The first thing to say is that if you are interested in Oscar Wilde's life and work then this collection - spread over three DVDs - represents excellent value for money. What you get are BBC television productions of The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband and Lady Windermere's Fan. You also get a BBC TV adaptation (by John Osborne) of Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey. As if this were not enough (for a measly eight quid) they have also thrown in that episode of the BBC documentary series "Reputations" (from 2005) which dealt with Wilde's life, triumphs and savage downfall. This last includes the only recording of what is believed to be Wilde's voice (from 1900) as well as telling interviews with both his own descendants and those of Lord Alfred Douglas' family, which demonstrate what a profound effect the scandal of the Wilde/Douglas relationship has had upon the subsequent generations of both. This well made and thorough documentary should not be underestimated as a valuable and integral part of the package.
So what's the bad news? The bad news is that the video to DVD transfer of the plays has been handled with what appears to be precious little in the way of either care or attention. This means that the picture quality is mediocre (at best) and poor where it most needs to be sharp - on The Importance of Being Earnest. I have seen BBC productions, on DVD, of both this vintage and earlier which have had a much better picture quality than you get in this package. And so it loses a star for that.
The productions themselves (from the 1970s and 80s) are in the straightforward, old-school BBC style. Completely studio-bound, with sets, they (almost) look and feel like filmed plays. And that, one suspects, is the intention. There is some sleight of hand involved in this which the technically minded will understand. Television productions of this sort are not, in any strict sense of the term, "filmed plays". But what the BBC gives you is, I think, a happy compromise between the theatrical experience (and let us not forget that the plays were written for the theatre) and the televisual.
Of the productions themselves (and in spite of the poor picture quality, which infuriated me) I have a soft spot for The Importance of Being Earnest. I saw this version when the BBC first broadcast it in 1986, and it made quite an impression upon me. I enjoyed its pace, its humour and its cleverness. I think it is generally well cast (especially Paul McGann as Jack Worthing and Joan Plowright as Lady Bracknell), well played and well directed.
Because the picture quality is good (by the standards of this collection) and because it is likewise well played and directed, I think that An Ideal Husband probably comes out best overall. It's got a very good cast which includes Jeremy Brett, Keith Michell, Margaret Leighton, Dinah Sheridan and Susan Hampshire. You cannot really argue with that. Plus the play, too, is one of Wilde's best.
The Picture of Dorian Grey, I am sad to say, doesn't really work. I think the fact that it was a novel, and not a play, tells against it - by which I mean that, unlike the plays, it was never written to be performed. It may also be that, here, it has received a somewhat unsympathetic adaptation by John Osborne and somewhat unimaginative direction. Wilde's wit seems laboured, the piece too wordy for the wisdom it delivers and Peter Firth (as Dorian Grey) never quite seems to either get inside the role or find the right level at which to pitch it. Two good actors, Jeremy Brett (again) and Sir John Gielgud are somewhat wasted in what comes across as being a rather wooden victorian melodrama. The philosophical and artistic ideas which the piece contains are alluded to but never fully explored nor brought to any kind of fruition. Best stick with the book, then.
Lady Windermere's Fan - like the curate's egg - is good in some parts and bad in others. In this production, both the play and the performances only really take flight in the second half. The first half very nearly bored me into switching it off. I'm glad I didn't, because it does get going in the end. But for some reason the production just does not gel until it is already half over. Make of that what you will. In truth, I don't think it is Wilde's best play and nor did I think this production was especially well cast or directed.
Although I have made some pretty trenchant criticisms of it, this package will still make for a very good introduction to Wilde's life and work for any interested person. And I will undoubtedly be watching some - or indeed all - of these productions for a second time.