The Value of Myth #3: Play of the Week: South (1959), On Trial: Oscar Wilde (1960)

As it’s the Pride in London Parade this Saturday, my latest Value of Myth post examines gay-themed TV drama in the years before the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which decriminalised private homosexual acts between consenting men over the age of 21, in England and Wales anyway. Homosexuality in Scotland wasn’t decriminalised until 1980. In Northern Ireland it was 1982.

Before then the Irish Football Association had to apply for a licence every time George Best played at Windsor Park.

The BFI’s rediscovery of the Granada produced South in 2013 wrested the crown from Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961) as the earliest surviving gay themed drama. The fact is was broadcast live (on 24 November 1959) makes its survival all the more rare and precious.

Live TV drama is a unique art but I think it’s one that belongs in the past.

I’m just going to leave this here. You can ignore that quote, it’s not.

The performances are less subtle, there aren’t too many close-ups and no long shots. Scenes are lengthy and fairly static (in the dinner scene, the slave Jeremy (Johnny Sekka) keeps serving and topping up glasses just to keep some movement in the piece) and any action sequence are brief and careful. But you never forget you’re watching a piece of TV ephemera. It was never designed to be recorded and preserved, and the occasional line stumble, sound of scene shifting, and in one case a crew member being briefly glimpsed, only add to the magic. This is live footage of the past. You’re walking with ghosts.

South, adapted from Julien Green’s play by experienced TV adaptor Gerald Savory tells the story of Polish soldier Jan Wicziewsky (Peter Wyngarde), staying on a wealthy family’s plantation in the American Deep South shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Aloof and arrogant, his world is turned upside down by the arrival of Eric MacClure (Grayden Gould) and the realisation that he is falling in love with him.

So here we are, two years after the Wolfenden report that recommended that homosexuality was decriminalised but eight years before it actually was. Taboo doesn’t really cover it. It’s no surprise that it was directed by Canadian Mario Prizek, who was openly homosexual and a gay rights champion.

It seems churlish to spend too long critiquing Wyngarde’s performance, even if he spends his first scene unsure which accent to use before deciding to just stick with his own. Rather, it’s better to celebrate the bravery in undertaking such a role.

“I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my living room” vomited The Daily Sketch after broadcast. “This is not prudishness. There are some indecencies in life that are best left covered up.”

And while it’s easy to sneer now at such offensiveness (sadly The Daily Mail and The Daily Express still give us ample opportunities), in 1959 it would be hard to argue that this wasn’t the most commonly held view.

Yet while it would be wrong to call this a subtle piece, everything that would be considered truly controversial is implied. It is what is left unsaid that shouts the loudest.

Deep South fashions in the nineteenth century were pretty fabulous though.

The hopelessness of Wicziewsky’s situation would be familiar to many gay people watching and indeed Wyngarde himself hid his sexuality from the public. Although….

Okay, maybe that’s just out of context and…..

But if South is implicit about homosexuality, it is very explicit on the subject of race. I lost count of the amount of n-words the cook, Eliza (Barbara Assoon) uses to Jeremy. And Eliza is also black, although fairer skinned, which she carries like a badge of honour. It’s chilling stuff.

In one of the saddest scenes I’ve witnessed in television Wicziewsky confesses to the plantation owner’s son Jimmy (Karl Lanchbury) “it’s better not to know what men are thinking, it’s almost always sad or shameful.”

Pictured: all the feels.

The play ends with Wicziewsky deliberately insulting MacClure’s honour, forcing a duel and making sure MacClure kills him. Death is preferable to the agony of forbidden love.

This is a rare, dark gem of a piece and a dearly hope it will see the light of DVD one day.

The agony in the On Trial episode Oscar Wilde is covered by wit and bluster rather than pained stoicism.

Broadcast over the summer of 1960, On Trial was a series covering real life high-profile court cases using the court records accurately reflect what was said. It’s a fascinating idea and Micheál MacLiammóir brings Wilde to life like no other actor I’ve seen in this role. All the more impressive as he’s a fair bit older than Wilde was at the time of his trial. He uses this to his advantage as much is made of Wilde’s love of youth and beauty in a way that frames the man as less than wholesome. I’m still undecided if that was deliberate or not.

Is it me for does he look like a cross between the first two Doctors Who?

However the decision to have Andrew Faulds jarringly edited in to narrate to camera spoils the whole pacing and tone, and drops you out of the drama. Far better to narrate subtly via voiceover.

Context is also somewhat haphazard. This is really the story of three trials, Wilde suing John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury, Wilde’s subsequent prosecution for sodomy and gross indecency, and then second trial after the Jury failed to reach a verdict. But the Wilde v. Queensberry defamation case is dealt with all too briefly, and it’s only at the end of the trial depicted to you learn the Jury was unable to reach a verdict and a second trial was necessary, after which Wilde was found guilty. It all feels a bit rushed and unsatisfactory.

Right at the very end, we have a two minute conclusion from writer and commentator JB Priestley. This is excellent stuff but you’re left wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to have his thoughts throughout the episode rather than shoehorned in at the end.

This episode is still worth a watch for MacLiammóir’s performance alone but this is too broad a tale to tell within the confines of a one set, 50 minute drama, as the various dramatisations of these events attest.

Ultimately these plays are brave attempts to bring homosexuality into the public sphere at a time when it was still a crime, and whatever their faults they must be preserved and cherished. They dared speak this love’s name. They should be watched with pride.

As the UK today shows us more than ever, complacency only ever leads to suffering.


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