Take a picture, it’ll last longer, says Tony.
Big Finish has a remit that extends far beyond beloved TV dramas. It also regularly dramatizes ‘Classic’ novels, from Frankenstein to The Wizard of Oz.
The most complicated of those classic novelizations in Big Finish terms must surely be The Picture of Dorian Gray, if only because it was by no means an original thought – the company had already featured Dorian Gray in a Bernie Summerfield story, treating him as a real man that Oscar Wilde had happened to know and write about, but who had gone on to have immortal adventures. Capitalizing on the ‘dark hero’ potential of that idea, it had also already written and produced a first series of The Confessions of Dorian Gray before attempting to adapting the original novel.
Clearly that presents challenges because, to paraphrase David Llewelyn, who did the adaptation work, ‘the Dorian of the series is still morally ambiguous, but the Dorian of the book is a complete bastard,’ so trying to do justice to the book, while maintaining some strands of consistency that allow Dorian’s ‘origin story’ to lead eventually to the Dorian of Big Finish’s own invention is a tricky business. It’s a business made even more convoluted by the nature of Oscar Wilde’s writing. The original Picture of Dorian Grey is both an experiment in artistic thought, an excuse for Wilde to be incredibly witty about things that, 120 years later, very few people care at all about, and, whether by accident or design, a beautiful riff on the immortal horror story of eternal life. The original idea of a man who lives forever while his portrait withers with his every misdeed, of the physical consequences of ageing and impulse deferred, is a truly great one, but it’s confession time: I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’ve tried - man how I’ve tried - but like Leela in the Jago & Litefoot series when forced to sit through a Wilde play, ‘if I’d had a Janis Thorn, I would have stabbed myself with it’ every time I’ve tried to wade into the intensely self-regarding prose.
That said, I’ve never had a problem watching Dorian Gray in any version, and the Big Finish adaptation wastes no time in showing why that should be – by virtue of its audio medium, it deals almost entirely in dialogue scenes, and rather than godlike third-person perspective, it gives life and direction to Wilde’s prose by transferring emotional reactions and narrative storytelling to the voice of Dorian himself. Again as a consequence of its medium, it also ditches much of the wit that doesn’t survive the test of time.
Within ten minutes, what it makes supremely clear is the very childishness of Dorian Gray’s bargain with eternity. Whereas, for instance, Faustus sells his soul for an older man’s dream of knowledge, and Frankenstein deals with the then-eldritch forces of electricity and necromancy out of the desperate, unswayable, unquenchable thirst to set his intelligence against the mysteries of the universe, while even Dr Jekyll creates his diabolical alter ego through a quest for scientific understanding of the true nature of man, Dorian Gray sells his soul for nothing more than youth and unblemishable beauty. It’s significant of course that the other three examples were scientists of some sort, while Dorian has no employment, no vocation but his beauty, the reflection of himself in colour and canvas a kind of vanity mirror for the artistic soul. The choice of Vlahos (himself just 27 in 2016, and so just 23 when The Picture was released) pays early dividends in bringing home this foolishness of youth led astray by older, more cynically artistic views, as he sounds almost teenaged in the early parts of the two-hour story. Miles Richardson as Lord Henry Wotton, the holder of those cynical views, is good in context, but it’s almost impossible, having seen the most recent movie version, to avoid comparison with Colin Firth’s aristocratically amoral version – an unwise course if you want to get the most out of the Big Finish interpretation.
What the audio version is able to do, perhaps more successfully than any other, is to make us feel for this eternal youth and his bargain with eternity – at various points throughout the adaptation, we learn of Dorian’s history; an orphan from an early age, his direction initially given to his elderly grandfather, Lord Kelso, who hated him and kept him distant with an army of governesses and teachers. Dorian comes through to us as the very epitome of shallow art in an understandable way that makes us sympathise with him. He is by the time of his bargain an empty vessel, constrained by the demands of society on a man of his youth and standing, but tragically shallow, his character practically no thicker than the layers of paint on his portrait, and his destiny essentially swayed by the influences of the angels who have mastery over him – the cynical Wotton, who believes a man who lives governed by his utmost will is a beautiful idea in and of itself, and the likes of Basil Hallward (painter of the infamous picture, and played with verve and increasing desperation here by Marcus Hutton), and Sybil Vane, who seek to sway him from the course of his ultimate, childish selfishness of impulse and restore a sense of Victorian decency. So while the Dorian of the novel adaptation is still ‘a bastard,’ at the very least it gives us a pathway into understanding where his bastardy comes from – essential if we’re still to treat the novel adaptation as an origin story for the ‘dark hero’ of the series technically, if not chronologically, spawned from it.
By the time he spurns Sybil, his opinion of her ruined by of all things, a bad performance on the stage, he has become a creature of artistic caprice, able to treat a lover shabbily simply because her performance made him embarrassed to recommend her to his friends. And the picture of Dorian Gray begins its journey into decrepitude, the soul of the eternal youth blackening by degrees. Vlahos has already by then lost some of the youthful vigour in his voice, so he can speak the words of Dorian’s spurning of Sybil with a twisted, daggerlike deadness. It’s the Vane incident that really confirms Dorian in his understanding of the picture’s properties, as it appears to age ten years and grow a cruel lip-curl in the space of a day, his shallow viciousness visible on its face, while his own retains an angelic smooth innocence.
Twenty years later, with Basil dead and the battle for Dorian’s soul seemingly lost, Henry Wotton his chief confidante and friend, we hear another powerful speech from the endless youth after the death of Sybil’s brother. While Wotton is shocked, Dorian tells him that actions have consequences, a lesson he has had time and infamy enough to learn, becoming self-realised over decades of depravity from which he has been able to escape. Wilde, in Gray, gives us a kind of artistic vampire that long foreshadowed the likes of Anne Rice, a perspective unique in that it remains young and beautiful to look at, the physical signs of its learning and its actions deferred, but the effects on the mind and the so-called soul still making their impressions. There are lessons in Wilde’s imagination that the Big Finish adaptation is careful to bring out, Llewelyn in his adaptation and Scott Handcock in his direction never skimping on the melodramatic grandeur of Wilde’s conceits, but bringing the consequences rather more down to earth than the author ever especially cared to do. Vlahos too gets stronger and better as he goes through the transformative years of Dorian’s life, the character becoming more complex and more powerful as the blessing-curse of the picture and its power makes marks on his nature, leading, as in the book, to a kind of penitence based on self-interest and vanity, and ultimately the appearance of a kind of suicide, the stabbing of the portrait appearing to return it to its original state of beauty, while Dorian withers beyond the point of recognisability, save by his rings. But whereas Wilde gives us a sense of the wheel having come full circle for Gray with this ‘suicide,’ Big Finish is careful to seed us with clues for a get-out, to enable the series to make a kind of sense.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a dense, fairly impenetrable book, with many fascinating ideas and a central premise of stark imaginative power. For a better time all round though, get the Big Finish adaptation – you’ll be done in two hours and they’ll be far more richly entertaining than the time you’d spend reading the original. What’s more, you can use the adaptation as a springboard into the series and have a world and a century of adventures with Vlahos’ vivid interpretation of the man who lives forever.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk