Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wilde Society’

Celebrating Oscar Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th June, 2017

JF and Gyles BrandrethThough I can’t claim to be a founder member, I have been a keen supporter of the Oscar Wilde Society for many years, and am proud to be one of its Patrons. Not only has it filled a lacuna in the academic market with its scholarly publication, The Wildean, but it also puts on extremely jolly events, from the annual summer lunch at Oscar’s alma mater, Magdalen College, Oxford, to the annual birthday dinner each October at the National Liberal Club in London. Today the Society tried a new venue, Obicá, in South Kensington, for one of its occasional authors’ lunches, this time for our President, no less: Gyles Brandreth. Gyles has been producing a series of sleuthful stories embracing the historic personalities of Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle (who did indeed know each other) and in his latest sortie into London’s underworld, Gyles takes on that most lurid of 19th century serial killers, Jack the Ripper.

Gyles Brandreth Jack the RipperAs well as explaining the background to how he came to write Jack the Ripper: Case Closed (Little, Brown), Gyles shared affectionate recollections of his recently departed literary agent, Ed Victor, as well as making charming asides to the various Wildeans in the room. Gyles’s Wilde mysteries have been a huge success worldwide, not least in France, and although he seems to have abandoned his trademark crazy jumpers Gyles himself is still one of the most instantly recognisable and genuinely delightful television “personalities” around. Oscar would, I am sure, have approved, had he been with us now, and he might even have co-opted one of Brandreth’s witticisms as his own, as he did with his Chelsea neighbour, friend and deadly rival, James McNeill Whistler.




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Oscance: Toasting Oscar and Constance Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th May, 2016

Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd on 29 May 1884 at St. James’s Church, Paddington, a short walk from the bride’s grandfather’s house in Lancaster Gate. For the past dozen years or so, that event has been commemorated at the church with an afternoon ceremony called Oscance, with readings, interviews and performances. But yesterday’s commemoration was special, as it centred on the unveiling by their only grandson, Merlin Holland, of a beautiful memorial to the couple, made by he young letter-cutter, Thomas Sergeant. As one of the Patrons of the Oscar Wilde Society, I was then asked asked to propose a toast (with prosecco), which I did as follows:

Wilde plaqueEvery time I come to St. James’s, I can feel the presence of Oscar Wilde. Spooky, as Dame Edna Everage would say, though spooky in a most pleasant way. He’s up there somewhere, among the rafters, looking down on us. But he’s not alone, because half concealed behind one of the pillars — not hiding, but watching the proceedings with a wry smile on her face — is Constance. As was mentioned in the reading from Franny Moyle’s biography, Constance was a strong character in her own right — for example, being an active member of the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association — though the drama of Oscar’s later life left her overshadowed. I sometimes wonder how things would have been if the couple had lived a hundred years later, in our own, more liberal age. But maybe there would not have been this more liberal age had it not been for the lesson of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. It is most fitting now that all the planning and commissioning and the tooling of the memorial are complete that Oscar and Constance in the form of the beautiful plaque will now greet everyone who comes into this church and will bid us farewell this afternoon. I therefore ask you to raise your glasses: to Oscar and Constance!

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Remembering Donald Sinden

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th September, 2014

Donald SindenDonald Sinden 1Donald Sinden was one of those rare actors who excelled in both comedy and tragedy, and offstage he was a brilliant performer as well. He liked to assume the role of a scatty old man — while retaining his rich, fruity intonation — while in fact he kept his marbles more or less up to the end, succumbing to cancer at age 90. We first met when both of us were made honorary Patrons of the Oscar Wilde Society, which both produces scholarly articles on the Irish playwright and organises very special social events. But whereas I have only written about Wilde, Donald had a more intriguing connection, having as a young man befriended Oscar ‘s nemesis, “Bosie” Douglas. But I usually saw Donald at the Garrick Club, where he was the doyen of the actor members. Indeed, most unusually a room was named after him there while he was still alive. He enjoyed giving guided tours of some of the great pictures there, mixing real erudition with an impish sense of humour, which caught out many an unwary visitor. His impersonations of preposterous characters were a joy.

