The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries

Features

The Scotsman
Sat 21 Apr 2007

Gyles Brandreth by Graham Jepson
Gyles Brandreth at the scene of Oscar Wilde's arrest. Picture: Graham Jepson

And the Oscar goes to ...
DAVID ROBINSON

EVERYONE SHOULD GET THE chance to interview Gyles Brandreth. For best results they should do so in Room 118 of London's Cadogan Hotel. Once there, all they have to do is sit him down, and switch on the tape recorder.

At this point, if you want him to talk about Oscar Wilde, you could quietly disappear, wander down Sloane Street, take in a matinee at the Royal Court and tea in Knightsbridge and he'd still be holding forth by the time you returned. (This is a man, you should remember, who wrote himself into the Guinness Book of Records for speaking non-stop for 121⁄2 hours.)

It would, however, be a missed opportunity. Because if there is a more charming, engaging, intelligent interviewee in the whole of London, I've yet to meet them. Even if you started off with memories of a Tory twerp in a succession of silly jumpers on 1980s daytime television, you would be won round. The crustiest class warrior, the most unbending Calvinist, the most cynical hack would be too.

He's an expert interviewer himself, has been for years, ever since he was at Oxford and he got the world's first interview with the Aga Khan. Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, an almost complete flush of royals apart from the Queen ("a wonderful person, but not, unlike her mother, effortlessly charming") - all have unspooled their thoughts in front of the Brandreth microphone. He knows how an interview is structured, what journalists wants. He understands their shortcuts to understanding strangers: the way they'll pounce on small epiphanies that can change the direction of a career, spark an enthusiasm, or deepen thought. He'll list them in logical order, spell out lesser-known names, and generally answer questions with the tail-wagging eagerness of a retriever chasing a stick.

He'd do all this, one suspects, anyway. But in Room 118 of the Cadogan Hotel, the Brandreth charm dial switches on to maximum power. For there he is talking about a man who was taken from that room to his doom, a man who has fascinated him all his life, a man he's going to be writing about for the next ten years. Oscar Wilde.

There will be nine books in the series Brandreth is planning to write about Wilde (see panel), and if they're all as enjoyable as his first, they'll all be surefire best-sellers.

Why? Because although he takes some liberties with Wilde - most obviously by turning him into an equally observant, if even more flamboyant, version of Sherlock Holmes - he doesn't take too many. The master's vintage Champagne wit still sparkles, even when mixed with the more modest Cava of Brandreth's own dialogue. That sumptuous solidity of late Victorian London is conjured up with fabulous effortlessness. The plot races along like a carriage pulled by thoroughbreds, with Oscar at the murder scene - a 16-year-old rentboy, his throat cut from ear to ear - within the space of three paragraphs.

Jeu d'esprit it may be, but the idea has substantial foundations in fact. Introducing Arthur Conan Doyle to the plot might seem far-fetched, but it is not: he and Wilde were friends, and met on several occasions. In Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders, Wilde has his own version of the "Baker Street irregulars" - the street urchins who often provided the clues that helped Holmes crack his cases - in the network of rentboys, waiters and doormen whom Wilde tipped with legendary generosity. So far, so enjoyably plausible.

All of which brings us back to Room 118 of the Cadogan, which as all Wilde aficionados know, is where their hero was arrested on 5 April 1895 and taken off to face the trial that ruined him.

"I've been in this room before," says Brandreth, courteously setting up epiphany No 1. "When I was ten, my father wanted to show me where all that happened. He'd brought along a copy of John Betjeman's poem about it and he read it out and I'd just imagine it all happening ..."

A thump, and a murmur of voices--

(Oh, why must they make such a din?)

As the door of the bedroom swung open

And TWO PLAINCLOTHES POLICEMEN came in:

"Mr. Woilde, we 'ave come for tew take yew

Where felons and criminals dwell:

We must ask yew tew leave with us quietly

For this is the Cadogan Hotel."

A barrister, Brandreth père was a friend of H Montgomery Hyde ("H-y-d-e"), who had written an account of the trial of Oscar Wilde that was published in 1948, the year his son was born. There was a copy in their house in Chelsea, which itself wasn't too far from Wilde's own house in Tite Street (itself opposite his trial judge's house: a small world, this late Victorian upper-middle-class).

At 11, Brandreth went to public school at Bedales, in Hampshire, where Wilde's son Cyril had also been a pupil. On Wednesday afternoons the young Brandreth would go across to the house in the school grounds in which the man who had founded it lived. Together, they'd have a game of Scrabble. (One of the many odd things I now know about Brandreth is that his parents met playing possibly the very first game of Scrabble in Britain). By then, the school's founder was 100, but (epiphany No 2 coming up) he still remembered Wilde and Constance ("Lovely couple, very strong marriage") and told a few anecdotes about him.

