contrast the historical sequences suffer badly from stilted dialogue and budgetary restraints. While Tom obsesses over astrology he declares that he is too "blue" and needs a "red shift"; since cosmological red shifts result from galaxies moving away from each other, this can be read as a metaphor for his need to re-evaluate his life. But there are also many occurrences of red in the story; after a massacre, Macey (Andrew Byett)'s skin is painted red by the tribal girl using dye from alder bark, marking him a "redman" and an ancient symbol of rebirth.