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Merlin Holland after Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th October, 2012

When Merlin Holland was invited to the United States some years ago to give a lecture on his grandfather, Oscar Wilde, the woman at immigration at JFK asked him what claim he had to be an authority on the Irish playwright. Merlin confessed the blood link, at which point the immigration officer — rather surprisingly, perhaps — said, ‘Oh, when Oscar Wilde came to America didn’t he say “I have nothing to declare but my genius!”? So what do you have to declare?’ Merlin replied, ‘only my albatross.’ And indeed for much of his adult life being Wilde’s only grandchild did weigh like an albatross on his shoulders. Fortunately, in a more liberal age than that his father Vyvyan lived in Merlin did not have to confront acrimony or shame; on the contrary, Wilde is now such a cultural icon that the problem is more one of heightened expectation. At times Merlin feels like a letterbox receiving Oscar’s undelivered mail. All these points came out this evening at the 21st annual Oscar Wilde birthday dinner put on by the Oscar Wilde Society (OWS) at the National Liberal Club, at which Merlin was the guest speaker, giving a preview of his next book, After Wilde, which will recount aspects of the Wilde legacy as experienced by him and his family. The OWS Chairman, Don Mead, had been trying to get Merlin — who now lives in France — to address such a dinner for several years, so finally ‘bagging’ him for this sell-out occasion was a triumph, and he did not disappoint. He is a stickler for accuracy when it comes to his grandfather’s life and works, for which all serious Wildean scholars must be truly grateful. I certainly benefited from his help and advice when I was writing my three books about Oscar and his coterie. Being a stickler didn’t always make Merlin popular however; he has pointed out errors and possibly unfounded speculation in Richard Ellmann’s classic biography of Wilde, for example. Those shortcomings (some of which could be put down to the fact that Ellmann was dying of motor-neurone disease while trying to complete his book) have been scrupulously analysed and corrected by the German schollar Horst Schroeder, who fittingly introduced Merlin this evening. The thanks were given in a bravura performance by Gyles Brandreth, who has been making a good living from a series of detective novels based on the conceit of implications of the friendship between Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. At least Brandreth makes no bones about fabricating his stories, and he has certainly added to the gaiety of Wildean circles.

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Pride and Poetry

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th July, 2009

London Pride 2009This year’s London Pride was certainly the most enjoyable I remember: perfect weather for the march, excellent stewarding and a really great atmosphere amongst both the participants and the crowds. The Liberal Democrats made a bigger splash than ever before, with a striking banner, a balloon-festooned, disco-music blaring, Union Flag-topped Mini driven by Hackney South and Shoreditch PPC Dave Raval and borough-specific placards for other LibDem participants to hold aloft as they walked. Very positive response from the punters. I don’t know what the speeches and entertainment in Trafalgar Square were like afterwards, as along with many of the other marchers, I retired to a local hostelry to rehydrate.

Gawain Douglas FortunaIn the evening, I went to Jeremy Trafford’s literary salon in Earls’ Court to hear Lord Gawain Douglas give a reading with interlocking textual commentary of his book of poetry, Fortuna (Alma Books, £9.99). I first met Gawain many years ago at an Oscar Wilde Society dinner, but unlike the Irish playwright, who followed the then traditional path of writing poetry in the spingtime of his life, Gawain came to the ‘highest art’ in the late summer of his. The result is not just mature but finely honed and some of his generally short poems are as pregnant with suggested meaning as a Zen-inspired Japanese haiku. I far prefer his work (as well as his personality) to that of his great uncle, Oscar Wilde’s nemesis Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Most poets are rubbish at reading their own work and usually should not be let within a million miles of it. But Gawain, as I discovered this evening, is an exception: his performance was brilliant, giving added value to the text and much for one to ponder on a still almost midsummer’s night.

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Frying Tonight

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th May, 2009

Stephen FryI’m increasingly being asked, ‘So, what are you going to do after the election, then?’, to which the obvious response is: ‘that depends on the result!’ But because the UK votes on Thursday, whereas most of the Continent only goes to the polls at the weekend, the results of the European elections won’t be known in London until Sunday evening. Which leaves a hiatus of  almost three days.

 Jonathan Fryer 017The Friday plan is easy, as it’s my birthday and I’ll have to clear all the accumulated clutter from the house in preparation for an early evening party for my fellow candidates and election team, to thank them for all their hard work (which is still going on!). But Saturday is more ‘exotic’ and totally non-political, as Stephen Fry and I — both Patrons of the Oscar Wilde Society — have a long-standing engagement to perform at ‘Oscance’: the 125th anniversary of the wedding of Oscar Wilde to Constance Lloyd, at St James Paddington, compered by the broadcaster Christopher Cook. Stephen will be interviweed about playing Oscar in the film ‘Wilde’, as well as reading the story ‘The Young King’. I will be reading passages relating to the theme ‘Wilde about London’.

