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‘Oscar’: Documentary on the importance of being Wilde

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Writer Michael Bracewell examines the importance of being Oscar Wilde, through the events and works of the great poet’s life.

Here, Wilde is compared to an Existential hero, a man who was brave enough to set an example for all of us - to relish in the essence of who we are.

Wilde was rarely modest, and best explained himself in a letter to his lover Alfred Douglas, Jan-Mar. 1897:

‘I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age…The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring: I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colors of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder.

I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.’

First aired in 1997, this is a fascinating documentary explaining why Oscar Wilde still really matters, with contributions from Tom Stoppard, Stephen Fry, Neil Tennant and Ulick O’Connor.
 

 

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Writers’ Bloc: Places where writers and artists have lived together

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Home is where the art is for four different groups of writers, who lived and worked together under one roof, experiencing a cultural time-share that produced diverse and original works of literature, art, and popular entertainment.
 
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The February House

Between 1940 and 1942, “an entire generation of Western culture” lived at 7 Middagh Street, Brooklyn. The poet W. H. Auden was house mother, who collected rents and doled out toilet paper, at 2 sheets for each of his fellow tenants, advising them to use “both sides”. These tenants included legendary stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, novelist Carson McCullers and a host of other irregular visitors - composer Benjamin Britten, singer Peter Pears, writers Jane and Paul Bowles and Erika and Klaus Mann, Salvador Dali, a selection of stevedores, sailors, circus acts and a chimpanzee.

Auden wrote his brilliant poem New Year Letter here and fell obsessively in love with Chester Kallman, and attempted to strangle him one hot, summer night - an event that taught Auden the universal potential for evil. On the top floor, Carson McCullers escaped from her psychotic husband, and wrote Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding, while slowly drinking herself to an early death.

On the first floor, Gypsy Rose Lee created her legend as the world’s most famous stripper, wrote her thriller The G-String Murders, offered a shoulder to cry on, and told outrageous tales of her burlesque life.

Known as the “February House”, because of the number of birthdays shared during that month, 7 Middagh St. was a place of comfort and hope in the desperate months at the start of the Second World War.
 
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The Fun Factory

The scripts that came out of 9 Orme Court in London, changed world comedy. And if Spike Milligan hadn’t gone mad and attempted to murder Peter Sellers with a potato peeler, it may never have all happened.

Milligan was the comic genius behind The Goons, and the stress of writing a new script every week, led to his breakdown. The need for a place to work, away from the demands of family, home and fame, brought Milligan to share an office with highly successful radio scriptwriter, Eric Sykes. 

The first Fun Factory was above a greengrocer on the Uxbridge Road. Here Sykes, Milligan, comedian Frankie Howerd and agent Scruffy Dale, formed the Writers’ Bloc Associated London Scripts. The idea was to bring together the best and newest comedy writers under one umbrella. Milligan saw ALS as an artists’ commune that would lead to political and cultural change. Sykes saw ALS as a business opportunity to produce great comedy. Frankie Howerd saw it as a source of finding new material.

When Milligan asked two young writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson to come on board, the central core of ALS was formed.

This merry band of writers expanded in the coming years to include: Johnny Speight (Till Death Us Do Part); Barry Took and Marty Feldman (The Army Game and Round the Horne); Terry Nation (Dr Who and the Daleks); John Antrobus (The Bed-Sitting Room); and with a move to the more suitable offices of 9 Orme Court, ALS was established as the home of legendary British comedy.

Milligan continued successfully with The Goons, before devising the groundbreaking Q series for television. Sykes began his long and successful career with his own TV show. While Galton and Simpson created the first British TV sitcom, Hancock’s Half-Hour, and then the massively influential Steptoe and Son.

9 Orme Court was once described, as though Plato, Aristotle, Galileo and Leonardo Da Vinci were all living in the same artist’s garret.
 
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The Beat Hotel

A run-down hotel in the back streets of Paris was unlikely setting for a Cultural Revolution, but the Sixties were seeded when poet, Allen Ginsberg William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Bryon Gysin moved into the Beat Hotel, at 9 Git le Coeur, in the late 1950s.

The literary revolution that started with Ginsberg’s Howl in America was formalised and expanded in the cramped, leaky, piss-smelling hotel rooms at 9 Git le Couer.

Ginsberg wrote part of Kaddish here, as he came to terms with the madness and death of his Mother. First to arrive, Ginsberg was also be first to check out, travelling in search of enlightenment to India. 

The wild and romantic Corso produced his best books of poems “Gasoline” and “Bomb”, whilst living the life of an American abroad.

But it was Burroughs who gained most from his four-year on-and-off stay in Git le Coeur.  Here he completed Naked Lunch, and wrote the novels The Soft Machine, The Nova Express, The Ticket that Exploded, and together with Bryon Gysin devised the cut-up form of writing, indulged in seances, Black Magic and tried out Scientology.

