I’ve never met the Queen, and that goes for the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Camilla too. But if I had – and if I had also written books about them – and a publisher came to me and offered me half a million pounds to write a biography of Princess Diana, I would only have one question: “How soon do you want it?”
Gyles Daubeny Brandreth is different. No thanks, he thought to himself when the offer came. I have a better idea.
Instead of pocketing an easy £500,000, he would write a series of murder mysteries about Oscar Wilde. Ever since he was 13, when he ploughed through the 1,118 pages of Wilde’s Collected Works, he had been fascinated by him. There was a connection of sorts: his father had worked with the man who wrote the first edition of The Trials of Oscar Wilde, so soon he was reading that too. There were other links too: he had grown up in Sloane Street, just around the corner from the Cadogan Hotel, where Wilde was arrested in 1895. And as a sixth former at Bedales, the young Brandreth played chess on Wednesday afternoons with the school’s centenarian founder, a man who knew Wilde and was happy to talk about him.
Already, a pattern was being set that runs through Brandreth’s life, from producing the first stage version of The Trials of Oscar Wilde in 1974 to playing Lady Bracknell on the London stage in a musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest last year. What he really wanted, though, was a longer project: one that would allow him to immerse himself in as many stages of Wilde’s life as possible, a celebration of Wildean wit, style and philosophy that could last for years.
By the time he turned down the Princess Diana biography, he had found it. The key moment was his discovery that Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle – another one of Brandreth’s great heroes – had actually met and were admirers of each other’s work. Very well then: he’d bring them together in a series of murder mysteries of his own. Wilde’s camp flamboyance, Conan Doyle’s sturdy reliability, all mixed in with cracking plots and a meticulously researched historical background. What’s not to like?
In the books, the template is clearly established. Wilde solves the murders with his own natural flair and Sherlockian acuity. Conan Doyle, wherever possible, plays the Dr Watson role. And the cases are always written written up by Wilde’s friend Robert Sherard, whose own life mirrors Brandreth in that both are heterosexual, both have worked as journalists, and both were students at the same Oxford college, where they both edited the university magazine and were presidents of the Oxford Union.
Brandreth’s latest book, the sixth in the series, takes Wilde inside Reading Gaol, where he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour for gross indecency. This time there’s no Conan Doyle and the tone of the books is, of necessity, darker. So when we meet in a London hotel, the first thing I want to find out from Brandreth is how his own portrait of Wilde has changed over the years of researching and writing about him.
“Before I began this project, I thought I knew Oscar Wilde,” he says. “I’d read everything he’d written and all the major biographies about him. I now realise that I knew virtually nothing.
“One of the reasons is that it takes you a long time just to get to know someone. I first met my wife 45 years ago, and I am still discovering things about her that I didn’t realise. You would have thought that after three children and five grandchildren, that mightn’t be the case. It’s not just because I’m a man and therefore not observant.” He grins at me across the table. “As they say: no man is a hero to his valet. And for the last six years I have been a valet to Wilde and he has become less of a hero to me and more of a human being. He is not any longer an iconic figure; my picture of him is much more nuanced.”
On the day we meet, the newspapers are full of allegations of paedophilia against Jimmy Savile. As Brandreth points out, the late Victorians vilified homosexuals – “the love that dare not speak its name” in Wilde’s famous words from his second trial – with an intensity that we reserve for paedophiles. But even today’s courts, he points out, would almost certainly convict Wilde – not because of his sexuality but because the rentboys he had sex with were under 16.
“Here’s a man in his forties, rich and successful, using his power and money over young rentboys. We can’t condone that. But we can still be sympathetic to him as a human being. I can still see the gold in him – this is a man of whom it was said that he was so funny that he would cure you of the toothache, that he could talk as no-one else could talk.”
Except of course, in Reading Gaol he couldn’t. “I’m not sure my editor realised this. ‘You do realise,’ I said to her, ‘that people won’t be talking here?’ ‘What do you mean?’ she said. ‘They imposed silence,’ I told her. ‘Prisoners who talked were beaten’.” And – because one of the joys of any chat with Brandreth is that he is a font of anecdotes – he proceeds to tell me the one about William Douglas-Home’s mother who, when he was sent to prison, showed a similar ignorance about prison conditions. “Make sure you pack your evening clothes,” she wrote to him, “because the governor is bound to ask you to dine”.
Yet behind the anecdotage and the quick wit, there’s a serious side to Brandreth too. (The two co-exist remarkably easily: this is a man who, when he found out that he’d been selected as a Tory candidate for Chester, was playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella). His first book – Amazon lists 285 in all editions – was actually about prison reform, based on his visits to prisons in Britain, France the US and the USSR he made between the ages of 17 and 22.
So when he arrived at Reading Gaol on his research trip for his latest novel, Brandreth knew all about the horrors of the Victorian “separation” system, under which prisoners were kept isolated from each other, banned from speaking, and forced to wear a cap with a veil down the front so that they wouldn’t even recognise each other.
As he was shown around by a prison warden, the novel’s plot began to take shape in his mind. Already he had discovered that the day on which Wilde was sentenced was same as that on which Sir Henry Irving was awarded his knighthood. The contrast between their two fates – Irving was one of Wilde’s idols – made him want to start the story then, but what form it took was dictated by what he saw while following the warden around Reading Gaol, which is now a young offenders’ institution.
“The research for this completely wrote the plot,” Brandreth admits. “I didn’t even think of it until I had visited what was once the execution room – it’s one of the education rooms now – or until the warden had shown me pictures of the prisoners walking around in a circle with their masks on, or until I had seen the chapel where they all sat together.” All of these elements do indeed make their way into the plot, in which much of the intrigue lies in the question of how anyone could possibly be murdered amid such stringent security.
“The warden was clearly a kind and good man, and this prison had been his life: he had been there for about 30 years. He started showing me round the gardens, where the executed people were buried in anonymous graves. He had actually researched who they were and where they were buried and had at his own expense put little memorial plaques on the prison wall.
“Then we went into the prison, onto C Ward on the third floor, and on the third door along – C3.3 – was Wilde’s cell. The warden had put up a small sign outside: ‘Oscar Wilde lived here 1897-1899.’
“So I went into this tiny cell and this young lad of about 18 or so looked up at me from the bed. I asked if it was alright if I came in. He said ‘I know you.’ And I said ‘I can’t pretend to know you, but I do know about Oscar Wilde, who lived here. ‘Who?’ he said,: he had no idea who Oscar Wilde was. I pointed out the sign, and he said he had never noticed it.
“But clearly he knew me from the TV, because there was one in the room just above the door, and maybe he knew me as the man who wore the funny jumpers. And if I had been Oscar Wilde I would have said that the fact he knew me as the man wearing funny jumpers was reason enough for him to be incarcerated. I can’t pretend that it excited him.”
Brandreth’s next Oscar Wilde mystery, he has already decided, will be a complete change of pace. “I started thinking about it this time last year when I was playing Lady Bracknell. It will be a high comedy set before the trials when the company is putting on The Importance of Being Earnest.
“The murder will be committed with a handbag.”
“A handbag!” I involuntarily shriek.
“Yes, and the second murder will be by poisoned cucumber sandwiches.”
I can’t wait.
• Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth is published this week by John Murray, priced £18.99.
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