Wilde wild Worthing

The 1895 production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax & George Alexander as Jack Worthing)

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ comes across as the most metropolitan and refined of plays and yet it was not written in Oscar Wilde’s Cheyne Walk home in Chelsea but in a holiday home in Worthing, West Sussex. That’s how come the protagonist is named Worthing and his family origins include reference to a first-class railway ticket to Worthing.

JACK. The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL. Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK. [Gravely.] In a hand-bag.

LADY BRACKNELL. A hand-bag?

JACK. [Very seriously.] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag – a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it – an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL. In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK. In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

It’s the most famous exchange in the play, largely due to Dame Edith Evans’ defining performance in which she made the very most of the word “hand-bag”. That’s why, in the performance last night at Brighton Open Air Theatre, the inventive players of Slapstick Picnic just mouthed the word. It was a superb distillation into a two-hander, reminiscent of Steven Berkoff’s mannered acting in his brilliant ‘Decadence’ (Berkoff being a big fan of Brighton with a bolt-hole in Kemptown), whose comic invention Wilde would have enjoyed.

2021 (6th August) production at Brighton Open Air Theatre

In the summer of 1894 Wilde went on holiday for two months to Worthing with his wife, Constance, and sons, Cyril (9) and Vyvyan (7). It was the last summer before his life disintegrated. Constance travelled down with their two young sons on 7th August, Wilde followed on the 10th.

Wilde was married to Constance (35) but in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as ‘Bosie’. He had met Bosie in 1891. They were both at Magdalen College, Oxford. Within 8 months of Worthing, Wilde was in jail as a direct result of his infatuation with the handsome young aristocrat. 

Although it was a family holiday, Bosie showed up and stayed three times. He was a demanding, immature character and his egotism caused Wilde no end of problems.  

Meanwhile, Constance, lonely and unhappy, fell in love (in a platonic way) with another man, Arthur Humphreys (30), bookseller, publisher and a family friend, who came down to spend the day in Worthing with the Wildes on 11th August. She wrote him a heart-felt love-letter while he was still at the house, slipping it to him before his departure.

And to complete the bedroom farce Wilde became sexually involved with a local teenage boy, Alphonse Conway. Born in Bognor but raised in Worthing, he was six weeks past his 16th birthday when they first met. Plus there were two other teenage boys on the scene.

Meanwhile he was writing what is broadly acknowledged as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest – a landmark in English-language theatre. He had previously written three comedies but he peaked on this fourth.

Wilde was under pressure at that time financially so he really needed a hit play. He was also under pressure back in London from Bosie’s overbearing father, the Marquess of Queensberry, he of boxing fame, who was doing his utmost to harass his son’s lover. It was this crude man who finally landed a knock-out blow to the refined Wilde. The day before leaving for holiday Wilde wrote to Bosie of Queensbury: “It is intolerable to be dogged by a maniac.”

Wilde and Bosie had a sexual relationship for only a few months two summers before the Worthing trip. Queensberry, judging by Wilde and Bosie’s overtly gay behaviour in public, assumed it was on-going. Some four months after the Worthing holiday Queensberry left a visiting card at Wilde’s club on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde, Posing as a Somdomite [sic]”. Wilde inadvisedly sued Queensberry for libel. He lost the trial, got convicted himself for homosexuality and ended up doing hard labour in Reading Gaol (where he served the last 18 months of his sentence) which broke his health although yielded a brilliant long poem.

Worthing was chosen as a place where Wilde would have peace to write. It was quieter than Brighton (which Wilde knew well) and Constance was able to rent a house from a friend who had gone north for the summer.

Wilde and Bosie, Alphonse and other male teenagers, swam, fished and went out every day on a sailing boat. Constance, whom he no longer loved (sexual relations between them had ceased around 1886), was left back in the house, isolated and saddened. She wrote to a friend: “I have had no-one to talk to, and I have been rather depressed.”

Wilde attended several events in Worthing over the summer:  a lifeboat demonstration, the annual sailing regatta and the Venetian fête, a lamp-lit water carnival, where, as a celeb, he presented the prizes for the best-decorated boats and made a witty speech in praise of Worthing: “It has beautiful surroundings and lovely long walks, which I recommend to other people, but do not take myself.”

