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The Picture of Dorian Gray (1976)

Review by: Derek Johnston

A peculiar exercise in camp from the BBC, this. With a screen adaptation written by John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer), this is a studio bound production from the Play of the Month strand, made with all the skill in Victorian settings that seemed to be such a speciality of 1970s
The production values are high in this regard, although a tread on a stair will sound strangely hollow, lighting will not be as dramatic as it could be, and there are no exteriors.
But what fascinates is the feyness of the whole production. Osborne's script and John Gorrie's direction combine to emphasise the homosexual reading of Oscar Wilde's novel. Peter Firth (Dominick Hide, Lifeforce, Spooks) is remarkably androgynous as Dorian, shockingly young (he was 23, but looks younger), bouffant-haired, pouty and camp of gesture.
Sir John Gielgud plays Lord Henry Wotton as something of an old queen, particularly in his old age scenes, where he is clearly wearing powder, rouge, eyeliner and eye shadow. And Jeremy Brett (Sherlock Holmes, The Medusa Touch) plays the artist Basil Hallward as more repressed and discreet than Lord Henry, although he also gets to proclaim his love for Dorian directly, with some slight tweaks to Wilde's original words.
And there is a scene where Gray attempts to seduce Alan Campbell (Nicholas Clay's Excalibur, Virtual Murder, The Hound of the Baskervilles), where both look improbably gorgeous and where there is a definite eroticism that makes this reviewer want to reassert his masculinity. Just in case… well, y'know.
The story has become one of a beautiful boy wrestled over (metaphorically) by two men eager for his attention. Where the 1945 MGM production had Basil and Lord Henry representing the sides of good and temptation respectively, Basil is now love where Lord Henry is irresponsibility and self-gratification. When the trio are going to see Dorian's fiancée, Sybil Vane (Judi Bowker - Mina in the BBC Count Dracula), Lord Henry tells Basil that there is only room for two in Lord Henry's brougham, so Basil will have to follow in a hansom. Basil at one point reaches out to touch Dorian's hair, while at another point Lord Henry bends to kiss Dorian's hand, but is rebuffed.
But is this Brit horror? The 1945 version, with Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders (a superior Lord Henry to Gielgud, in my opinion) and Angela Lansbury, is definitely a classy slice of gothic horror. It is atmospheric, elegant and stylised, with definite shocking moments in the colour reveals of the portrait in its otherwise monochrome presentation. But, apart from the members of the cast, it is not British. (As your editor found out to his cost! Still, it's a great film and worth tracking down… - Ed.)
There are two shocking moments in this production. The expression on Hallward's grey, bloody, murdered face is one of terror and is truly horrific. And the final reveal of the portrait at its most corrupt is still shocking, particularly as it is more realistic than the one used in the '45 film, as is the makeup used for the final short of Dorian. But this is a stagy production, and lacks a lot of the sense of doom that seemed to permeate the MGM film.
Is it worth watching? Certainly. It's an interesting take on the original material, with excellent performances and some good production values. And, with the MGM film not currently available on DVD, it will help fill its place. Although this will also prove hard to find, as it was originally released by the BBC's Special Interests section, which also released the Louis Jourdan BBC Count Dracula, and which seems to have now vanished, along with its website of supplementary material.
It's also worth seeing to wonder at just how camp this production is.

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