Books: The Crystal Bucket : Wilde and Whistler |
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Wilde and Whistler

A set of production values in search of a script, Lillie (LWT) has a definite appeal for the eye, but goes through the mind like a stream of neutrinos.

So great is the beauty and powerful the talent of Francesca Annis that she almost contrives to distract you from the inanity of the lines she has been given to speak. But always when she is not on the screen, and often enough when she is, you realize that the story told is not worth telling. On this evidence, Lillie Langtry was no more interesting than any other social-climbing glamour-puss.

In reality, the Jersey Lily was one of those rare women who help to forge the shaky but enduring alliance between high society and the upper reaches of Bohemia — an uneasy symbiosis which is traditionally known under the collective title of the beau monde. She fascinated not only the nobs, who are always easily fascinated, but the artists, who in many cases can be fascinated only against their will. She seems to have been a kind of walking poem. That the Prince of Wales went to bed with her means nothing at all: who cares about him? But that she appealed to the imaginations of men like Wilde and Whistler is a fact not without significance, and the proper mainspring of any story about her life.

Wilde and Whistler are in the script all right. Indeed they are rarely out of it. As they arrive, people cry, ‘It’s Wilde and Whistler!’ On they rush like Morecambe and Wise, except that their material is not as good. They are more like Little and Large. The author of the script, David Butler, either has no idea of what the two great wits of their age might have sounded like, or else lacks the wherewithal to evoke it. Instead, Whistler whoofles and Wilde wilts.

Whistler is played as a wordly-wise, twinkling buffer all overcome with fond understanding of Lillie’s dilemmas. He is always being wonderful. Wilde is played as a swoopy aesthete. The steel of his repartee is quite missing: everything he says is as soft as his wrist. He is always being even more wonderful than Whistler. Wilde calls Lillie ‘Divinity’ and goes dewy-eyed with thwarted longing.

Whistler, Wilde and their smart friends have conversations about Lillie while she is off in Rotten Row vamping the quality. These discussions are liberally punctuated with the Period Laugh, which has not been heard on such a scale since Napoleon and Love some years back. The Period Laugh is the laugh that starts with N. ‘She is ... changing.’ ‘;Nhah-hah-hah-hah!’ ‘In that way the Sphinx keeps her secrets.’ ‘Nhergh-hergh-hergh-hergh!’ ‘I’m not surpri-hi-hi-hised.’ ‘Nho-ho-ho-ho.’ At the end of these exchanges, people say, ‘I’ll see myself out,’ which indicates, for the Victorian era, a strange shortage of butlers.

But even the largest budget is not limitless. The big ball scenes probably ate up most of the money. During these, Lillie has been introduced to progressively grander grandees. At the climactic moment of each episode, she has sunk to one knee and risen saying ‘Your Grace’ or ‘Your Highness’, filling the screen with an enigmatic half-smile as the titles roll.

Now at last she has met the Prince of Wales. ‘We have been fools,’ he murmurs through his beard, ‘to have waited so long.’ But the possibility that she might have gone on waiting longer, or even indefinitely, is not even considered. The script seems to regard her affair with the Prince as inevitable. There is nothing to distinguish Lillie’s values from those of her status-mad maid. ‘Next to ’eem, all zee arzers are nussing.’

This Lillie Langtry is a power groupie. Such women can still be found today. Their chief ambition in life is to sit next to Henry Kissinger. Perhaps the real Lillie Langtry was like that too. But even if she was, she aroused in some very talented people that peculiar sense, half exaltation and half heart-break, which comes from knowing a woman so beautiful that she is like a work of art. If anybody could impersonate such a woman, Francesca Annis could, but not even she can do it without lines.

20 October, 1978