Worthing provided several of the names in the play. Beside the protagonist Jack Worthing, Wilde found the name Bunbury in the Worthing Gazette. Miss Prism, “a woman of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education” is probably based on the “horrid, ugly Swiss governess” (as described in a letter to Bosie) looking after Cyril and Vyvyan on the Worthing trip.

Bosie was largely a hindrance and distraction to Wilde but he liked to bask in the aura of ‘Earnest’. He claimed he was in the same room while most of the play was being written and that some of the jokes were drawn from his own “repartee”. He was considered fairly witty and amusing. This Wilde child’s claims were no doubt overblown and another facet of the toxicity he brought to Oscar’s life. 

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas by Gillman & Co. (1893)
The Haven , the rented house in Worthing
Constance Wilde – 30th July 1894, a week before the Worthing trip
The lifeboat demonstration 22nd August 1894 – according to the Worthing Gazette “Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about”

Very little of the concrete aspects of Wilde’s time in Worthing survives. The Haven, the house that Constance rented for the family, was demolished in the 60s. It stood at the northern (Brighton Road) end of the Esplanade terrace, four houses which stood between Brighton Road and the seashore at the eastern end of the town. The terrace eventually became a hotel. There is though a Blue Plaque on the site of the Esplanade terrace, a building called Esplanade Court. It is at the sea-end of the east façade of Esplanade Court (the opposite end from where The Haven actually stood). When the blue plaque was put up it caused a ripple of controversy in the town, a waiting room for heaven (or hell) with its dominant elderly population . Unworthy of Worthing said some of the duffers including a local historian: “This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education – I don’t think that would be regarded as heroic today. I think it would be regarded as smutty and reprehensible”.  All quite a contrast to Worthing’s neighbour Brighton whose alternative vibe is set by its LGBT community and whose current motto (devised by the local tourist board in response to the post-Covid term “the new normal”) is ‘Brighton Never Normal’. Oscar Never Dull.

A Circle of Sound – 150 years of the Royal Albert Hall

An appropriate colour of light for its address on Kensington Gore

The day before yesterday (19 July) marked the first full-capacity concert at the 5,000 seat Albert Hall since March 2020. It was a piece called ‘A Circle of Sound’ composed by David Arnold, known for his soundtracks for Bond films, Hollywood movies (Independence Day) and TV dramas (Sherlock), to mark the 150th anniversary of its opening on 29th March 1871. In 10 parts, it addressed the history of this very special London venue through various lenses – pop music, the Proms, sport, remembrance, activism, etc.

It was set up as the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, a direct result of Prince Albert’s brainchild, the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the success of the Exhibition, he proposed a permanent presence for Science, Art and Learning near the Hyde Park site. He didn’t live to see its fruition, but it ended up bearing his name when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1867 in memory of her beloved husband who died six years before the Hall finally opened. (The foundation stone sits under Block K of the stalls.)

David Arnold and special guests – Mel C (white suit), Jemma Redgrave (white dress), Helen Pankhurst (between them in Suffragette scarf)

It’s an important spot for London architecture because you see juxtaposed at close quarters the two main influences on modern London – the Classical as represented by the coliseum-like circle of the Albert Hall and the Gothic as represented by the pointy, churchy Albert Memorial, just the other side of Kensington Gore. 

Circle of Victorian red brick

Highlights of the celebratory evening included:

  • Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia, great-granddaughter of Emmeline, introducing a speech of her great-grandmother given in the USA (Hartford, Connecticut) known as the Freedom or Death speech, considered one of the great speeches of the 20th century.