Sherlock Holmes also made an enormous impact on the young Brandreth. The family moved to Baker Street when he was 11 and he read all he could about the local hero; when he was 13 and at Bedales, he wrote his first play, A Study in Sherlock, in which young Simon Cadell "gave the definitive performance" as the great detective.

But Holmes never completely eclipsed Wilde in the Brandreth pantheon. In his twenties, he put on the world's first staging of The Trial of Oscar Wilde at Oxford. Later still he would adopt Wilde's maxim "energy is the secret of all worldy success" as his own and start working on his Wildean nine-book series. The penultimate epiphany in this story (for final one, see panel) came a few years ago, when he read in Conan Doyle's now out-of-print autobiography about his first meeting with Wilde. "I realised that my two heroes actually knew each other," shrieks Brandreth, hugging his knees and beaming.

He's great company, so much so that the only problem about interviewing him is reining him back from all sorts of fascinating byways ("as I said to Polanski", "as one of Prince Philip's girlfriends told me", "it was all just like Lord Mountbatten and his junior officers" etc) to talk about his main hero. Once back on track, though, his enthusiasm knows no bounds, expressed in the kind of swooping diction that finds a "y" in "superb" or pronounces the second "l" in "brilliance". Wilde fascinates Brandreth, he says, not just because of the syuperb intellect, or the bril-liance of his wit, or the way in which, almost alone among his contemporaries, he could move effortlessly across all strata in Victorian society. No, he says, the key to Wilde is charm.

We talk for a while about his five years as a Tory MP in the 1990s, when he was a government whip and in the John Major government, as Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, no less. Surely, I suggest, there cannot have been much room for charm in the cynical, arm-twisting world of government whippery.

He disagrees. Yes, there were times when his job stopped just short of discreetly veiled blackmail, but in the main it depended on understanding the aims and political needs of the MPs under his care. That's where charm comes in.

Why? "The essential rule of charm is - concentrate on the person you are with, find out what they want. Listen to them. That's one thing about Wilde - he was a great talker, but a great listener too. Then absorb what the person has to say and replay it back to them. It's like the narcissism that comes at the first stage of love, when two people will each see each themselves in each other, when they will keep noticing how they're so alike they could almost be the same person."

By the end of the interview, I don't quite imagine I am the same person as the one sitting talking to me in Room 118. But there is a word for Brandreth's effect on me or Wilde's impact on nearly everyone who met him. Charmed, I'm sure.

• Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders is published on 3 May by John Murray, priced £12.99.

Wilde party – on the centenary of his death

THE idea of writing a series of novels about Oscar Wilde came to Brandreth in Paris on 30 November 2000. A friend had booked the room at the Hotel des Beaux- Arts in which Wilde had died, exactly a century before, aged 46, and had invited Brandreth and his wife Michelle along for a short anniversary ceremony. Actor Donald Sinden, who had known Lord Alfred Douglas (“ Bosie”), the man for whom Wilde had ruined himself, was in attendance, as was Bosie’s last landlady. Brandreth takes up the story:

“There was this camp blond American clergyman called Beau – Oscar would have loved that – who presided over this little ceremony at 1.45 in the afternoon, around the bed in the room. The man who organised it all turned up dressed as Lady Bracknell. Oscar would have loved that too. This motley crew raised their glasses – Champagne, because absinthe is illegal – and as we toasted Oscar, this elderly voice of Bosie’s last landlady whispered ‘ And Bosie!’ And I thought, ‘ 100 years on, Oscar Wilde is still alive. I’m going to be bold and write these stories.’ ”

Wilde’s life is so rich, and I have planned out nine storylines. The one I’m writing now is set in Reading Jail, but will also have Bram Stoker in it: like Conan Doyle, he was another of Wilde’s friends. The one after that is going to go right back to when Wilde was an undergraduate – and he finds himself at the Vatican, with the Pope and a murderer.

“There’s an international angle too, because Wilde did those American tours, when he met the cowboys. They adored him and Oscar adored the cowboys. Out in the Wild West he went down a mineshaft dressed in a velour suit of his own design, surrounded by cowboys – he said he’d never done anything as exciting.

“We’ll be able to have Oscar Wilde in Venice, in Germany, in France – and with my narrator [ Wilde’s friend and first biographer] Robert Sherard with him at all times or in a position to be able to tell the story.

“It would be presumptuous of me to see myself as Wilde, but I do see myself as Sherard. He went to the same Oxford college as me, collected celebrities, and was a hack who wrote a lot of books. He died in 1943, and my idea was to have him looking back on his memories of Oscar. Sherard was also a bit of a ladies’ man, and this helps me in my aim of showing Wilde in the round, not just putting him in the gay icon ghetto. All the layers of thestory are there with Wilde, but because the trial is so big, in the past it’s been hard to see that. But did you know that when Wilde came out of prison he took on the name of Sebastian Melmoth and earned his living as a private investigator in France? It’s true – but you’re going to have to wait until volume five for that!”

This article: http://living.scotsman.com/books.cfm?id=612052007

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