Tony begins his confession.
Dorian Gray, like many of what we think of as ‘classic’ literary villains, impresses himself on our memory by going beyond the norm of everyday life. But whereas, say, Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll were warnings about the potential effects of coming knowledge, Dorian is concerned not with scientific understanding, but with the preservation of life and beauty. The aesthete who becomes a soulless creature, his sins disfiguring a portrait while his body stays young and flawless is far more a supernatural proposition than Frankenstein or Jekyll – he’s more on the vampiric side of our understanding than the scientific (and in fact when Anne Rice re-invented vampires in the Seventies, you could make a case for claiming her Lestat, her Brat Prince, enjoying the best of every era because he can, had more than a dash of Dorian’s blood in him, far more in common with Hell’s aesthete than he ever did with the likes of Stoker’s Dracula). Dorian is among us, but he hasn’t been like us, not for a very long time.
If you’re going to take the proposition of Dorian Gray and turn him into the anti-hero in his own series (and you absolutely could transfer such an idea to TV, incidentally – just saying, Big Finish), there’s one thing it’s just as well to do before you start, and that’s to cut him loose from his creator. All great villains have an origin story, but Dorian’s is more distinctly nailed to the page than most. Oscar Wilde wrote him as a work of art in and of itself, with no pretension to meaning outside his being. How delicious then for the first story in the Confessions of Dorian Gray series from Big Finish, to have the alleged ‘creation’ visit his alleged ‘creator’ as Wilde is dying in a shabby hotel in Paris.
To establish the ‘reality’ of its version of Dorian Gray, Big Finish has a simple solution – the real man met Wilde, told him his story or nature, and Wilde fictionalised it. Dorian going to see Wilde on his deathbed shows the two as great friends, but also marks a line drawn under their relationship. Wilde will die. Dorian Gray, the reality, will go on, from Paris at the dawn of the 20th century into a new world of possibilities for someone with his gifts.
But Big Finish uses the first episode to set out the stall of Dorian’s world, too – in Wilde’s dingy room, there are forces of darkness at work, forces from ancient Babylon and beyond. Perhaps most distinctively, in David Llewelyn’s script for this first Confession, Dorian is more of an amoral avenger than a paranormal investigator. He learns what’s happening in the Hotel D’Alsace, and watches as another human being becomes prey to the creatures in the walls. But he doesn’t attempt to defeat them, to disturb them, to perturb them in any way, only instructing a mutual friend to get Oscar Wilde a priest, a rabbi, a shaman – anyone who can secure his soul against demons. When he later reads of Wilde’s death, his comment on the matter is merely that he ‘hopes’ Oscar was saved.
Clearly then, Dorian will walk through our twentieth century world, finding supernatural or potentially alien-as-supernatural threats. But what will his approach to them be? Less morally outraged and heroic than a Doctor, certainly, and with that almost studied neutrality of perspective that comes with being dislocated from the normal cycles of life and death?
Alexander Vlahos, in this first episode, plays Dorian with a very modern and, for anyone who knows the accent, really rather Welsh voice, which has an occasional tendency towards distracting from the grand drama of the piece. Give the accent just a tweak or two and we could be listening to the Confessions of Ianto Jones. Nevertheless, that’s a small issue, and Vlahos certainly pushes Dorian forward in terms of our understanding of him based mostly on the book. This is Gray not as villain, not as hero, but as cold, if self-pitying, anti-hero.
Steffan Rhodri (The votes are in – you can’t get more Welsh than that unless you’re Ioan Gruffudd) makes an agreeable, non-parody Wilde, though part of that is down to Llewelyn’s script, which moves Wilde understandably away from the wit in his prime. This is a Wilde refusing to be patronised, knowing his end is nigh, but still sharp enough to know the difference between death-dealing fever and something dark in the wallpaper at the Hotel D’alsace.
Bottom line, This World Our Hell is an enigmatic, smoked dark chocolate drama, introducing Vlahos as Gray, and showing us just a little of what his life would have been like after faking out the ending of Wilde’s classic story. Launching the series by having Dorian Gray meet and draw line under Oscar Wilde is a stroke of pragmatic storytelling genius, and by the end of the first episode, Dorian, who’s been going about the world as ‘John Gray’ has been seemingly convinced to use his own name again, to ‘hide in plain sight.’
We wonder who or what will come looking for him as the series progresses. This World Our Hell does more than enough to make us look forward to finding out.
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