we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death

  • Jemma Redgrave, daughter of Corin, son of Michael, in that English acting dynasty, performed the speech with great energy, bringing a tear to the eye – the achievement of the British Suffragette movement is one of the most admirable and proudest moments for this country
  • Mel C of The Spice Girls introducing the section on all the pop music that has been played at the Hall, featuring a young band invited from the Rhythm Studio in W10 including the drumming talent of Finlay Gee (nephew), who provided the only fist pump of the evening he had gotten such a kick from playing this huge venue at the age of just 18
  • Brian Cox helping us all feel like an insignificant speck in the universe as he framed the perspective of the Science section, Science being as much a part of the original conception of the Hall as Arts
  • Charles Dance receiving a warm welcome as a national treasure with an edge as he introduced the Remembrance section – he stole the show thanks to that edge when we made Was It Something I Said? at Channel 4 
  • Michael Sheen performing in Welsh barnstorming style as he introduced the final movement looking forward to the next 150 years

With regard to pop music played in the Hall the landmark shows include:

The Great Pop Prom // 15 September 1963 (the week I was born)
The first time The Beatles and The Stones performed on the same bill. Paul McCartney remembered the night like this: “Up there with the Rolling Stones we were thinking: ‘This is it – London. The Albert Hall.’ We felt like gods.”

Bob Dylan // 26 & 27 May 1966
The tour when he “went electric”. Ironically the concert famously known as the Albert Hall concert actually took place a few days earlier in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester – that’s the one where an outraged audience member accused Dylan of being “Judas!”

Bloke in audience: “Judas!”

Dylan: “I don’t believe you!”(reference to the title of a song he had played earlier in the gig)

Dylan: “You’re a liar!”

Dylan (to band): “Play fucking loud!”

Jimi Hendrix // 18 & 24 February 1969
The Jimi Hendrix Experience first played the Hall in 1967. They returned two years later to play some blues rather than their hits. The fans were appeased with an encore featuring ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Wild Thing’ and Hendrix on the floor playing the guitar with his teeth.

Pink Floyd // 26 June 1969
Pink Floyd excelled themselves by getting a lifetime ban from the Hall on their first gig there. During the song ‘Work’ Rick Wright constructed a wooden table on stage wielding hammer and saw. After that a gorilla burst into the auditorium, that is a man in a gorilla costume. As a finale, two cannons were fired and a pink smoke bomb exploded. The Hall’s management swiftly banned the Floyd from performing there ever again. Then in 1972 they decided to ban all “pop and rock concerts” because of the “hysterical behaviour of a large audience often encouraged by unthinking performers.” But Rock triumphed. The Floyd were back playing there just a year later, and the blanket ban was similarly short-lived, although The Who’s 1972 show fell victim to it. 

David Gilmour & David Bowie // 29 May 2006
When Bowie was invited onto the stage by Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour in 2006, it turned out to be both Bowie’s first & only appearance at the Hall, and his last ever UK public performance. The two  duetted on the songs ‘Arnold Layne’ (a nod to the influence on both of Syd Barrett) and ‘Comfortably Numb’. 

 

One of the many magical moments at the Albert Hall – Gilmour & Bowie

Story Snippet: Harrison

Three of us are having a late night summer wander around the backstreets of Hampstead. We come to St John-at-Hampstead church. As we walk through the churchyard there are two winos sitting on the bench in the yard. I acknowledge them and keep moving round the side of the church – I have something I want to show my two companions. As we walk down the side path between the building and some graves there are three teenagers sitting on a bench smoking weed. I acknowledge them and move past. Just beyond them is the object of the diversion – the tomb of John Harrison, a key contributor to the measurement of time, the inventor of the marine chronometer, and a self-taught clock maker and repairer. Born in 1693, his claim to fame is that he worked out how to measure longitude at sea, vital to global navigation. He won a £20,000 prize for his efforts, although getting the Board of Longitude and Parliament to honour the award proved difficult and drawn out. We read the lengthy inscription which tells Harrison’s story as best we can by phone light. 

We head back to our main course past the weed-smokers and back into the church yard. There one of the winos asks, to our surprise, “Did you see the Harrison grave?” I confirm we have, taken back a bit by the fact he has any knowledge of or interest in the relatively anonymous tomb. The other one pipes up that he is actually George Harrison. (18th century John  Harrison was also, as it happens, expert in the technicalities of music, given his mathematical genius.) The jolt from the first one’s question reminds us once again that winos, street people, addicts, burn-outs, bums and the like are human sons/daughters, maybe parents, friends, certainly relatives. Too easy to lose sight of. 