Tickets for the event are available only through advance booking, for a donation of a minimum of £15 each (the Church is raising funds to erect a beautiful screen in Wilde’s memory), available from Oscance, 39 Westbourne Gardens, London W2 5NR. Bookings asap. The performance is on Saturday, 6 June, starting at 3pm, with sparkling wine and canapés.


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Plague over England

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th April, 2009

plagueoverenglandIt’s well over a year since I was last at the theatre — odd, really, when one considers that after I quit Reuters in Brussels in 1974, I spent much of the rest of my time in that city as a theatre critic. Anyway, I was invited to go along to the Duchess Theatre in London this evening — when by chance no pressing political event was taking place — and thus had the chance to see Nicholas De Jongh’s Plague over England.  The drama is based on the real life experience of actor John Gielgud, who was arrested for cottaging in the 1950s, when a horrendous purge of homosexuals was underway. The scandal hit the front pages of the national press, but to their credit, theatre audiences in Liverpool and London gave Gielgud an ovation when he next appeared on stage.

Inevitably, such a play — which was originally written for the more intimate Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court, before being transferred to the West End — succeeds or fails on the talents of the lead actor. And Michael Feast (who played alongside Gielgud in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land  at the National Theatre in 1975) captures the old thespian’s voice and mannerisms beautifully. There are plenty of jokes — some corny, some camp, some Wildean in their witticism — as well as plenty of pathos.

I only met Gielgud once, when he unveiled a plaque to Oscar Wilde at the back of the Haymarket Theatre, for the Oscar Wilde Socierty, of which I am a Patron. But I loved his collected letters, which were pubished after his death, and theatrical London still rocks with laughter at dinner-table accounts of his famous gaffes, when he could be quite spectacularly rude to people, without, so one is led to believe, intending it.

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Robbie Ross at the Ritz

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st December, 2008

A hundred years ago today, the cream of London’s literary and artistic world (sugared with a sprinkling of aristocracy) gathered for a huge dinner at the Ritz Hotel in London to honour Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde’s devoted friend and literary executor, who had just succeeded in clearing off the late playwright’s debts and thereby brought his bankruptcy to an end. Henceforth, Wilde’s two sons, Cyral and Vyvyan Holland, would be able to benefit from the proceeds of Wilde’s literary estate. Though the dinner was a tribute to Robbie Ross’s tireless efforts over the preceeding eight years, it also marked a milestone in Wilde’s posthumous rehabilitation. There was one notable absence from the occasion, however: Oscar’s nemesis, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, who boycotted the event.

Last night, a much smaller but nonetheless splendid dinner was held, also at the Ritz, to mark the centenary of that remarkable gathering, as well as to reiterate the tribute to Robbie Ross, whose biography I wrote. Organised by leading lights of the Oscar Wilde Society (of which I am a Patron), the celebration was marked by very short readings from letters of appreciation from guests at the original dinner, some of whom complained about the length and poor quality of the speeches, with the notable exception of that by Robbie Ross himself, whose words — reprinted in an elegant souvenir pamphlet given to guests last night — still bring a lump to the throat as an extraordinary testament to friendship and determination.


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Oscance 2008

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th June, 2008

This afternoon I took part in the Oscance event at the Church of St James the Less in Paddington, to commemorate the wedding there of Oscar Wilde and Constance Lloyd. The broadcaster Christopher Cook compered the programme, which included a dramatic reading of the Wilde children’s story, ‘The Happy Prince’, piano music (incuding the ‘Oscar Mazurka’ and the ‘Aesthetic Waltz’) played by Donald MacKenzie and a reading by me from my book André & Oscar.  Oscar Wilde Society members were well represented in the audience. Sparkling rosé wine and canapés were served before, during and after the event, an indulgence of which Oscar would, I am sure, have approved. But there was a serious side to the proceedings, as there is much that is tragic not only about Oscar Wilde’s life but also about Constance’s. She died in Genoa without ever seeing her husband after he was released from prison, having essentially lost him to Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Next year’s Oscance will mark the 125th anniversary of the wedding, so there will be an extra-special event in the Church. The date is already fixed in the diary: Saturday 6 June, at 3pm.



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