I’ve been eyeing up The Confessions of Dorian Gray series for awhile. The price of the boxset was putting me off, but every time I spotted another writer I liked had written for it, the scales tipped, and eventually I bought it on a whim. The concept is: Dorian Gray is real, and Oscar Wilde based his book on him. These are his ongoing adventures. Each story very often involves a monster of some form, but it’s not Dorian Gray: Demon Slayer (a la Abe Lincoln: Vamp Hunter, as you might picture) but keeps the luscious gothic nature of the source material.
And what can I say? Well–it was definitely a very good choice purchase. The series is superb. It may even edge out my other Big Finish favourite, Jago and Litefoot, for supremacy. I’ll single out a few things to lavish praise on. Firstly, the writing is uniformly excellent. There is not a single duff episode in sight, and Scott Handcock has done a sterling job of showrunning, keeping the same atmosphere and style across the whole series, and choreographing a story arc that (presumably) works both in the series order as it was released, and the chronological order that it appears in the box set. The series is dripping in atmosphere, and nearly always avoids pushing its melodrama into cheese. Sterling stuff. Secondly, the audio production is beautiful (as is, it has to be mentioned, the score.) I’m starting to think this is again a mark of Scott Handcock, as the audio production of his on Paul Magrs’ Imaginary Boys recently was also beautiful–evocative, understated and living. Thirdly, Alexander Vlahos as Dorian is great, anchoring both the dramatised side and the narrative side.
The box set is presented in chronological order, different to the order of the series as released. It opens with This World Our Hell by David Llewellyn which is powerful evocative from it’s steam-swatched opening as Dorian arrives in Victorian Paris to the deathbed of his friend Oscar Wilde. As an opening gambit of setting up the pieces the strings are remarkably difficult to see, but it lays out the concept and style quickly without sacrificing the sense of a story worth telling (such as when, to draw a correlation, the pilots of many TV shows feel under-plotted in order to introduce the characters.) The Immortal Game by Nev Fountain is a narrative-heavy story that starts with Dorian witnessing a game of chess played by two men on the seafront, each move hours apart, and never face to face, and then spins into a riff on Jekyll and Hyde. To my embarrassment, I didn’t connect the literary reference early on, but it works well. It’s a more sombre, less fraught story than the opening episode, and has a kicker of a creepy-as-hell ending line when a single line returns to haunt the story. Beautiful.
After that is Murder on 81st Street by David Llewellyn. It’s the closest the series gets to a ‘romp’ with the story narrated in gossipy, interweaving soundbites by Dorian and his friend Dorothy Parker. Parker is superb, her flirty dialogue is a treat, and the story cracks along at a fair pace, with a showdown that doesn’t disappoint. The Houses In Between by Scott Harrison is, on balance, possibly the weakest entry (by which I mean still pretty damn good) but seems to be (at least in this order of events) tying together strings midway through the story, introducing us to the central theme of Dorian being haunted by those from his past who have come to harm. The WW2 setting is atmospheric, and it’s once again beautifully produced, but it may be the only story in the whole series that couldn’t quite stand on its own without the rest to support it.
The Twittering of Sparrows by Simon Bernard takes Dorian to the side of his aged sister, Dora, in Pulau Ujong. It’s a good play for eastern gothic that works best in the smart reversal of its plot at the finale. It’s followed by The Lord of Misrule by Simon Barnard has Dorian the mod rock star. It’s fast and fun and it has some great music.
The next two are a one-two of superb entries. The Heart That Lives Alone by Scott Handcock introduces Tobias, a vampiric stranger Dorian meets in Whitby (Whitby! Sold…) It’s this series’ run at a love story, which is both pleasingly epic and also weaves Dorian into yet another literary mythology expertly. The Fallen King of Britain by Joseph Lidster initially started jarringly modern–Dorian is now a white collar banker–but turns that whole millennial world into arguably the most horrific world of the series overall, the best mirror Dorian Gray could have, picking out the rot at the heart of society. For all its contemporary trappings, it’s the most chillingly gothic story of the lot.
The Picture of Loretta Delphine by Gary Russell transposes Dorian Gray into the narrative of New Orleans-ish gothic (not actually New Orleans, but that sweaty, muggy voodoo feel is all over this story.) The American accented leading lady was slightly offputting in an auditory way, but the flashback to Dorian Gray fighting off zombies with the aid of a chambermaid is a striking image, and the bloody mystery that the story runs on is grisly and twisty. Running Away With You by Scott Handcock… Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson! Framed within the story of a haunting, this is primarily a flashback to pre-Portrait Dorian, and his deflowering by a stern governess. It’s fumblingly erotic and is the strongest riff on the theme of the power and attraction of youth that the idea of Dorian is fuelled by.
The Ghosts of Christmas Past by Tony Lee takes a kitchen sink approach to Victoriana, thrusting together a set of Wilde characters with Sherlock Holmes. It’s eighty percent brilliant – the scenes of Holmes and Gray together sparkle, and the extended running time of this special allows for more layers of story which is refreshing. It finishes with twenty percent solid; the conclusion doesn’t quite support the web of mystery preceding it, but it’s an enjoyable tale that makes the most of the collision of literary icons.
The Prime of Deacon Brodie by Roy Gill opens with a spectacularly well-produced sojourn in World War 1, which takes Dorian from flirting his way through the trenches to a heartbreaking sacrifice for a lover. Roll it forward, and he’s journeying to Edinburgh to track down this very man, getting wrapped up in the mystery of Deacon Brodie and a strange department store. Loved this story – it benefits from time to develop and deepen every exchange without having to rush for a time constraint like the usual half hour episodes. The romance is enduring, and the surrounding mystery is engrossing and creepy, and more importantly, isn’t easily guessable from the starting blocks. Plus sexy Scottish Dorian…
The Mayfair Monster by Alexander Vlahos places Dorian against the backdrop of the turn of the millennium. Its standout are the two guest characters – the bewitching, tragic Natalie and the hilarious security guard Tom, and it also nice to get savage Dorian-let-loose in the first half, with his monologue about dancing on the graves of Tom’s grandchildren’s grandchildren is downright chilling. The second half features probably the finest acting of the series from all involve, and it’s a fittingly macabre feel for a story that’s truly dealing with the horror of Dorian’s painting.
I cannot emphasise it enough: buy this series. It’s elegant, brooding and gothic at the same time as it is profound, witty and spinetingling. Fantastically produced, fantastically acted and fantastically written. I look forward to season three.