Like Middagh Street, the Beat Hotel was a cultural and social experiment that sought to inspire art through shared experiences. 
 
Passport from Pimlico

It started with a bet. Three young writers sitting watching Mick Jagger on Top of the Pops, in a flat in Pimlico during the 1960s. The bet was simple, which of the 3 would make the big time first?

It was the kind of idle chat once made soon forgotten, but not for these 3 young talents, Tom Stoppard, Derek Marlowe and Piers Paul Read.

Read and Marlowe believed Stoppard would hit the big time first, but they were wrong, it was Marlowe in 1966 with his cool and brilliant spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic, made into a film with Laurence Harvey, Mia Farrow, Tom Courtney and Peter Cook.

Stoppard was next in 1967, with his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Then Read with Alive the story of Andes plane crash in 1974.

All 3 were outsiders, set apart from their contemporaries by their romanticized sense of Englishness, which came from their backgrounds. Read was a brilliant Catholic author, favorably compared to Graham Greene; Stoppard, a Czech-émigré, and Marlowe, a second generation Greek, who was for “heroes, though if not Lancelot or Tristan, heroes” who appeared “out of the mould of the time.” All three writers were to become the biggest British talents of the 1970s and 1980s.
 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

A Dandy in Aspic: A letter from Derek Marlowe


 

 

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A Dandy in Aspic - A Letter from Derek Marlowe

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I originally wrote this elsewhere, but want to share it, in remembrance of a great writer, Derek Marlowe, who died today in 1996.

Marlowe was the author of nine novels, ranging form the Cold War spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic, the historical A Single Summer With L.B., about Byron, Shelley and the creation of monsters and the partially autobiographical The Rich Boy from Chicago. Marlowe started as a playwright, before moving to prose.

When I interviewed him in 1984, Marlowe told me the story of how his career really started with a bet. A bet between three young writers, who lived together in a flat in London. Nothing unusual there, except these young writers were Tom Stoppard, Piers Paul Read and Derek Marlowe. One day, as they watched Mick Jagger on Top of the Pops, the three wagered a bet on who would make a million first.  It was decided Stoppard would, but Marlowe pipped him to it, with his first novel, A Dandy in Aspic.

I started reading Marlowe in my early teens and he focussed my thoughts about writing. This then is the story of a fan letter I wrote Marlowe and his reply.

Someone, somewhere, has probably written a thesis on fan letters, showing how the turn of phrase, spelling, sentence structure and language, reveal the psychology of the writer.  I can guess the flaws my three or four fan letters reveal about me, both good and bad.  That said, the replies always pleased - a signed photograph, a message from a secretary, a written response.  The reply that meant so much to me came from the brilliant author, Derek Marlowe.

Marlowe inspired me to see the beauty of writing and the power a novelist has in telling their tale.  His books took me away from the comfort of Sherlock Holmes, Alistair MacLean, and the dog-eared ghost stories, into a world of shifting ambiguity, complex relationships, through his dark, witty stories told in his remarkable style.

Marlowe’s response to my Biro scribbled missive was a typed, two page letter, in lower case and capitals.  It is a letter I cherish, for it gave me a sense of what can be made of a life. Derek Marlowe was more than just a novelist, he was a successful playwright, a screenwriter, and an award-winning writer for television.  In the letter he explained how he had started his career after being sent down from University:

“I was thrown out of Queen Mary College, London, for editing and writing an article in the college magazine.  The article was a parody of The Catcher in the Rye reflecting the boredom of college seminars.  Not very funny or special but times were odd then. Besides, I hated University and I think I’d made that rather too clear.

“I began writing plays since I had started a play for the College which took a surprising course.  Continued with plays for about four years, went to Berlin, came back and then I realised, after writing A Dandy in Aspic (I was then a clerk) that I preferred prose to theatre. Besides, the person I was sharing the flat with and had done for six years, seemed better at theatre than me.  He was and is Tom Stoppard.”

Marlowe’s first novel A Dandy in Aspic, published in 1966, was the story of a double-agent, Eberlin, sent on a mission to assassinate his alter ego.  Dandy, as the jacket blurb said:

After a beautifully arresting plunge-in, a spy is assigned - savage irony! - to hunt himself down. And now, hot on his own trail…

Dandy fitted into the sixties’ pre-occupation with suave secret agents and was made into a so-so film starring Laurence Harvey, Mia Farrow, Tom Courtney and Peter Cook, of which Marlowe wrote:

“Regarding the film Dandy..  The director, Anthony Mann died during the filming (a superb man and great director) and it was taken over by Laurence Harvey, the badly cast Eberlin.  He directed his own mis-talent, changed it and the script - which is rather like Mona Lisa touching up he portrait while Leonardo is out of the room.”

 
More on Derek Marlowe, plus bonus clip after the jump…
 

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