One of the nominees in this year’s inaugural SMART film festival, our international Smartphone film festival, helps underline this same realisation – José Rocha Pinto’s ‘In the Depths of the City’

And on the subject of addiction and drinking, our Amy Winehouse film for MTV and Paramount was announced this week. ‘Amy Winehouse and Me: Dionne’s Story’ plays on the 10th anniversary of Amy’s trip to the great stage in the sky (23rd July 2011 – in the UK it TXs  Mon 26th July at 10pm on MTV):

 

In contrast to the predictably grim Mirror piece, our film (on which my focus was story and script) is constructive and substantial, showing a process of grief over a decade finally coming to its crux. It centres on Amy’s godaughter, singer Dionne Bromfield.

Here’s the trailer: play

 

Comment piece in Screen International on Smartphone Filmmaking

I recently authored this comment piece for Screen International to mark the inaugural SMART – the London International Smartphone Film Festival – which I set up with director Victoria Mapplebeck. It highlights the fact that smartphone filmmaking is now a mainstream production option and can film some things not filmable in any other way.

To its credit Screen published my text very accurately. They cut one section because it focused on mobile-oriented platforms like TikTok which they felt was beyond the scope of their publication. The missing paragraph highlighted the fact that Victoria and I consider that the locus of the most interesting and innovative filmmaking. It read:

However, smartphones in cinema are something of a distraction. The freshest, most innovative work is in the realm of TikTok and other thoroughly phone-based platforms where the material is conceived with a mobile-oriented mindset, shot and consumed on smartphones in a social context. Not only is the equipment ubiquitous and cheap, but, an equally key part of the equation, the distribution is free and potentially huge, free of gatekeepers. You have to plough through mountains of crap to find the nuggets, but that’s where personalisation and algorithms come in.

The piece was generated by our sponsor TPR Media, specialists in media publicity and comms for the creative industries and projects with a social impact.

The Casting Game No. 45 – The Aussie Connection

Ben Mendelsohn (as seen in ‘Bloodline’)

as

Noah Taylor

Ben Mendelsohn:

Born 1969

Australian

Break-out role in ‘The Year My Voice Broke’ (1987)

Noah Taylor:

Born 1969

Australian

Break-out role in ‘The Year My Voice Broke’ (1987)

The excellent ‘The Year My Voice Broke’ (1987 dir. John Duigan – who also directed the delightful ‘Flirting’ (1991))
also starring Noah Taylor, and the recently rechristened Thandie Newton/Thandiwe Newton

Amy Winehouse in Camden Town

Atmosphere (2013) by Pegasus – Junction of Parkway & Albert St (Earl of Camden pub)
Junction of Bayham St & Pratt St
by Bambi – Amy (& Morganico – Michael Dixon) – Michael, the man in black, was a local hairdresser, friend of Amy, added later
a fresh one – under the railway bridge at Castlehaven Rd
by Pegasus – just in the doorway of the Old Market Hall (Camden Lock Market) straight off of Camden High Street opposite Castlehaven Rd
by Otto Schade aka Osch – Hawley St
by Scott Eaton (2014) – The Stables Market

The above are all the traces of Amy Winehouse around her manor ten years after her tragic passing. 

The below are previous street art pieces which have gone the way of most street art, to that  blank wall in the sky.

by Mr Cenz
by Amara Por Dios and Kaptain Kris
by Philth (Phill Blake)
by Amara Por Dios and Kaptain Kris

Here’s a good snapshot of Amy art in the summer of 2017 when the Jewish Museum, which sits firmly in her stomping ground (on Albert St near ‘Atmosphere’), held an exhibition in her honour, appropriately including a series of street art commissions in the area.

