Born to be Wilde

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In the days Rupert Everett gained an insight into the great playwright Oscar before portraying him in a new film he turned to the literary legend’s grandson.

If hardcore Oscar Wilde fans hadn’t developed a frenzy for hiding playwright's grave at Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery in lipstick kisses, his grandson Merlin Holland might never have met the actor Rupert Everett.
The tomb of the 19th-century tragedian and it is an impressive tombstone boasting a statue of a naked angel by the sculptor Jacob Epstein. But the lipstick grease not only defaced the stone it also corroded it.
With repeated cleaning causing yet more wear and tear the decision was made to surround the tomb with glass panels and a minister was lined up to perform the opening ceremony. Holland and Everett, a Wilde fanatic, were also invited to the event.
"I got to know Rupert in 2011 when he agreed to come to Paris and make a speech at the time Oscar's tomb was cleaned," says Merlin. "The French Minister of Culture bowed out at the last minute and Rupert stepped in. As a result, we got global coverage and I've always been grateful to him for that and a friendship grew out of it."
The two went on to collaborate on a critically acclaimed film about the Irish playwright called The Happy Prince that had its UK premiere in London last night.
Named after a story Wilde wrote for Merlin's father Vyvyan and uncle Cyril about a bejeweled and gilded statue that asks a passing swallow to give his riches to the poor, the film – which co-stars Colin Firth and Emily Watson – depicts how the toast of London was reduced to a shambling wreck in Paris.
The man who entranced high society drawing rooms with his wit and repartee was brought low by a gay affair with a young Oxford graduate called Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie.
Although he loved his wife Constance dearly Wilde’s eye roamed towards men which in those days meant he was highly likely to end up behind bars. Tongues wagged and while he tried to cover up his indiscretion he was accused of sodomy by his lover Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, and sent for trial.
Sentenced to two years for gross indecency, most of it served at Reading Gaol, Wilde fled the country in 1897 leaving behind his despairing wife and sons.
Even though Merlin never got to meet his grandfather, he probably knows more about him than anyone else. Delving into the archives and savoring every line Wilde wrote has given Holland an unmatched insight into the highs and lows of the Irish writer's extraordinarily turbulent life.
Born 45 years after Oscar's untimely death, Merlin, 72, has put that deep knowledge to good use by working closely with Everett. Long hours of conversation and studies of Wilde’s letters helped the film's director and star get inside Wilde’s world in a way that very few have before.
In a rare interview Merlin, Vyvyan's only child, says from his home in France: “Rupert and I have become friends over the years and we’ve immersed ourselves in the life of Oscar. He has a good understanding of what happened towards the end.
“I’ve shown him letters Oscar wrote and he has been able to build up a picture of what his life must have been like in those lonely, dark years. He has written a very good script, as well as directing and being the star.
“Although there is a lot of conjecture he has handled the story sensitively and I think people will find it a very moving film.
“Oscar loved being at the creative center of London society and so he found it very hard when he was exiled from that society and became estranged from his sons, wife, and country.”
Constance, a vivacious and popular figure, felt she had no other choice but to flee to Europe as well, with her emotionally distraught boys in tow.
Although several of his works, including The Importance Of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere's Fan and The Picture Of Dorian Gray, were still considered modern classics despite the scandal, Wilde never came to terms with his new life, dying in Paris in 1900 aged just 46.
"In the years when Oscar was living in exile his children were given to believe their father had died or somehow had disappeared," says Merlin. "It was a very confusing time for them.
“When Constance died in France in 1898 they effectively became orphans and Oscar was not allowed to see them by her family. His last years were pretty miserable. I've been working on a book about his time, which I hope will be finished this year."
After his death, the family successfully stayed out of the public eye. Cyril was killed during the First World War in 1915 while Vyvyan, who also fought for his country, went on to become a successful London lawyer.
Years later Merlin's father recalled the happy days of his childhood living in Chelsea, where the roll call of visitors included Huckleberry Finn author Mark Twain, the portrait painter John Singer Sargent and the poet Robert Browning.
But the sad thing is that in Paris Wilde had few friends. The film shows him being jeered at and spat upon by expatriate Brits who recognized him and by the time he died he was living in squalor. A very unhappy prince.

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