The 10th anniversary of Amy’s death is on 23rd July.

forever with her gran

THE ARTISTS

Pegasus 

Bambi 

Osch

Mr Cenz

Amara por Dios

Kaptain Kris

Philth 

Coincidence No. 347 – Keats

A post on Simple Pleasures part 4, prompted by a Poem on the Underground eight days ago, quoted a famous line from John Keats’ Endymion

Three days ago a gift was received at ArkAngel HQ – an 1894 copy of selections from Keats’ poems published by Routledge (with whom ArkAngel is currently in discussions about a book).

Tawney was 16 at this time
The subject of the recent post

Just before drafting this post a quick search for RH Tawney revealed he is not some long-forgotten Victorian reader but a significant figure in British economic history. Richard Henry ‘Harry’ Tawney, according to that other double-initialled historian AL Rowse, “exercised the widest influence of any historian of his time, politically, socially and, above all, educationally.” Tawney was a leading Christian Socialist and a vocal champion of Adult Education.

He was born in 1880 (so was 16 when he acquired this volume) and died in 1962. On a plaque to him in Lissenden Gardens near Parliament Hill he is dubbed “Founding Father of the Welfare State”.

 

RH Tawney

SMART – The London International Smartphone Film Festival

The launch of SMART – the London International Smartphone Film Festival – set up by Adam Gee & Victoria Mapplebeck was covered in this week’s Observer in a piece by Arts & Media Correspondent Vanessa Thorpe:

 

The full article is here

Coincidences No.s 344, 345 & 346

No. 344 Magdala

16.4.21

I meet documentary filmmaker and Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab Sheila Hayman at Parliament Hill. We talk about the Magdala pub, a short straight walk from where we sit sipping tea, infamous for being the site of Ruth Ellis’ shooting of her nogoodnik lover. I ask Sheila “What’s a magdala anyhow?” She also doesn’t know.

The next day I am reading a pulpy detective novel whose plot kicks off in the Holy Land in the 20s. The second chapter ends:

” ‘It appears to be a letter,’ I said slowly, ‘from a woman named Mariam, or Mary. She refers to herself as an apostle of Joshua, or Jesus, “the Anointed One”, and it is addressed to her sister, in the town of Magdala.’ “

Mystery solved. A town in the Holy Land which gave Mary Magdalene her name.

No. 345 Suze

9.5.21

I am reading the biography of Jerry Rubin by Pat Thomas, having enjoyed ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7‘ very much. An interesting fact that emerges is that Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s girlfriend featured on the cover of the ‘Freewheelin’ ‘ LP, went on a visit to Cuba in June 1964 organised by the Fair Play for Cuba Committee based at Berkley. Jerry also happened to be on the trip. 

About two minutes before opening the book, I am looking at the contact print by photographer Don Hunstein on my living room wall (a limited edition of 25). It is the shoot for the cover of ‘Freewheelin’ ‘. Most of the time it is part of the furniture but the night before I was having a text exchange about Bob Dylan’s art and photos of him with a friend of mine after listening together to the Van gig at Real World and so today I am actually seeing it and looking closely.

No. 346 Prince

9.5.21

I am meeting the new Digital Experience Design MA student I am supervising, in Old Street. We walk around Shoreditch coming back via Leonard Street where I used to work when Little Dot Studios were based at No. 100. She asks me what my best ever gig was (The Clash at the Electric Ballroom). Then she tells me hers – Prince at some festival in her native Switzerland.

Exactly as she utters the name Prince we are at the window of Pure Evil’s gallery at No. 98 and facing us is one of Pure Evil’s tear pictures of …Prince.

by Pure Evil

A Thing of Beauty

by David Speed @davidspeeduk in Shoreditch, London 9.5.21

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness

John Keats – ‘Endymion’ (currently featured in Poems on the Underground to mark the 200th anniversary of Keats’ death)

“Our first set of poems for 2021 is now on trains. Poems on the Underground is marking the 200th anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, and features six poems written or inspired by Keats and his love of nature. These poems are:

An excerpt from Endymion by John Keats
An excerpt from Adonais by Percy Bysshe Shelly
Wish You Were Here by Julia Fiedorczuk
rising by Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze
I go inside the tree by Jo Shapcott
When I have Fears That I May Cease To Be by John Keats”

David Speed on Insta

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